By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Colombia is to impose tougher punishments on those who murder women and girls, as part of a government bid to stem high levels of violence against women.
Lawmakers voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to pass a bill that defines in law the crime of femicide - the killing of a woman by a man because of her gender - and carries a prison sentence of 20 to 50 years.
The new legislation gives longer sentences for perpetrators of psychological, physical and sexual attacks against women because of their gender.
The bill still needs to be signed by President Juan Manuel Santos to become law, which he is widely expected to do.
The bill was named after Rosa Elvira Cely, a woman who was raped and murdered by a man in a park in the Colombian capital Bogota in May 2012. The attack sparked national outrage and prompted thousands to march in the capital's streets.
Her attacker pleaded guilty and received a 48-year prison sentence.
"Now we know that before a man commits such a cruel crime, he'll think twice about it. This law is for all those women who are fighting against violence," said Adriana Cely, the sister of Rosa Elvira Cely, after the bill was passed.
Femicide stems largely from Colombia's patriarchal and 'macho' culture, which tends to blame women for the violence inflicted on them and to condone it, women's rights groups say.
In the first two months of this year, 126 women were killed in Colombia, most in their early twenties, according to the National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences.
Even before the femicide bill was approved, the issue of gender killings was under the spotlight in Colombia.
In March Colombia's Supreme Court convicted a man for femicide, a historic judgment that set a precedent and helped pave the way for the passing of the femicide bill.
More than half of the 25 countries with the highest femicide rates are in the Americas, according to a 2012 report by the Small Arms Survey, an independent research project in Geneva.
Colombia follows 16 other countries in Latin America that have passed laws in recent years that define and punish femicide as a specific crime.
It is common for victims of femicide to have a long history of domestic violence and the perpetrators are often the victims' current or former partners, family members or friends.
(Reporting By Anastasia Moloney; Editing by Ros Russell)