(Washington, DC) - The Peruvian government should turn its domestic violence legislation into a real instrument for the protection of women, Human Rights Watch urged today in a sixteen-page memorandum to the Peruvian congress.

The open memorandum was released one week before Peru's general elections, as the congressional Commission on Women and Human Development drafts amendments to the Law for Protection from Family Violence. The New York-based rights group called for specific reforms to improve the family violence legislation and to strengthen its implementation.

"Peru has been a regional leader in the fight against domestic violence," said Regan Ralph, executive director of the Women's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. "But Congress must now rectify the law's serious omissions."

Domestic violence is a serious, long-standing problem in Peru, with particular impact on women. Every year, thousands are beaten, raped, or psychologically abused by their intimate partners. Peru adopted the Law for Protection from Family Violence in 1993. The law, one of the first of its kind to be adopted in Latin America, was intended to ensure that victims of domestic violence have swift and effective access to protection and justice, but its impact has been disappointing.

Although strengthened in 1997, the law still contains serious flaws. It does not protect women from marital rape or stalking, nor does it apply to women who are harassed or beaten by intimate partners if they are not living together. The law makes conciliation an obligation, rather than an option, in cases of domestic violence. This means women are forced to go to at least one conciliation hearing with their abusers before they can pursue their charges in court.

In addition, the judicial system appears fraught with bias. Police and medical examiners sometimes treat women in a hostile and degrading manner, state prosecutors fail to request available protection measures, and judges minimize the harm that domestic violence causes.

Human Rights Watch urged the Comission on Women and Human Development to strengthen the definition of family violence, eliminate mandatory conciliation sessions between women and their abusers, and provide for more rigorous oversight and training of police, forensic doctors, state prosecutors, and judges.

"Good laws are important, but they're not enough," said Ralph. "Those laws have to be put into practice-and that's the true test of Peru's commitment to women's human rights."