By Debbie Sharnak, Argentina-Paraguay country specialist
On August 27, 2014, Paraguay took a huge step forward in promoting the rights of domestic violence survivors when they released Lucia Sandoval from prison. Sandoval had been in jail for over three years on the charge of homicide after she defended herself against an abusive husband.
Amnesty International Paraguay worked with other local human rights groups to advocate for her release. Finally, at the end of August, Lucia was absolved of all guilt in the case. Rosalie Vega, Executive Director of Amnesty International Paraguay said that the ruling gave a positive signal to women that look for protection against their abuses.
Lucia’s trial centered on an incident in February 2011 when she informed her husband that she had filed a complaint in court and received a medida de protección, similar to a restraining order, which required him to leave their home.
In Sandoal’s testimony, she noted that her husband reacted violently and threatened her with a gun, stating her concerned that no one would be able to act against him. Trying to escape, Lucia relayed that they became involved in a physical scuffle and the gun went off, which ended her husband’s life. Since that fateful day in February, Lucia was placed in jail, where she remained, unable to see her two sons who are both minors.
Domestic violence continues to be a major issue in Paraguay. While there is a law against domestic violence that was passed in 2000, it does not comprehensively address the problem, not does it allow for a coordinated and coherent system in the country to collect data about gendered violence. This leaves the state unable to recognize patterns and address the underlying issues. For example, in Paraguay, even if a medida de protección is granted, the women has to be the one to inform the person, which is what precipitated the events of Lucia’s husband’s death.
The Human Rights Commission at the United Nations recommended that Paraguay take steps to address these shortcomings. In May 2013, the multilateral body called on the state to approve a law that would prevent, punish, and eradicate gender violence, as well as assure that complains of domestic violence are effectively investigated, with perpetrators being punished appropriately and the survivors receiving attention and compensation.
The decision to finally let Lucia out of prison and absolve her guilt was a step in the right direction to begin to comply with the latter recommendation.
Lucia’s case, while a big step forward and giving precedence for survivors who seek to protect themselves, also revealed fundamental flaws within the Paraguayan legal system. Many activists who worked on Sandoval’s case noted that the institutions that were supposed to protect women in these situations often re-traumatized them through harsh and slow procedures to evaluate their cases. A more comprehensive approach to meet the United Nations’ recommendations has also not been realized.
Moving forward, Amnesty International Paraguay hopes that similar cases will move quicker to protect women from being subjected to harsh prison terms while trials are being conducted. These cases need to take into account fundamental information about the gendered nature of these cases, particularly the violence that was suffered before the incident occurred.
Paraguay also needs to move to address a more holistic set of measures to address domestic violence in the country, a problem which remains prevalent throughout many South American nations.