Chile: A Refuge from Domestic Violence
Chilean Lutheran Church Agreement with Government Provides Women’s Shelters
Between 2001 and 2009, Chile registered 392 cases of murdered women. Most of the victims were killed by men with whom they had a close, intimate relationship. Only a small number of the deaths could be attributed to unfamiliar perpetrators.
Although some of the victims had obtained court orders for protection, such measures did not work. The police often lacked sufficient powers to protect the women, making it impossible to prevent the murders.
In the face of this crisis, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Chile (IELCH) is providing a safe place for women and their children who are threatened by domestic violence.
The Vida Plena (“life in fullness”) shelter in Providencia, a suburb of the Chilean capital Santiago de Chile, offers a way out of this situation, giving protection to women and children in life-threatening situations due to domestic violence. The refuge run by the IELCH in cooperation with the Chilean Ministry for Women (Servicio Nacional de la Mujer – SERNAM) is a safe place where women can live for a period of time.
The church explains that the victims often have no means of availing themselves of protective measures. If the abusive men receive summons to appear before the family court or public prosecutor to face charges of domestic violence, the situation often escalates. The men assault and abuse the women all over again. In the more extreme cases, the women lose their lives. Neighbors often do not dare to intervene, acting on the principle: “Do not get involved in a couple’s squabbles.”
Since many women are isolated, they find it difficult to get assistance. Their children are often used as a means of control and blackmail. The psychological effect of years of violence diminishes the women’s self-esteem and drains them of the strength they need to change their lives. In addition, the women remain economically dependent on their abusers.
Psychosocial and Spiritual Care
Vida Plena provides accommodation for three months, which also includes healing programs, psychosocial and spiritual care, legal accompaniment and assistance in devising new life goals for the women and children suffering family violence. The refuge is currently home to 12 women and 18 children between the ages of one and 17. The staff includes social workers, a psychologist, an accountant, five kindergarten teachers and a woman pastor.
The IELCH currently has five cooperation agreements with SERNAM for three women shelters—two within the capital, and one in Concepción, the capital of Region VIII, as well as two contact centers for the prevention of violence. The church shelter is so far the only organization in the country to have signed an official agreement with the government for this kind of work.
Human Rights Commitment
IELCH president Rev. Dr Gloria Rojas attributes this cooperation to government recognition of the church’s commitment to defend human rights from its prophetic ministry during the period of Chile’s dictatorship.
The church is committed to equal rights for men and women, and opposes discrimination, she stresses. “In a society debating women’s abilities and the defense of equal opportunity, this stance is highly valued,” according to Rojas. She also cites the practical, firm dedication of the church to diaconal work, which is a response to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Here words and actions are closely intertwined, she adds.
“Violence against women is a sin,” states Rev. Dr Elaine G. Neuenfeldt, LWF secretary for Women in Church and Society. Overcoming it requires a holistic, collective effort, she says, emphasizing that the church is called to be a safe place for women living and suffering in violent relations.
As a global communion, the LWF calls for affirmative policies for women and for missional, diaconal and prophetic commitment in public life. “The experience in Chile is a sign of how the church can interact in a proactive way with public policies,” adds Neuenfeldt.