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Anthropology's best

Professor Torres wins award for best article of 2011

A study of how Guatemala's epidemic of violence against women has spread and grown over the past century won anthropology professor M. Gabriela Torres and her co-author an award for the best journal article of the year.

The New England Council of Latin American Studies awarded its 2011 Best Article Prize to Torres and her co-author, David Carey, Jr., for "Precursors to Femicide: Guatemalan Women in a Vortex of Violence" published in the Latin American Research Review.

The article looks at the historical record of epidemic levels of violence against women in Guatemala to understand the ways that social relations  perpetuate the murder of women and girls. The study reflects Torres's long-standing scholarly interest in understanding the anthropology of violence, particularly differing impacts on women and men.

"I am committed to understand femicide, the socially supported murder of women and girls, as a human being and a scholar," Torres said. "Violence against women is a pervasive health problem and a barrier to development and peace in our world. Worldwide, it is estimated that violence against women kills and disables as many women between the ages of 15 and 44 as cancer.

"Looking at how femicide has taken hold in Guatemala in the last century is an entry point to understanding how violence and a society’s reaction to violence can erode the basic citizen rights to life," she said. "In essence, it can allow me to understand how violence changes institutions, what we do and how we see our place in the world."

Guatemala has earned a reputation for violence. In 2007, for example, Guatemalans were killed at a rate of nearly 42 people per 100,000, compared to U.S. figures of 5.6 people per 100,000, according to government statistics cited by Torres. In fact, the death rate continues to be comparable to that experienced during the country's civil war. Since 2000, nearly 6,000 women have been murdered. Men fare worse and were killed ten times as often as women.

"What our work has found is that what allows violence to flourish in a society is the society’s reaction to violence," she said.

"Our work shows that in the last 100 years in Guatemala, femicide has been culturally supported by the society’s acceptance of unequal gender roles, the portrayal of women as minimally human, and legal and social acceptance to violations of women. This legal leniency effectively provided impunity and helped foster a more generalized violence in Guatemalan society that erodes women's rights in particular and citizens' rights more generally."

Torres involves Wheaton students in her research projects. Currently, she is working with student assistants to digitize her collected records of political murders that took place during Guatemala's civil war and make that information accessible to the public.

"Working on this project allows our students to use their accumulated Spanish language skills and gain new skills with digital technologies," she explained. "More importantly for me, it allows them to participate in the responsibility of scholarship. Together we are working on making our findings public, accessible and finding ways to present them in ways that are useful to researchers and general audiences."