Assistance to Victims of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault

Combating Gender Based Violence

Violence against women is not a women’s issue: it’s a crisis with serious humanitarian, economic, and security implications.  As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has emphasized, security and development are impossible without accountability for sexual violence and other acts of violence against women and girls:

Whether it happens behind closed doors or as a public tactic of intimidation, violence against women has consequences for the entire community – men and women alike. When women are abused, businesses close, incomes shrink, families go hungry, and children grow up internalizing beliefs and behaviors that perpetuate the cycle of violence. A community that is unsafe for women is unsafe for everyone. On the other hand, protecting and educating girls contributes to economic growth and helps entire countries prosper.

Gender-based violence cuts across ethnic, racial, socio-economic, and religious lines, and knows no borders.  Costa Rica is not exempt from this global pandemic.  Violence against women in Costa Rica not only destroys the lives of the women who are victims, but their families and communities.   According to the Costa Rican Department of Police Intelligence, during the first three months of   2012 alone, law enforcement received an average of 222 reports of domestic violence per day.  This amounted to a total of 19,975 domestic violence  cases – 5,195 more cases more than reported in the first trimester of 2011.

This is precisely why the United States government has made gender equality and women’s empowerment a core focus of our foreign policy.  Countries cannot progress when half their populations are marginalized, mistreated, and subjected to discrimination.  In August 2012, the United States was proud to release its first-ever Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence Globally, along with an Executive Order signed by President Obama directing its implementation.

In U.S. Embassy San Jose’s American Citizen Services section (ACS), we regularly assist U.S. citizens who are victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.  During FY 2012, the ACS unit assisted many women whose partners and spouses physically abused them, would not allow them to depart their homes, and/or threatened to take their children as a means of maintaining control.   Together with our colleagues in the Costa Rican government, we helped some of those victims relocate back to the United States with their minor children.  Additionally, the ACS unit provided assistance to victims of sexual assault in areas as varied as Jaco, Heredia, Puerto Viejo, and Montezuma.  Some of these assaults were committed by acquaintances and friends. In other cases, the assailants were strangers who may have used illicit substances to subdue the victim or even detain the victim temporarily against their will.

At a local level, the U.S.  Embassy in San Jose has no higher responsibility than assisting our citizens in need.  If an American citizen has been the victim of sexual assault or domestic violence, she should dial 911 and file a police report immediately.  We also recommend that she contact the American Citizen Services (ACS) section.   While no one can undo the emotional trauma, physical injury, or financial loss a victim may experience, the U.S. Embassy in San Jose helps in many ways.  Crimes committed against visitors to a country are particularly difficult because the victim may be in unfamiliar surroundings, unable to rely on the support of family and friends, and may not know the local language, legal system, or culture.   Consular personnel at the Embassy can assist victims in managing the practical consequences of dealing with the aftermath of crime.  We provide information about the local criminal justice system, assist in accessing that system, and provide information about other resources for crime victims abroad and in the United States.  We assist the victim in obtaining medical assistance and information.  We assist them in contacting family and friends back home, and in returning back home themselves if they so choose.

Though investigation and prosecution of crime are solely the responsibilities of local officials, we assist victims of violence by helping them work with local law enforcement.  In cases of sexual assault, we often accompany and support victims while they file their police report, obtain forensic testing, and seek medical care, as well as follow up with local authorities to provide updates on a regular basis to victims after they leave.

We can also help:

  • Replace a stolen passport
  • Contact family, friends, or employers
  • Address emergency needs that arise as a result of the crime
  • Explain the local criminal justice process
  • Obtain information about your case
  • Connect you to local and U.S. resources to assist victims of crime
  • Obtain information about local and U.S. victim compensation programs
  • Provide a list of local lawyers who speak English
  • Track the progress of the case with law enforcement and the local prosecutor’s office.

We cannot:

  • Investigate crimes
  • Provide legal advice or represent you in court
  • Serve as official interpreters or translators
  • Pay legal, medical, or other fees for you

If you are an American citizen and have not previously registered your travel or residence in Costa Rica with the State Department, we urge you to do so online at Smart traveler Enrollment Program (There is an app for that!) The Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) is a free service provided by the U.S. government to U.S. citizens who are traveling to or living in a foreign country.  STEP allows you to enter information about your stays abroad so that the Department of State may better assist you in the case of an emergency.  STEP also allows Americans residing abroad to get routine information from U.S. Embassy San Jose.

We all need to work together—the international community, governments, multilateral organizations, and grassroots-level advocates to address and prevent violence from occurring.  Costa Rica has passed legislation addressing gender-based violence. The next critical step is to work together to improve implementation of those laws in order to increase accountability and address impunity.