Abused in lockdown

April 30th, 2020

By: Nicole Martin (Argentina) and Carlos Mayorga (Colombia)
Illustration: Alma Ríos (Mexico)


Ian Cavazos and Diego Pérez Damasco

Most of us inhabit houses—small, of two stories, with large windows or old bathrooms. The house, as philosopher Gaston Bachelard puts it, is a privileged being in its unity and complexity. But today, the house is a fortress—a sanctuary against a microscopical menace. Ergo, the corners of the houses are transformed. They have suddenly become a more complex world. The house is now a work environment, a sports center, and social space, but also where our nonvirtual solely emotional relationships transpire. And these ways of living with others can become difficult. Violent. From the doors to inside, the house can be a perilous space for some, especially for women.

Certainly, violence against women based on gender was an issue prior to covid-19. Still, the alarms go off when a pandemic that is shaking the world keeps nations busy, and confines women next to their aggressors, or also, a possible femicide felon. 

Distintas Latitudes’s Latin American Network of Young Journalists wondered—and worried—about a possible increase in gender violence cases since the region’s nation-wide lockdowns were implemented in March because of the pandemic.

This project, reported by 30 journalists in 19 countries, illustrates how gender-based violence, violence against women, and domestic violence are present in the region, and which structural solutions are being set in motion in Latin America.

Violence against women for gender reasons; the conception in the region

“Gender violence” is an under-construction term with various definitions, depending on the author that defines it. Salvadorian sociologist Laura Aguirre says the concept refers to a type of specific violence that is exercised towards groups of people due to their gender identity, within a  background of historical power relationships, which position men at a superior place over the rest of identities.

“Gender violence is not exclusively against women. Gender violence against women is the one that is exercised towards people because they are women, in simple or symbolic terms. It also reaches other gender identities. All gender identities within the LGBTIQ+ community are also subject to gender violence for the specific reasons they might have,” Aguirre said.

While working on this investigation, Distintas Latitudes’s team of journalists focused on data regarding gender violence in Latin America. However, it’s important to make clear that Latin American laws consulted for this project consider “gender violence” within “violence against women” and do not include other gender identities, such as the LGBTIQ+ population. Thus, many of their figures are about violence against women and general domestic violence in times of COVID-19, without considering the victims’ gender identities.

Nevertheless, amid social lockdowns, Bogota’s Women Secretary and the Ministry of Women and Vulnerable Populations of Peru found out women were, primarily, the ones that have denounced violence. Women abused by men (many of them, their partners or former partners); women that are economically dependent of others; women expelled to the streets, alone or with their sons and daughters; women whose former partners threaten to take their children; women who go out to the streets, some of them with their sons and daughters, since their home is no longer a safe place, or perhaps because it never was. These, along with other violent acts—whether physical, sexual, psychological, or economic—disseminate and accommodate, just like the virus, at the homes of more Latin American countries.

The Committee of Experts of the Follow Up Mechanism of the Belém do Pará Convention (MESECVI) alerted about the anticipated rise in cases of violence against women and children. “The forced lockdown that quarantines entail puts women at a very high risk of extreme violence against them by living full-time with their victimizers,” reads the press release issued in March.

In the majority of countries in Latin America, except Cuba and Haiti, the State considers this problem should be fought. According to the Gender Equality Observatory in Latin America and the Caribbean, only 13 Latin American countries have integral protection laws concerning violence against women, and 18 countries enact the femicide. Overall, the policies are focused on hotlines and counseling, attention in police stations and shelters “for women” with a gender perspective, or enactments such as “femicidio” or “feminicidio”, which help to identify—consequently, shedding light to their existence—homicides against women due to the fact that they are women.

Calls due to violence: Latin America, between highs and ups

With the exception of Nicaragua, where, until April 30, the government had not yet adopted any mobility restrictions nor social distancing measures, all the countries in Latin America covered in this investigation mandated lockdowns or strategies for reducing social contact as a preventive step against the pandemic. In March and April, nearly all countries had registered an increase in calls due to violence.

 In Colombia, according to the Colombian Observatory of Women, calls to the 155 emergency line increased 163% since the lockdown started, until April 23. Meanwhile, in Argentina, although it is a lower percentage, gender violence calls to national line 144 increased 39% from the start of the compulsory lockdown, until the end of March. In the Caribbean, Dominican Republic registered a high of 916 calls to the women’s line, *212, in March, versus 343 calls in February. 

Down South, in Paraguay, the Women’s Ministry confirmed a 50% increase in calls denouncing acts of violence in March of 2020, compared to the same month of the previous year. In Bolivia, we reached out to the number 800 14 0348, where a counselor admitted an increase of calls to the attention line, and although the numbers are not settled yet, he assured there were “around 30—calls—per day in March.” In Chile, the line 1455 registered a rise of 67% in the number of calls from February to March of 2020, closing up this last month with 2197 calls. Moreover, Brazil experienced an increase of calls and complaints to line 180, the country’s domestic violence hotline. Between March 1 and March 16, there was a daily average of 3045 calls and 829 complaints, and in the second half of the month, between the 17th and the 25th, the daily average was 3303 calls and 978 complaints. This revealed an increase of 9% in calls and 18% in complaints. 

However, not all countries have a national hotline to address cases of gender-based violence, making it difficult to depict the state of the issue. In Mexico, for instance, a country where there are more than two femicides per day has lines of help and data scattered in each state. There is also a women’s line -the number 075- which works in five states. In this country, 983 femicides were registered in 2019, according to the government’s numbers. Nonetheless, María Salguero, a feminist activist, identified a total of 1774 femicides in 2019 by looking into journalistic media reports, nearly doubling the government’s figures. Despite this, as of now, there has not been a tangible strategy from AMLO’s administration to tackle this situation during lockdowns.

Furthermore, in El Salvador, the phoneline 126 receives complaints and offers free attention to abused women, but after several attempts to call, the line appears to be disconnected. This situation challenged data collection. In several countries, the lockdowns meant a decrease in complaints. In Argentina, during the first week of mandatory lockdown (3/20-3/27), the Office of Domestic Violence (OVD) of the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation received a total of 26 complaints; the office had a daily average of 50 prior to the lockdown. Until April 21, FUNDAMUJER of Venezuela assures that during the months of March and April, they aided 15 and 16 women victims of violence, respective. Such figures were lower than the average of 32 people during previous months. In other cases, like Costa Rica, the number of phone complaints hadn’t increased.

Between March 9 and March 22, Uruguay registered 1557 complaints about domestic violence, a 7% decrease from what was registered during the same period of time in March. According to media from Ecuador, Puerto Rico, and Guatemala, the number of complaints also decreased in March. The Secretary of Women of the Public Ministry of Guatemala stated to media outlet Prensa Libre that authorities are certain that the circle of violence has not decreased, but the restrictions of mobility and the curfew complicate filing complaints. Vilmarie Rivera Sierra, the president of the Network of Shelters for Victims of Domestic Violence of Puerto Rico, concurred with this factor in this Caribbean country.

The countries’ actions and strategies

The UN, the OAS, and other international organizations have stated that gender-based violence against women could increase during lockdowns. In the face of these alerts, the NGOs Women’s Link Worldwide, Amnesty International, and International Planned Parenthood Federation developed a guide for states to put into action during the lockdown. The guide promotes guaranteeing the right to live without violence or torture based on gender, access to sexual and reproductive health services; access to justice; and the rights of migrants, refugees, displaced people, and at risk of statelessness.

Regarding the mitigation of gender violence suffered by women, the guide proposes to implement actions such as extensions of protection for women victims of domestic violence; the functioning of shelters for women and their families; counseling services, lines of service, and attention routes. The guide also encourages judicial investigations on gender and domestic violence to continue to be carried out, for women to be able to go out to file complaints without being penalized for breaching the lockdowns, and constant disclosure about the mechanisms of complaints during the health emergency.

In regard to this point, Nicole Kramm, spokeswoman of 8M in Chile, emphasizes that issues of equality and gender violence should be mandatory on the agendas of all political parties to work and solve the problem structurally. “To eradicate sexist violence, the empowerment of women must be sought through participation and decision-making in all spaces,” said the documentary filmmaker and feminist exemplar, one of the eye victims of the Sebastián Piñera’s government to repress popular mobilization.

During the lockdowns, several nations have implemented  some of the recommendations. Ecuador, Argentina, Guatemala, Colombia, Uruguay, Puerto Rico and other countries promoted social media campaigns that encourage women to report situations of gender violence. In Peru, the Ministry of Women and Vulnerable Population, along the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) worked on an informative booklet to guide about violence against women and domestic violence. In Puerto Rico, the Oficina de la Procuradora de las Mujeres launched the campaign #Amor= (#Love=) to “promote love and a healthy coexistence at home.”

However, guiding may not be enough. According to the Uruguayan “Intersocial Feminista” organization, emergency accommodation spaces are also necessary for women, boys and girls who are escaping violence, as well as transportation services to take them to their destination.

Cuba is one of the countries that does not consider the concept of “gender violence against women” in its legislation. Due to the lack of government channels to denounce, civil society organizations, foreseeing the risk of women on the island during lockdowns, have promoted independent channels on social media and emails to attend and provide psychological counseling to women victims of violence.

Since lockdowns started, until the end of March, in Peru, 25 women—some accompanied by their children, were taken to temporary shelters. In Mexico, the number of requests of women to the National Network of Shelters increased, but the budget to provide attention to victims hasn’t. In Argentina, particular assistance to the 3810 women that reached out to the national helpline. Additionally, the provinces’ governments, organized by the Argentinian Ministry of Women, Gender and Diversity, are making slow progress in formulating the National Plan Against Violence for Gender Reasons.

Femicides during lockdowns

Although counseling is necessary and important for women who face gender-based violence situations, justice is a fundamental element that can avoid the worst forms of violence: femicide. However, in countries like Uruguay and Argentina, the corresponding institutions are on judicial leave. Additionally, in Uruguay, president Luis Lacalle Pou stated in a press conference that “femicides are a collateral effect” of lockdowns. Days later, after social pressure, an automatic extension of judicial precautionary measures was decreed until the end of lockdown.

 In many countries, like Mexico, Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Chile and Nicaragua, femicides have increased in March, to both a greater and lesser degree. In Guatemala and Colombia, they decreased. In El Salvador, social media publications from the Republic’s Attorney General claim a decrease during the lockdown, while the Organization of Salvadorian Women for Peace (ORMUSA) has gathered figures that the Attorney General’s Office, including 8 femicides until April 29. In Argentina and Honduras, the figures do not suggest an increase, however, they did not decrease either. Elizabeth Gómez Alcorta, minister of Women in Argentina, highlighted this factor to the press. In this country, the Ministry of Security registered a 90% drop in crimes that happened in March. Every 29 hours, there was one “femicide,” like they are named in this country, according to the feminist organization “Mujeres de la Matria Latinoamericana” (MUMALÁ).

This observatory found that three girls were murdered along with their mothers while analyzing the femicide figures of March. That is a common factor in these crimes. The children are orphaned or killed along with the mother. In some cases, they are under the guardianship of the femicide perpetrator. Or they are even killed as a revenge on the mother. According to MUMALÁ, 3295 children and teenagers were left motherless between 2010 and 2019 as a result of 2749 femicides in Argentina.

In addition to femicides, attacks on LGBTIQ+ people are massive in Latin America. In 2019, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expressed in a statement its concern over acts of violence and discrimination against this community. However, in this territory that reaches from the Caribbean to Patagonia, there are no laws that consider transvesticide or transfemicide.

In a report published at the beginning of 2020, activists Alejandra Collette Spinetti, from Uruguay; Bruna Benevides, from Brazil, and Sayonara Nogueira, from Argentina, gathered data from all over the world and discovered that Latin America and the Caribbean is one of the regions with the most trans victims of rape and homicide. In 2019, there were 225 transfemicides, according to this study, which highlighted the importance of enacting this crime.

Brazil is the country with the most transvesticides in Latin America, with of 123 cases. Uruguay and Argentina appear to be slightly more advanced countries in regard to gender identity laws, but they do not mention the term “transvesticide” nor “transfemicide” in their legislations. Only Argentina, in a document of the Specialized Fiscal Unit on Violence against Women, defines guidelines for the counting of transfemicides and transvesticides.

Towards structural solutions

The Ministry of Women, Gender and Diversity of Argentina, along with the country’s pharmacies, are providing a mechanism in code to denounce violence against women and the LGBTIQ+ community, while asking for a “red face mask” as an alert code in pharmacies; in Colombia, the Bogotá Secretariat for Women implemented a system of face-to-face complaints in chain establishments; and the Ministry of Women and Gender Equity of Chile, since April 25, implemented a new measure to report cases of gender violence in pharmacies through the keyword “Mask 19”. In many other countries, communication channels have expanded, or new ones have been enabled. 

Nevertheless, Rita Segato, an Argentinian anthropologist, marks the difference between these responses of emergency, and the ones that could be structural. While talking to the team of Distintas Latitudes, she differentiated three levels: emergency measures, permanent aid measures of the State (legislation and services), and structural measures. Although the first two ways—which she highlights, in the current management of Argentina, they are “well-conceived”—increase, they do not represent a structural solution because they do not transform gender relationships.

“Measures that aspire to structural change must be based on the investigation, knowledge, and understanding of the variety of situations that result in gender violence: regions of the country, areas, diverse institutions, generations, classes, races and ethnic peoples. A large map is essential to move to the formulation of an intervention that reaches the epicenter of the problem from the diversity of its manifestations and can transform it,” said the feminist exemplar.

Additionally, Segato emphasizes the importance of studying the behavior of men. Masculinities are, according to the Cuban Ph.D. Ramón Rivero Pino, “meanings and practices associated with the different ways of being a man.” They are forms established by the educational, economic, cultural, and social system. Rita Segato’s work is interested in the mechanisms of masculinity and explained that, in a situation of confinement and threat, where there are limitations of other activities outside the home, the man, according to the mandate of masculinity, can feel “emasculated” (removal of the male genitalia). Meaning, less of a man. According to Segato’s study, the situation of “emasculation” is restored with violence.

In many Latin American countries, men who have been violent are pedagogically approached. In Cuba, there is an initiative of a program from the government called “Responsible masculinities.” In Mexico, there is an attention helpline for men who are about to commit violent acts. In the Dominican Republic, there is the Center for Behavioral Intervention for Men, which imparts psychological and therapeutic programs for men who have been subject to violence due to cases of gender violence. In Costa Rica, the National Institute of Women is creating a campaign directed towards men about anger and control management. In Uruguay, a group called “Traitors of dad” holds meetings and workshops that question the mandate of “being machos.”

In Bolivia, Adriana Guzmán, exemplar of the Feminist Community Antipatriarchy Movement and of the Feminists network Abya Yala (“Latin America” in the original language Kuna), says that, in the search for a structural solution to gender violence, work must be done so cases of aggression do not go unpunished. “There are fewer rates of gender violence and femicides in the communities because there, the aggressors have less impunity. You cannot kill the couple and stay living in the community,” states Guzmán.

Along with community justice, cases of violence are treated with measures that teach the rest of people, and they do so not in a punitive way, although there had been a measure like punishment, such as the expulsion from a community. The message in cities, where there is impunity, highlights the exemplar, is that one person can attack women without having any consequences at all.

Guzmán added that the policies from the states are not enough, but that there should be a certainty that the states will not be the ones who end violence, but it is the element who administers it. “It is the State with its lines that almost never work, with its police that arrives late without any solutions, with its incapacity in the refuge centers, the one that manages so a clear message remains, if we do not do what we should in a patriarchal world, they are going to hit us, they can kill us,” she explained.

It is necessary to rethink the economic system, concluded and emphasized in how necessary it is that groups of women mobilize, strengthening organization and sorority: “Let’s not leave all our fights, all our dreams and all our hopes in the state, because that has only served to accumulate frustrations. Recover self-organization, autonomy, these networks have worked. For these feminist networks, for these women’s networks, many of us are alive.”

In a context of emergency, this position should be listened, Segato said. In order to have an answer for the most vulnerable populations of society, it is crucial to inquire into what is happening in Latin America, as well as analyzing and acting in consequence. Because of gender inequality, they are the ones who suffer the most from the storm that this global crisis means.