San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Rehabilitative, Preventive Services Lacking for Country’s Domestic Violence Offenders

Abusive men now have a get-out-of-jail card. But it s not free.

A new law to address Costa Rica s gender violence problem which critics say is too focused on harsher punishments for offenders also gives judges the option of replacing jail time for first-time offenders with alternative measures that include counseling or community service.

The idea isn t that everyone goes to jail, said the law s champion and former legislator Gloria Valerín.

The law, which critics say puts too much stress on punishing offenders and protecting victims but not enough on rehabilitation or prevention, includes jail time for men who commit new crimes such as psychological violence, including repeated humiliation, ridicule or insults in public or private. The law toughens sentences for existing crimes such as rape and punishes those with knowledge of violence against women who don t report it (TT, June 22 ).

It s an attempt to crack down on offenders in a country where more than 30 women were killed by partners or ex-partners last year. Each day, emergency responders here receive 117 calls from alleged victims of domestic violence. Last year, emergency responders received some 40,000 domestic violence calls, the daily La Nación reported.

Psychologists, social workers and policymakers agree that one of the keys to addressing the problem of violence against women is providing services for a long-neglected group: abusive men.

Those involved in implementing the new law and helping abusive men out of a vicious cycle of violence say that not only is there a lack of services and interest for helping abusive men, but that the problem of domestic violence is as deep-rooted as machismo in Latin America.

What interests us is cultural change, said National Women s Institute (INAMU) Director Jeannette Carrillo.

INAMU, which receives an average 6,000 reports of domestic violence a year, has until the end of August to decide which private or public institutions will be certified to provide alternative measures under the new law. The problem is, and even INAMU officials agree, there are very few such services in the private sector. Though the government has general psychiatric services, the most recent attempt to offer free specialized services for abusive men fizzled due to a lack of resources.

At the beginning we won t have a large variety of organizations, but they ll grow with time and become more specialized so the Judicial Branch can count on them, Carrillo said.

Only one small private organization has had any success here treating abusive men, and the Social Security System (Caja), responsible for offering healthcare to the public, has struggled to offer psychological health services to abusers.

Caja hasn t put aside funds to address the violence problem, said INAMU

social worker Mayrene Sánchez, explaining that this is the Caja s responsibility by law. To give you an example, in San Vito de Coto Brus (in the Southern Zone), which is one of the areas with the greatest number of complaints of sexual abuse and family violence, there s only one social worker to attend to the whole population.

This is particularly worrisome because ethically, the social worker who attends to the victim should not also attend to the aggressor.

However, in places like San Vito, social workers have no other option, Sánchez said.

A lack of psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers especially male ones who can better understand abusive males problems and a lack of men who are willing to seek help are challenges the system faces, according to the Caja s Violence Department Director, Sonia Mora.

Mora said Costa Rican men in general don t seek help for health problems, and this contributes to the problem.

Mora pointed out there are regional psychological services available in hospitals throughout the country, which are covered by the Caja. Unfortunately, none of them are specialized services that cater to abusive men.

One pilot program, in the CalderónGuardiaHospital in San José, was designed specifically to give psychiatric attention to abusive men, whom Mora called golpeadores .

The program offered individualized attention for attendees, who also worked together in groups to confront their problems, and was open to whoever sought help.

A dozen abusive men who volunteered to attend the program were involved in 15 group therapy sessions, which were led by hospital psychiatrist Dr.Marco Antonio Vera and a volunteer from the non-governmental WEM Masculinity Institute, which specializes in psychological help for men with problems.

We noticed that the group had improved, said Vera, who led the program.

But Vera told The Tico Times that the program, founded about two years ago, has since dissolved.

Though he considered the group sessions a success, he said the program was running on a complete lack of resources, which is why it is no longer offered. Vera and the WEM specialist both volunteered their time after hours.

We needed resources. Training first. It s not like the whole world has experience in this type of therapy, he added.

The new law, however, provides no such resources, he said.

The hospital s Psychiatry Department Director Manuel Vicente said the WEM Institute offers the only specialized counseling in the country for abusive men. Tucked into a small office in San Pedro, east of San José, the nonprofit organization has a phone line (234-2730) that is constantly busy as men call to discuss personal problems (TT, Jan. 30, 2004). The center takes calls from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. weekdays and from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. weekends. The Institute relies on volunteers, fundraisers, donations and a ¢1,000 ($2) fee they charge clients for each three-hour group workshop, according to volunteer Luis Cabrera.

The institute declined The Tico Times request to sit in on a group session and repeated calls to the Institute s psychologists weren t returned by press time.

While the Institute counsels abusive men, the government s efforts also include those of the Justice Ministry, which counsels prison inmates sentenced for sexual abuse, and the National Children s Hospital in San José, which offers counseling for sexual abusers of children, Sánchez said.

Libertarian Movement legislator Luis Antonio Barrantes said throwing more people in jail isn t a solution, since the nation s prisons are a cauldron where violence and aggression are cultivated.

More important, according to Barrantes, is a reform to the Criminal Code to give more economic resources to judges and to invest in prevention education at schools and in churches, says Barrantes, who was the lone vocal opponent of the controversial Law to Penalize Violence Against Women, which went into effect in May (TT, June 1).

It s a psychological problem. You have to make them aware that aggression is an extreme, he said.

Emmanuel Abarca, president of the Association of Separated Fathers a group with 1,300 members nationwide that advocates for fathers rights says the new law is par for the course in a legal system that, according to Abarca, discriminates against men. The result is a void of support not only for men, but for abusive women as well, he says.

There are lots of abusive women who aren t being punished. There s violence against kids, against husbands, and it s unpunished they re creating an almost tyrannical regimen where one sector of society is favored, he told The Tico Times.

For a while, we were giving talks for abusive women. Dozens would arrive. It s like a taboo who says it doesn t exist? The government s hiding it, and that causes lots of damage.

The seven-year-old association has also offered support for abusive men, though today its counseling services take the form of legal advice to individual men, he said.

Mora said though Costa Rica is relatively less violent than other countries it has, for instance, the lowest murder rate in Central America people here have some soul searching to do if they want to find a solution to the problem of gender violence.

The biggest challenge is cultural change. It s changing the way we see masculinity and femininity, a process of finding social equity. I ve always said the issue of masculinity is up to the men. They have to sit down and decide what kind of masculinity they want, Mora said.

Hospital psychiatrist Vera explained that Costa Rica is struggling with machismo, a way of thinking that men are superior to women.

Man concentrates all the power and that leads to abuse. It s an imbalance of power. And so of course, the strong abuses the weak, Vera said.

Where there s no inequality, there s no violence, he said. Though legislation is part of the solution, he agreed with Barrantes that men must be educated at a young age to understand the need to level the playing field with women here.

Men, he said, must be given a chance to change.

This law lacks that. All it does is protect the weak, he said.


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