Access to justice for women who suffer sexual violence in Central America and southern Mexico remains limited despite the high incidence of rape and other crimes, of which underage girls are the main victims, experts say.
"This kind of violence is the most hushed up, hidden, and invisibilised, which means it enjoys the greatest impunity," Marcela Suazo, the United Nations population fund (UNFPA) regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean, told IPS.
The numbers bear this out.
According to El Salvador's attorney-general's office, only six percent of the 8,108 complaints of sex crimes filed between January 2008 and July 2010 led to convictions.
The situation is similar in Nicaragua, where 56 percent of the 1,133 complaints of sexual violence that reached the courts in 2008 were closed. Of this proportion, 70 percent were dismissed, 15 percent ended in acquittals, and only 15 percent led to convictions.
A multiplicity of factors give rise to these bleak figures in Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama and the nine states of southeast Mexico – a region known as Mesoamerica, which is home to some 70 million people.
These include the reluctance of victims to report sexual violence due to shame or fear, the lack of an effective response by the authorities, and the unequal power relations between men and women, Suazo said.
The main victims are minors. "Girls and adolescents between the ages of 12 and 18 are the population group most affected by sexual violence," the expert said, adding that they are often sexually harassed or abused by family members or by people close to the family.
"Access must thus be improved to information and education, and to justice - with interdisciplinary services including health, the police and assistance in the judicial process - and a timely, effective legal process must be guaranteed," she said.
These difficulties and observations are outlined in the report Access to Justice for Women Victims of Sexual Violence in Mesoamerica 2011, published by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), which puts a special emphasis on the cases of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.
But despite the hurdles to access to justice faced by women victims of sexual violence, the study also reports progress made in the region.
Tracy Robinson, the IACHR rapporteur on the Rights of Women, told IPS that the adoption of laws to fight violence against women and the creation of new justice system institutions with a gender perspective were some of the advances made.
She also cited "the introduction of policies and protocols to guide the actions of everyone who should ensure justice for and protect the victims, and the development of comprehensive approaches to protect them and guarantee their welfare."
Robinson acknowledged, however, that "many, many women" still do not have access to justice in cases of sexual violence, which means "the levels of impunity for sexual violence are very high."
"Our main concerns include girls who are at particular risk and poor women who live in rural areas, because the search for justice for them implies an economic cost, above all, if they don't live near places where legal services are provided," she added.
Ángela Acevedo, coordinator of the gender secretariat in Nicaragua's judiciary, told IPS that her country had made some progress in terms of access to justice.
"The proportion of cases that ended in convictions rose from 10 percent in 2004 to 15 percent in 2010. In other words, there has been an improvement in access to justice for women victims of sexual violence," she said.
And Nicaragua hopes to significantly improve these figures, because of the passage of the Integral Law on Violence Against Women, in January.
The law, which goes into effect this month, defines the crime of "femicide" or gender-related murder, and creates penalties for physical, psychological, property-related, economic and workplace violence, and violence against women perpetrated by public employees or government officials.
But the challenges are still enormous.
"Social tolerance (for this kind of violence) means there is little sensitivity in society towards victims and little support for investigations, with respect to providing evidence, and victims are revictimised by the justice system," all of which stands in the way of clearing up cases, Acevedo said.
Silvia Rosales, a Central American Court of Justice magistrate, told IPS that the Mesoamerican region has also improved in terms of coordinating law enforcement efforts between the police, prosecutors and judges, in the area of sexual crimes.
But "funds are lacking, as is specific training on the issue for judges and prosecutors," he said.