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Gender-based Violence in Criminal Wars 

Although previous research has documented how civil wars and family and individual characteristics make women more vulnerable to gender-based violence, we know much less about how contexts marked by organized crime and the militarization of public security affect women’s exposure to different forms of violence vis-à-vis men. A critical finding from research at the E-VAW Lab shows that women are more likely to experience intimate partner violence in territories where organized crime and state militarization coincide, suggesting that an effective policy response should not only contemplate the provision of specialized services to survivors but also the enactment of public security policy supportive of human rights. The E-VAW Lab examines the topic in a holistic way, evaluating the role of the state in exacerbating and/or reducing gender-based violence.


Book Project: Violence against Women in Multi-Violence Contexts: Militarization and Organized Criminal Groups’ Territorial Control

Abby Córdova
Country: El Salvador
Awards: Harry Frank Guggenheim Distinguished Scholar Award; Kellogg Institute for International Studies’ Faculty Grant

Violence against women is prevalent across the world, undermining women’s opportunities to flourish and live a dignified life. To date, in their evaluation of evidence-based programs to address violence against women (VAW), scholars and policymakers have favored interventions geared toward changing social norms and providing services to survivors. In this book project, Abby Córdova  argues that current approaches to respond and prevent VAW, while extremely valuable, are insufficient to significantly reduce VAW rates in challenging contexts in the Global South, where organized criminal organizations (OCGs) dominate large parts of national territories. With the purpose of signaling effectiveness in combating organized crime, governments in the Global South have opted for the militarization of public security, deploying the military and the police in territories controlled by OCGs, which has led to criminal wars and massive human rights violations. As such, policy responses should also include the implementation of public security strategies rooted in the respect of human rights and the rule of law. 

This book project broadens our knowledge about how women experience violence vis-à-vis men in criminal wars and its consequences for gender inequality and citizen mobilization to demand justice. More specifically, the book addresses four  main questions: 1) What explains gender-based violence against women in criminal wars? 2) How does the population at large respond to gender-based violence in the midst of criminal wars, and what are the implications of such responses for perpetrators’ accountability? 3) How do survivors respond and resist gender-based violence in criminal wars? And 4) What kinds of interventions can effectively increase public condemnation of VAW and support for security policies congruent with women’s safety and the protection of human rights?

The results of her book show that both state and non-state armed actors increase women’s vulnerability to sexual violence in territories controlled by OCGs, lowering both trust in state institutions and reporting rates, thus contributing to widespread impunity and increased intimate partner violence within homes. In the context of criminal wars, to end VAW and promote human flourishing, a shift in public security policies congruent with the promotion of human rights and women’s safety must take place. However, governments will only have the political incentive to shift their security policies if citizens demand it. Besides developing a theoretical framework that explains how criminal wars undermine women’s safety, the book also identifies and empirically tests interventions that can help generate citizens’ attitudinal and behavioral change supportive of women’s safety and a shift in public security policies.

The book project takes a multidisciplinary approach to examine the research questions, drawing from political science, sociology, criminology, anthropology, philosophy, and social psychology. To test the hypotheses, Córdova relies on a mixed method approach, combining unprecedented qualitative and quantitative data from in-depth interviews, victims’ testimonies drawn from court trials analyzed using human coding, machine learning, and artificial intelligence techniques, and a wealth of existing and original survey data, including an original four-wave panel survey with embedded experiments.

Key findings:
  1.  In territories marked by organized criminal groups’ territorial control and militarization, women are more likely to suffer sexual violence as a result of gender violence in the hands of state and non-state armed actors, reinforcing patterns of impunity that also lead to increased intimate partner violence against women within homes.
  2. Women experiencing gender violence in those territories seek help from non-governmental organizations at a higher rate than their counterparts in territories not marked by territorial control, highlighting the importance of civil society organizations in women’s quest for justice.

    Source: Córdova, Abby. Violence against Women in Multi-Violence Contexts: Militarization and Organized Criminal Groups’ Territorial Control (Book Project). Survey data collected in April of 2023 in El Salvador.

  3. Public opinion is more tolerant of all violent acts, including sexual violence, when the perpetrator is a state armed actor than a member of an organized criminal organization (OCG). When the perpetrator is depicted as a state armed actor rather than a gang member, the public is less likely to feel anger toward the perpetrator and compassion toward the victim, particularly if told that the violent act occurred in a territory marked by gang control.

Conjoint Experiment: Anger toward the Perpetrator 

Source: Córdova, Abby. Violence against Women in Multi-Violence Contexts: Militarization and Organized Criminal Groups’ Territorial Control (Book Project). Survey data collected in April of 2023 in El Salvador.


Gender and International Migration 


Mural painted by immigrants at the Centro de Derechos Humanos, Fray Matías de Córdova,
southern border of Mexico, Tapachula City, Chiapas (photo by A. Córdova


Project part of larger research program on international migrationUnderstanding International Migration through the Lens of Gender

Abby Córdova, Diana Orcés (Public Religion Research Institute), Jonathan Hiskey (Vanderbilt University) & Mary Malone (University of New Hampshire)
Country: El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras

To understand the changing profile of migrants, in prior work we have examined the impact of crime victimization (Hiskey et al. 2018) and broader perceptions of insecurity on Central Americans’ migration intentions (Córdova et al 2022).  Particularly for women, we have found that crime victimization increases the likelihood of migration, especially when it is not just women themselves who are victimized, but other people living in their households (Hiskey et al 2019).  In this paper, we narrow our focus to understand more clearly how violence against women (VAW) shapes women’s intentions to migrate in Northern Central America. VAW is distinct from other types of criminal victimization as it frequently occurs in both public and private spheres, and is often dismissed by state agents who ignore (or are even complicit in) the pervasive violence that threatens women throughout their daily lives.

VAW, in all of its forms, is pervasive throughout the Americas but particularly so among the northern Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador (Carey, et al. 2010; Menjívar and Walsh 2017; 2016; Navarro-Mantas 2018; Wilson 2014; Obinna 2019; 2021). Across virtually any metric one might use, these three countries stand out for their levels of VAW,  the depth of impunity that exists for gender-based crimes, and, often, for the degree to which agents of the state are involved in the perpetuation of these daily forms of violence.  Though such gendered violence has long been a feature of northern Central America, only in the past decade or so does it appear that these particular forms of violence have emerged as primary drivers of the emigration decision for hundreds of thousands of women from the region, producing starkly distinct emigration patterns and challenging long-held views of women's migration as tied primarily to the migration patterns of men (Córdova, et al. 2022; Menjívar and Walsh 2017; 2016; Wilson 2014; Obinna 2021).

What we have seen in recent years is a highly gendered migration dynamic emerging that we contend has its roots in the distinct forms of everyday violence against women on the part of both private- and public-sector agents in this region. We further explore these dynamics through analysis of survey data on violence against women collected by Vanderbilt University's LAPOP Lab in 2022. We find a highly gendered dimension to the emigration decision that is shaped primarily by the everyday context of gender-based violence that both men and women occupy but that has substantially different, gendered, effects on the emigration decision itself.

Key preliminary findings
On average, men are more likely to intend to migrate than women in Northern Central American countries. However, women who report violence against women (VAW) as a serious problem in their neighborhood express a significantly higher probability of planning to emigrate, independent of perceived threats from other crimes. Women’s probability jumps from 21 to 34 % on the VAW scale, closing the gender gap in migration intentions. Further, women reporting VAW as a serious problem in their neighborhood are more likely to have already attempted and intend to migrate in the future, suggesting that VAW is an important driver of repeated migration in the region. Taken together, the results suggest that addressing the gendered root causes of international migration necessitates the implementation of policies to address violence against women. Moreover, those policies are more likely to prevent forced and repeated migration when implemented locally, given the variations in levels of VAW that exist across sub-municipal territories.


The Gendered Risks of Social Mobilization and Political Leadership 

Mural painted by rural women movements in Chaparral, Tolima after the signing of the 2016 comprehensive peace
agreement between the Colombian government and the former guerrilla group FARC-EP (photo by Isabel Güiza-Gómez)



Existing research has shown that transitioning contexts like civil war peace processes and transitions to democracy challenge patriarchal hierarchies and further increase political opportunities for improvements in women’s rights and political leadership. On the ground, however, women still face high risks to mobilize politically. The E-VAW Lab investigates the gendered risks of social and political leadership in post-accord contexts and citizens’ responses to their political mobilization.

Research ProjectExplaining Post-War Attitudes toward Violence against Grassroots Peacebuilders: The Case of Colombia

Abby Córdova, Isabel Güiza-Gómez and Juan Albarracín
Country: Colombia

Street protest in Bogotá, Colombia, on July 26, 2019, demanding state action to stop lethal violence
against social movement leaders and former insurgent combatants (photo by Isabel Güiza-Gómez)



Prior scholarship commonly assumes that citizens strongly reject systematic (mass) violence against civilians during civil wars. Such assumption is even more widespread in post-accord settings where transitional justice mechanisms such as truth commissions, trials, and reparation programs intend to bring about justice to victims, redress civil war wrongdoing, and challenge wartime beliefs that justified widespread violence. Yet, the public often fails to condemn political violence against civilians, both lethal and non-lethal, even after peace accords that bring wars to an end.

In this article, we seek to explain citizen attitudes toward violence against key actors leading peacebuilding processes at the grassroot level (e.g., ex-combatants and social leaders), who are often targets of post-war violence. We argue that citizen disregard for violence against grassroots peacebuilders responds to system justification attitudes triggered by perceptions of threat ingrained in war rhetoric against redistributive demands and contentious forms of mobilization—what we term subversive stigma. Further, we posit that those attitudes are reinforced by the salience of peace agreements that not only encourage widespread participation of demobilized guerrillas and historically marginalized groups who have suffered war the most (e.g., women and indigenous populations) but also enshrine redistributive reforms aimed at reshuffling previous socio-economic orders.

We test our theoretical framework in the context of Colombia where thousands of social leaders and ex-guerrilla members have been assassinated after the signing of the 2016 peace agreement. Empirically, we innovatively employ a two-staged research design based on a panel survey that combines qualitative and quantitative data to explain attitudes toward post-war violence against FARC-EP ex-combatants and social leaders in Colombia. The baseline survey allows us to gather qualitative and quantitative observational data to empirically test our assumptions and refine the design of a conjoint experiment embedded in a subsequent survey. The experiment varies grassroots peacebuilders’ identity (FARC-EP ex-combatants or social leaders) and their personal traits (gender and ethnicity) as well as their claims, forms of mobilization, and salience of the peace accord provisions that promote ample political participation.

Research Project: Gender-based Violence and Political Engagement Predispositions 

Abby Córdova and Angie Torres
: Mexico

We seek to examine the link between violence and political participation through the lens of gender, while evaluating this relationship in realistic scenarios that vary the identity of perpetrators and those seeking justice for victims, as well as examining how personal experiences with different forms of violence shape individuals’ responses to violent acts. More specifically, we address three research questions: 1) Compared to other types of crime, does making gender-based violence salient increase or decrease predispositions to engage in politics, independent of personal experiences with violence? 2) compared to non-victims, are victims of gender-based violence more likely to alter their predispositions to engage in politics when gender-based violence is salient? and 3) under what conditions are both crime victims and non-victims more likely to engage in politics in light of cases of gender-based violence vis-a-vis other types of crimes?

Building on existing literature, we examine how crime victimization varied among critical dimensions such as perpetrator type, type of violence, and information source, affects citizens’ propensity to participate in politics. We make three central claims: 1) that a respondent's propensity to participate is conditional on the victim’s gender, 2) on the type of violence made salient (gender or non-gender based violence), and 3) on respondents’ personal experiences with violence. Moreover, we propose that situational factors related to the perpetrator’s identity and who is denouncing the violent act are similarly important in mobilizing the public against violence. To evaluate our theoretical propositions, we conduct a multidimensional factorial survey experiment in Mexico, a country with a high incidence of multiple forms of violence, including gender-based, committed by state and non-state actors, and where relatives of victims and civil society organizations are engaged in seeking justice for victims.

Research ProjectWomen Demanding Truth and Justice: Attitudinal and Behavioral Responses to Women’s Mobilization in Criminal Wars

Abby Córdova, Laura López, Mayra Ortiz, and Natán Skigin

Women make up for most of the victims' family members who mobilize for justice in contexts of widespread violence against civilians: mothers, sisters, intimate partners, and daughters of victims. While women largely mobilize for justice in high-risk circumstances such as civil wars and criminal wars, a gender perspective has rarely been incorporated into studies of responses to violence. Building on prior scholarship documenting gendered divisions of labor rooted in sexist attitudes, we examine societies expectations for women’s involvement in seeking justice for their victim relatives compared to men’s engagement, responses to women’s political mobilization, and their implications for citizen solidarity and accompaniment. We test our hypotheses in the context of gross human rights violations in Mexico (assassinations and disappearances), collecting original survey data among victim relatives and the public at large. 

Police Responses to Gender-Based Violence


Women police officers attending the Sixth UN Women World Leaders Forum in Quito, Ecuador,
November 2023 (photo by Abby Córdova)


Findings from the Notre Dame E-VAW Lab suggest that to ensure girls and women’ safety in cities, particularly in those marked by organized crime, it is important to adopt a public security approach that accounts for the distinct ways in which girls and women experience violence. While men are the main victims of homicides, girls and women are more likely to experience lethal and non-lethal gender-based violence. As such, an integral public security strategy involves focusing on reducing both homicide rates and gender-based violence. More specifically, an integral public security strategy, it is important to allocate significant funds to a different kind of policing, which helps prevent gender-based violence and increase survivors’ access to services.

In the Latin American context, previous research points to specialized police stations on gender-based violence led by female police officers as an important tool to prevent and respond to violence against girls and women. The creation of specialized police stations can improve social norms on gender-based violence among men (Córdova and Kras 2022) since their establishment signals, an important message from the state: that violence against women is a crime penalized by the law and therefore that it should not be tolerated. The findings show that, in municipalities in Brazil with a specialized police station, men are less likely to normalize and justify violence against women, which materializes in lower VAW rates in those municipalities. Further, research shows that specialized police units led by women increase women’s perceptions of police effectiveness, resulting in higher levels of police legitimacy in the context of Brazil (Córdova and Kras 2020) and El Salvador (Córdova 2023).

Research Project:  Examining the Effectiveness of Specialized Police Units

Abby Córdova
Countries: El Salvador and Brazil

As a response to gender-based violence, several countries across the world have adopted specialized police units led by women or with a higher representation of female police officers. Besides preventing violence against women, these police units seek to increase access to specialized services to survivors, including shelters, health services, and legal advice. Recent studies for a few countries across the world have presented mixed evidence about the effects of women’s police stations on reporting rates, gender-based violence, and citizen’s perceptions of police legitimacy in the towns where these police stations operate, thus —suggesting that variations in specialized policing design and service provision results in divergent outcomes. Research at the Notre Dame E-VAW builds on and contributes to this research by examining evidence on the effects of a higher representation of women in the police on citizens’ attitudes toward the police and gender-based violence as well as impacts on the incidence of violence against women and reporting rates in the context of Brazil and El Salvador.

Key Findings (Evidence from El Salvador):

Results from a survey experiment in El Salvador carried out in August of 2023 shows that women find the police more legitimate to address violence against women when a higher representation of women in the police is primed using photos that vary the gender composition of specialized police units.

More specifically, making women aware of the existence of specialized police stations as such does not increase women’s perceptions of police legitimacy. Only when women learn that female police officers are leading specialized police stations do they express higher levels of police legitimacy. By contrast, men’s perceptions of police legitimacy remain largely intact when they become aware of the existence of specialized police units, regardless of their gender composition.

Further, women favor allocating a higher share of the total police budget to specialized police units, independent of their gender composition, denoting women’s support for policies aimed at addressing gender-based violence. However, men are only more likely to prefer a higher budget allocation to specialized police units when these are led by both men and women rather than only women police officers. Taken together, the results suggest that men are more likely to support gender policies aimed at improving women’s safety depending on policy design.