Lima, Peru – Last month, 18-year-old Katherine Gómez finally decided to end her short relationship with her boyfriend, Sergio Tarache. It was a Saturday night and despite planning a night out with friends, she agreed to meet him one last time in a busy square in the center of Lima.
The pair began to argue and Tarache abruptly left, according to witnesses. Moments later, surveillance footage showed him buying gasoline at a nearby station. He returned, doused Gómez and set her on fire with a lighter, fleeing the scene as she burned alive.
Nearly six days passed before a judge of a higher court in Lima issued an arrest warrant. Tarache, 21, had already fled the country. Meanwhile, Gómez, who suffered severe burns to her chest and face, died of respiratory failure in an induced coma.
Nine days after the attack, on March 27, an 11-year-old indigenous girl was found on the verge of death in the Amazon region of Ucayali. Two nails were lodged in her skull after her 25-year-old stepbrother attempted to rape her.
And two days later, on March 29, a 32-year-old nurse was found naked and covered in blood after a night out with two male colleagues in the southern department of Puno.
She was rushed to hospital where she was treated for head injuries and genital mutilation. But after an infection that necessitated a leg amputation, the mother-of-three died in a coma after 12 days. Her colleagues were subsequently arrested and are awaiting charges.
The brutality of these cases has shocked Peruvians in recent weeks, exposing what many are calling a systemic “crisis” of gender-based violence.
In this country of 33 million, six in ten women have experienced some form of physical or sexual violence, and the rate of femicide – broadly defined as the intentional, gender-motivated murder of women – is soaring.
Since January, 51 femicides have been reported in Peru, a figure that government officials say is likely to be higher than the 137 recorded last year.
This dark inventory does not account for disappearances. In 2022, there were 11,524 reports of missing women. Only 48 percent of them were found by authorities, according to Peru’s ombudsman.
In describing what many consider an “emergency” for Al Jazeera, government officials, women’s rights organizations and family members blamed deep-seated misogyny, distrust in the justice system and ultra-conservative legislation as contributing to increasingly violent attacks against women.
“It’s a vicious circle,” says Diana Portal of the ombudsman service. “Cases continue to arise, and a negligent response from the state sends an unfortunate message that in Peru you can rape, disappear or kill a woman without consequences.”
Between January and February of this year, there were 21,194 cases of violence against women and girls. Sixteen percent were girls between the ages of 12 and 17, according to data from the Ministry of Women and Vulnerable Populations.
A national poll found that less than 30 percent of women report incidents of violence to authorities, meaning the vast majority of cases remain undocumented.
“It is a system that does not comply with due diligence and does not take reports seriously, exacerbating a situation of daily violence,” said Portal.
A week after her daughter’s death, Gómez’s mother, Cinthia Machare, held a banner with the teen’s portrait as she marched through downtown Lima to protest the state’s response to the spate of recent femicides.
‘I’m living in a nightmare. I go into her room and it’s empty,’ Machare said. “There is a silence in my house because she was the one who brought all the joy to our house.”
After an international manhunt, Tarache was apprehended April 11 in Bogota, Colombia, and is awaiting extradition. But critics said the procedural delays that gave him time to flee revealed a crisis of impunity.
“Clearly we have work to do to restore public confidence in the justice system,” said Patricia Milagros, a representative of the Ministry of Women’s Aurora Program, which provides emergency assistance to victims.
According to Milagros, about 245 national emergency centers – along with preventive psychological and legal services – provide assistance to victims of sexual violence.
But gender rights activists said a lack of government funding for such programs has delayed aid to victims, who often give up their cause. They also called for stronger prevention measures, harsher punishments for aggressors and meaningful education reforms to tackle the violence.
Instead, in an interview with RPP Noticias, Women’s Ministry Director Nancy Tolentino suggested that “young women should choose wisely who they date” to avoid such attacks.
Although government representatives said her words were misinterpreted, Tolentino’s comments have led to accusations of victim blaming.
“These comments show that we live in a society where violence is shared between aggressors and state institutions,” said Amire Ortiz, the director of Acción Por Igualdad, a national women’s rights nonprofit.
Ortiz and other gender rights advocates are concerned that comments like Tolentino’s indicate an ultra-conservative stance on women, violence and reproductive health.
In December, Dina Boluarte became the first female president in Peru’s 201-year history. Despite the milestone, progress has been made on legislation that could restrict access to therapeutic abortion, including in rape cases, if signed into law.
Further policies, including a law enacted in 2022 when Boluarte was vice president, sets limits on gender-based education in classrooms, allowing parents to veto textbooks and other teaching materials they deem inappropriate.
“[Boluarte] has shown that just because a woman has risen to a position of political power does not guarantee that she will work for women,” said Ortiz.
Magali Aguilar recently stood outside the headquarters of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and unfurled a banner with portraits of dozens of femicide victims. In the center was her daughter Sheyla.
“She was 19 and ready to take on the world. Her dream was to become a midwife,” says Aguilar.
In 2018, Sheyla’s ex-boyfriend, Romario Aco, entered an open window in her bedroom and slit her throat.
Partly because of his confession, Aco received the minimum sentence of 15 years. Aguilar said her lawyer, appointed by the Department of Women’s Affairs, never showed up for the sentencing hearing.
“He will be released when he is 34, with his whole life ahead of him. And my daughter? Nothing. I go to the cemetery and can’t hug my daughter,” Aguilar said.
In 2020, she founded an association called Mother’s Fighting for Justice, which serves as a bereaved support network and conducts workshops to teach young women how to recognize and avoid abusive relationships.
“Our pain makes us stand up,” Aguilar said. “When we’re together, we cry when we need to, and then we dry our tears and keep fighting so there isn’t another Sheyla. So that this story does not keep repeating itself.”