San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Women Not Alone in Costa Rica

Tomorrow is International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, as declared by the United Nations in 1999. The date coincides with the day the Mirabal sisters of the Dominican Republic – activists who were imprisoned and tortured for opposing the regime of dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo – were brutally murdered in 1960.

According to U.N. studies, more than half of all Latin American women have been the objects of violent acts in their homes.

Another 33% have been victims of sexual abuse between the ages of 16 and 49, and at least 45% have been threatened, insulted or had their personal possessions destroyed.

Violence against women takes many forms, and most often is lived in silence.

Working to end violence against women is a difficult job, because much violence –physical, sexual and, the most complex, emotional – goes unreported and unseen.

One of the aims of San José’s Feminist Information and Action Center (CEFEMINA), founded in 1981, is to end this cycle of violence. Its program Mujer, No Está Sola (Woman, You Are Not Alone) aims to give women who are victims of domestic abuse the chance to meet with other women and reach out to a phone hotline.

Making sure women are not alone as they come forward to escape violent homes is also the main focus of the domestic violence movement in the United States, where battered women’s shelters provide a safe place for women to go when they are ready to leave their abusive partners. As a children’s advocate for the DaneCounty Advocates for Battered Women, a shelter in Madison, Wisconsin, I went through extensive training to understand how domestic violence works.

Leaving a situation of domestic violence, or sharing with another person that you are living with violence in your home, is a difficult and complex task. One must first try to understand that domestic abuse stems from an abuser’s need for power and control, and that this control is maintained systematically on a variety of levels. This is the abuse that takes place emotionally, apart from the physical and sexual incidents of abuse.

Abusers may use isolation, economic control, threats, coercion, blaming and even children as ways of maintaining control. An abusive husband may threaten to take the children if his wife leaves or tells anyone about the abuse, and furthermore may blame her for causing the very violence she is suffering.

Even given the complexity of such power and control tactics, women do overcome the cycle and find the courage to reach out for help. This is where CEFEMINA’s program comes in as an essential space for women in Costa Rica to find solace in self-help groups across the country.

An alternative to the shelter model, the groups are led by a woman who is a survivor of domestic abuse; this is a critical component of their success. CEFEMINA estimates that for every 10 women who participate in the self-help groups over a length of time, six or seven manage to leave their violent situations.

For those who don’t leave, the groups are essential in helping participants learn to cope with abuse.Women are given a space in which others listen to their stories and, rather than offering solutions, help to empower them over time to make their own decisions.

The groups are free and confidential. Another key way that women can reach out, before getting to the self-help groups, is through a phone call. CEFEMINA’s hotline runs during the day with the help of volunteers.

Here, women find someone to talk to, and can ask legal questions. In the case of an emergency, callers are referred to 911.

CEFEMINA has hopes to expand Mujer, No Está Sola on a national and international level, and is seeking funding to do so. For the past year, the program has been running primarily through volunteers,who can run only so many self-help groups, and can keep the phone line staffed only during the day, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.,Monday through Friday.

Education, outreach, research and work at the legislative level are limited, though CEFEMINA members believe the potential is great.

CEFEMINA is actively seeking donors and funding sources of various kinds. For information, contact Auxiliadora Vargas at 224-3986 or

To reach the Domestic Violence Hotline or to find out about a self-help group, call 224-6190. For more on CEFEMINA, visit its Website at


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