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Women’s Police Stations in Latin America and access to justice

I just came across a study, which was released at the end of 2010 about a phenomenon that, I believe is pretty specific to Latin America: Women’s Police Stations (WPS).

The first WPS opened in São Paulo, Brazil in 1985 and now similar ones can be found in 13 Latin American countries. The study, Women’s Police Stations in Latin America: An Entry Point for Stopping Violence and Gaining Access to Justice (link to PDF), was carried out by the Center for Planning and Social Science, an NGO based in Quito, Ecuador and it collected data from Brazil, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Peru.

Some facts about WPS in Latin America:

  • They are staffed by women
  • They are located in a separate building or have access to a separate entrance from regular police stations
  • They include a multidisciplinary team that works in coordination with local NGOs devoted to gender specific matters
  • Their main goal is to make the problem of violence against women more visible as a public, collective, and punishable issue.

To understand the historical context behind the WPS, the study provides some background information:

The establishment of women’s police stations (WPS) in the four countries included in this study, namely Brazil, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Peru, as well as in others in the region, has its roots in social and political processes. One is the struggle by feminist and women’s movements to break the silence on domestic violence, demand integrated and comprehensive services, and defend women’s rights. The other is the recognition of the state’s obligations to provide access to justice and to prevent, punish, and eliminate violence against women. The two are interrelated and have been carried out at the local, national, regional, and international levels. As is described in what follows, in a relatively brief period, women’s right to a life free of violence has been formally recognized and several mechanisms have been created so they can exercise that right, among which the WPS play an important role.

To place the phenomenon of WPS in Latin America, some figures from a previous study (link to PDF):

  • In Nicargua, a study revealed that 48% of women who had at one time been married or in a relationship had suffered verbal or psychological abuse by their partner or ex-partner, 27% had suffered physical abuse, and 13% sexual abuse
  • In Ecuador, a national survey found that 41% of women who had at one time been married or in a relationship had suffered psychological violence and verbal abuse, 31% physical violence, and 12% sexual abuse
  • Regarding Brazil, in the city of Sao Paulo, 41.9% of women who had at one time been married or in a relationship had experienced emotional abuse by their intimate partner, 27.2% had experienced physical abuse, and 10.1% had suffered sexual abuse. In Zona da Mata de Pernambuco (the entire province, except for the city of Recife), 48.8% of women who had at one time been married or in a relationship had suffered emotional abuse from their intimate partners, 33.8% had experienced physical violence, and 14.3% sexual violence.
  • A similar survey carried out in Lima, Peru, found that 57.8% of women who had at one time been married or in a relationship had experienced emotional abuse from their husbands/partners, 48.6% had suffered physical abuse, and 22.5% sexual abuse. In the department of Cusco, 68.5% of women who had at one time been married or in a relationship reported that their husbands or partners had subjected them to emotional abuse, 61.0% had suffered physical violence, and 46.7% sexual violence.

What makes this study so compelling for me is that, when analyzing the success of WPS, it took into consideration different perspectives to explore how local cultural conceptions blend together and either enable or prevent women’s access to the justice system. The researchers worked under the premise that “women in situations of domestic violence, the WPS, and other actors have diverse perceptions of access to justice that do not always coincide with formal and institutional conceptions, nor do they always refer to imposing a penalty”.

While the research points to several flaws and shortcomings in the WPS system and certainly highlights many obstacles that prevent women’s access to the justice system, it does address what I believe to be the main success of this approach to domestic violence:

In some ways, WPS contributions have been impressive: their very high level of visibility transmits the message that violence is no longer a private matter, but rather a violation of women’s rights that must be addressed in the public sphere. As a result, the majority of women in the four research sites, albeit in different proportions, consider that the WPS are contributing to reducing abuse and increasing access to justice. Likewise, they continue to be an important entry point into the formal system of justice as well as the range of specialized services in their communities. They share these achievements with diverse actors who together have implemented multiple actions over recent decades to support social transformation. For this reason, analyzing women’s different experiences with ending violence shows that this is a result of multiple factors, and thus, cannot be attributed exclusively to the work of the WPS.

And while this might not be the end to it, it is certainly a good beginning.


  1. aravind wrote:

    What’s really interesting to me is how local conditions can influence how accessible justice and other services are for women, but that the prevalence of abuse (and break down by different forms of abuse) seems more resistant to specific conditions.

    Is rape culture so prevalent and normalized that it’s effectively internationalized? That’s honestly what it seems like.

    Wednesday, March 30, 2011 at 10:40 am | Permalink
  2. Muse142 wrote:

    This started about 2 hours of Google-fu on my part… thank you for sharing this.

    Wednesday, March 30, 2011 at 3:52 pm | Permalink
  3. A Nonny Moose wrote:

    An interesting concept, but is there any recognition in this study of the violence transgender women receive in Latin America? (a quick parse, and I couldn’t find any) Do they get served by these WPS too?

    Wednesday, March 30, 2011 at 5:34 pm | Permalink
  4. No, there isn’t ANY acknowledgement at all. And from my knowledge of “how things work” in certain areas of Latin America, I can tell you that no, transwomen won’t be served by these WPS. At least that much is true by the ones I know in more or less detail located in Argentina. Which of course, might not be representative of the 100+ of them in the continent.

    Wednesday, March 30, 2011 at 6:20 pm | Permalink
  5. Cressida wrote:

    Is any special recognition of the violence suffered by Native American/Quecha/Carib and other indigenous populations both due to their gender identity and minority status made by the WPS ? This cohort has particular needs for hostelling due to landlessness and inadequate accomodation rights.

    Thursday, March 31, 2011 at 1:12 am | Permalink
  6. Laura wrote:

    Ooooh, I was JUST reading a book on Sao Paulo’s first all-women police station! I’m writing a paper for class on masculinity in crime and policing. This is extremely useful! Thanks for uploading!

    Thursday, March 31, 2011 at 7:46 pm | Permalink
  7. Hannah wrote:

    I just spent some time in Brazil and was able to talk to some women in Rio about WPS. They had mixed opinions of them and felt that although they have been good in some ways, women have still not been treated too well by the staff there and are often not believed if they report domestic violence. Like you say though, it IS a good beginning. It’s just a question of operating these places effectively and countering ingrained prejudices.

    Saturday, April 2, 2011 at 5:13 pm | Permalink