Pope Francis denounced femicides and other gender-based crimes that have turned Latin America into the most violent place on Earth for women, calling Saturday for legislation to protect them and a new cultural mindset as he visited one of Peru's most dangerous parts.
At a Marian prayer in the northern seaside city of Trujillo, Francis called women, mothers and grandmothers the guiding force for families. And yet, he said, in the Americas they are too often victims of murder and "many situations of violence that are kept quiet behind so many walls."
The first Latin American pope called for lawmakers to protect women and for a new culture "that repudiates every form of violence." His remarks came the same day large crowds marched throughout the United States and other countries in support of female empowerment.
Francis' use of the term femicide — the killing of women where the motive is directly related to gender— marked the second time in as many days that he has spoken out against "machismo" culture in Latin America. The region has the dubious honor of having the world's highest rates of violence against women occurring outside romantic partnerships, and the second-highest within.
Even though more and more countries in the region are adopting protective policies for women, female homicides are rising in Latin America with two in every five resulting from domestic violence, according to a November 2017 report from U.N. Women and the U.N. Development Program that called the phenomenon a "global pandemic."
In recent years women have taken to the streets across Latin America, including in Peru, to protest gender violence as part of the international "Ni Una Menos" or "Not One Less" campaign.
In the Peruvian Amazon this week, Francis denounced forced prostitution and the trafficking of women in the area, saying it pained him how they are "devalued, denigrated and exposed to endless violence.
"Violence against women cannot be treated as 'normal,' maintaining a culture of machismo blind to the leading role that women play in our communities," he said Friday. "It is not right for us to look the other way and let the dignity of so many women, especially young women, be trampled upon."
Francis' decision to directly address the issue followed a reticence to speak out last year when he visited Ciudad Juarez, the Mexican border city notorious for hundreds of killings of women that brought international attention to the problem. More than 100 women died in eerily similar killings in the city across from El Paso, Texas, starting in 1993, although the serial or copycat nature of them tapered off a decade later.
At a 2016 open-air mass in Juarez, Francis made an emotional plea to recognize the "human tragedy" of the treatment of migrants but made only a passing mention of the women's killings. At the time he did not use the word "femicide," saying only, "And what can we say about so many women who have unjustly had their lives taken?"
Mothers of some of the Juarez victims had sought unsuccessfully to meet with Francis, and Saturday marked the first time he is known to have used the term "femicide" in public.
Central American countries have the highest rates of gender-based violence, but the issue is also a serious problem in Peru. More than 1,000 women died from gender violence in the South American country from 2009 through last October — the vast majority murdered by a partner or relative — according to a report by the Public Ministry.
Francis' comments came in his final event in Trujillo, where devastating floods last year killed more than 150 people and destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes.
At a seaside Mass for some 200,000 faithful, Francis said he came to pray with those who lost everything and who must also contend with the "other storms that can hit these coasts, with devastating effects on the lives of the children of these lands."
He cited organized violence and contract killings, a major problem in Peru and in the north in particular. Extortion is also common in the area, especially around Trujillo and parts hit hardest by the floods, and bus drivers who refuse to pay often see their minibuses torched.
Francis said Peruvians have shown life's greatest problems can be confronted when communities come together "to help one another like true brothers and sisters."
In Trujillo the pope found a frustrated population hoping his visit could quicken reconstruction from Peru's worst environmental disaster in nearly two decades. Of the 200,000 homes destroyed in last year's floods, only about 60 percent have been repaired, said Edwin Trujillo, an emergency coordinator for the Peruvian Red Cross.
"People are furious because authorities haven't done anything," said Carlos Bocanegra, 60, a biologist who lives in Trujillo.
Francis is the second pope to visit the city. He follows in the footsteps of St. John Paul II, who came here in 1985, a decade when Peru was afflicted not only by El Nino floods but also hyperinflation and political violence.
Three decades later many of the same inequalities that existed back then remain entrenched, with poor, rural areas still unprepared to face the damage caused by environmental calamity.
Many in northern Peru lament that streets are still contaminated by fungus and filled with debris from the storms, estimated to have cause several billion dollars in damage.
"For us it is a blessing that Pope Francis has come to Buenos Aires to see everything we have suffered," said Carlos Covenas, who lives in the small Peruvian town that shares the name of Francis' Argentine birthplace.
While Francis has received a decidedly warm welcome in Peru, his tumultuous visit to Chile earlier this week continued to cast a shadow. Authorities said Saturday that another church had been destroyed in a blaze 60 miles (100 kilometers) south of the Chilean capital, Santiago, following a string of fires to religious buildings that started even before Francis landed in that country.
Francis' top adviser on clerical sex abuse, Cardinal Sean O'Malley, also implicitly rebuked the pontiff Saturday over remarks he made upon leaving Chile two days earlier. Francis accused victims of the country's most notorious pedophile priest of having slandered another bishop, Juan Barros. The victims say Barros knew about the abuse and did nothing to stop it — a charge Barros denies.
O'Malley, archbishop of Boston, called Francis' words "a source of great pain for survivors of sexual abuse."