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‘I’d Defend Myself, Too’: Chileans back abuse survivors

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    2 days ago

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A mural in Spanish reads Image source, Courtesy Colectivo La Ventolera

Cynthia Concha arrived at the prison in Concepción, Chile, with no clothes other than the dirty ones she was wearing.

The guards did not provide her with clean garments, or even a toothbrush, but Ms Concha had not thought about packing. She was bruised, shaken and in shock.

She had just killed her husband.

That day, in September 2019, Ms Concha’s husband threatened to kill her, blocking their bedroom door as she tried to escape. Fearing for her life, she fought against him, causing his death through asphyxiation as they struggled.


She handed herself in to the police immediately and was promptly arrested while an investigation took place.

After two months of pre-trial detention, followed by almost two years under house arrest, the state prosecutor finally confirmed what she had dreaded the most: if found guilty, she would face a 20-year prison sentence.

Unexpected help

But Ms Concha had not expected a nationwide grassroots campaign to rally for her freedom under the call-to-arms “Yo Tambien Me Defendería”, which translates as “I’d Defend Myself, Too”.

Women hold up signs spelling out in Spanish:

Ms Concha says she had felt “powerless” after hearing the prosecutor’s accusations and added that the networks made her feel heard: “I’m so grateful for their support.”

Hers is one of several cases that have garnered support from the movement, formed by various women’s rights networks, which argue against the criminalisation of survivors of domestic violence who turned against their abusers in self-defence.

“I must have had at least one hundred domestic violence reports. I always had black eyes and bruises,” Ms Concha tells the BBC over a video call, her finger tracing the parts on her face that were beaten.

She says she also suffered economic exploitation, sexual violence, and psychological trauma.

Signs reading

Network Against Violence Against Women
I would defend myself too if my life were at risk. It’s not violence; it’s defence
Lorena Astullido
Network Against Violence Against Women

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Women’s rights organisations in Chile celebrate Ms Concha’s acquittal, but warn that there are many more domestic abuse survivors who have been unjustly criminalised for defending themselves.

“Many cases like this could be avoided if the justice system did its job,” says Loren Leron, a feminist activist who provides aid in the jail where Ms Concha was detained.

Ms Leron was the one who first alerted rights organisations to the case and requested their support. “If a woman was actually protected every time she reported domestic abuse, there wouldn’t be cases like this,” she explains.

Viral anthem

It is not the first time women protesters in Chile have taken on the justice system: in 2019, the protest anthem “A Rapist in Your Path” went viral across the world.

That year, during a period of social unrest, thousands were filmed in capital Santiago chanting the words: “The patriarchy is a judge / that judges us for being born”, before pointing to the president, judges and police for fostering impunity against abusers: “the rapist is you”.

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The Network Against Violence Against Women is Chile’s largest national organisation working to eradicate gender-based violence.

In its annual 2021 report, it counted 23,642 domestic violence complaints to police in the first semester of the year, but only 5,855 arrests. For sexual abuse cases, 74% were dismissed by courts and only 7% of cases resulted in a sentence.

The report also revealed that 81% of women had a negative experience in their attempts to report domestic violence to the police.

Dr Myrna Villegas Díaz, a criminal science professor at the University of Chile, says that Chile’s legal system has failed abuse survivors.

“The patriarchy, more than a judge, is a legislator,” she reflects. She also questions the approach of the prosecutor’s office to self-defence cases: “They have to be objective, not just look at elements to incriminate but also at what can exonerate.”

According to documentation sent to the BBC by the prosecutor’s office, there have been 224 cases of women killing or attempting to kill partners between 2011-2022. In total, 86 have resulted in a criminal sentence and over 50 are still active.

Activists demand freedom for women who are in prison for killing their partners in domestic violence contexts.

Activists are backing women such as Katty Hurtado who is serving a 20-year jail sentence in what her supporters say was a case of self-defence

Image source, Network Against Violence Against Women

While statistics do not reveal whether each case occurred in self-defence contexts, the Network Against Violence Against Women believes it is likely in many cases.

“These are women who have experienced systematic violence. Many have restraining orders against their abusers but the state has failed to keep them safe, and later criminalises them,” says Lorena Astullido, a spokesperson for the organisation.

“I would defend myself too if my life were at risk. It’s not violence; it’s defence,” she adds.

Ymay Ortiz, director of the Specialized Unit in Human Rights, Gender Violence and Sexual Crimes in the National Prosecutor’s Office, stressed the institution investigates each case under a rigorous gender policy that includes mandatory training on domestic violence.

While Ms Ortiz welcomes feedback and criticisms from the civil sector, she is wary about the movement’s message and says it could be dangerous.

“Everyone has the right to legitimate defence but it has to be considered proportionately,” she said. “It cannot be used as an impunity pass or to grant special protections.”

LGBTQ+ attacks

The “I’d Defend Myself, Too” cry has also extended to the LGBTQ+ community, with gay rights activists in Chile pushing for the freedom of a trans man who was jailed after killing his aggressor earlier this year. Activists argue that he was defending himself during a life-threatening transphobic attack.

And in neighbouring Argentina, the movement has similarly catalysed social mobilization.

This year, huge crowds converged to demand the acquittal of Eva Analía Dejesús, better known as Higui, a lesbian who killed her assailant while defending herself during a “corrective” gang rape attempt. She was acquitted in March.

Ms Concha is one of a handful of defendants in Chile who have been acquitted or whose cases have been dismissed in the last 10 years.

She has recently found work and moved to another town while she rebuilds her life. While she is relieved she was acquitted, she believes that domestic violence is not taken seriously enough.

“When you report violence, the police take one look at you and say you’re fine; to stop crying over nothing,” she says, exhaling deeply. She pauses for a moment, before finishing the call with an emotional plea:

“If you see a woman is suffering violence, help her in any way you can. Do not abandon her.”

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