Faced with the possibility of undertaking new quarantines and restrictions on mobility that confine women with their aggressors, María Noel Vaeza, regional director of UN Women; Tatiana Rein Venegas, president of the MESECVI, and the regional union of Feminist collectives of Abya Yala reflect upon the measures taken by governments to address gender violence and draw attention to strategies that, in addition to managing, could eradicate sexist abuse.
Outside, through the window, life passes between face masks, disinfectant gels, and thermometers, which resemble assault weapons that steal their victims’ thermal information. It is the insatiable burden of a context that forcibly continues in the face of the uncertainty of contagion and death. It is the ‘new normal’ that looks very similar to the well-known ‘normality’, but now with long lines, distancing measures, and shops with “for rent” signs.
Among the streets, among the people, the survivors go. Those who experienced violence within a framework of unequal relationships during the pandemic, those who had been suffering from it since before covid-19, and all for which the isolation was fuel for the fire.
Inside, the ones that still survive. Those who gulp so that nothing happens to their children, those who fear the person they once loved, those who blame themselves for this violence, those who are anxious about their economic stability, or those who wait for the promise of a post-pandemic world to finally get out of that hell. A future ‘new normal’ that, they hope, is free from violence.
As different social sectors warned, and as it is reflected in this research, the house has been taken —not precisely as Cortázar wrote—; cornering women until they are bent over on themselves and end up realizing that covid-19 is not the only life-threatening condition.
The spectrum of violence against women based on their gender during the pandemic ranges from attacking them internally – psychological, symbolic, and even economic violence -, marking them externally – physical and sexual violence – or killing them – femicides. From house to house, from street to street, victimizations, frequently intermingled, spread as patterns of violence in multiple and particular ways. A problem that ends up having repercussions, not only in isolated cases in the social sphere but to the entire nation. As UN Women said to our journalistic team, because, according to data from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), “the costs of violence against women oscillate between 1.6 and 2% of the GDP of Latin America and the Caribbean countries”.
The covid-19 pandemic stripped the finest threads in the system. The stories and numbers around gender-based violence against women reported by Violence During Quarantine are proof of this: 1,409 femicides registered from March to June 2020, 242,144 complaints of any type of violence against women, and 1,206,107 calls to any of the national lines or phone lines authorized to report violence against women. By comparison, these murders of women represent more than the entire population of Vatican City, and the number of calls to the advice lines, almost half of Uruguay’s population. These worrying figures can feel unfathomable, so large, and so distant and indifferent if they are not looked at with a gender perspective.
What, then, did the Latin American States do to address and prevent gender-based violence during isolation? The Global Tracker of Gender Responses to COVID-19 is an initiative launched jointly by UN Women and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). Based on official public information from 33 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean and surveys conducted by experts, this international body evidenced 261 measures and policies in response to COVID-19 with a gender perspective, of which 177 correspond to measures to respond to violence against women.
When reviewing the 19 countries that Violence During Quarantine analyzes, the report states that of 401 policies, 211 (52%) were sensitive to the gender perspective. Of these, 142 (67%) were policies on violence against women, 53 (25%) were on women’s economic security, and only 16 (8%) covered unpaid care work.
Tatiana Rein Venegas, president of the Committee of Experts of the Follow-up Mechanism of the Belém do Pará Convention (MESECVI), is a critic voice in assessing several actions carried out by regional governments. She says that government policies should put on the table the discussion of the roots of gender-based violence against women, with clear plans and strategies while combating covid-19. “But what we see is that the measures are sectoral, without an increase in the budget and in cases with a reduction in it, and with a focus on intra-family violence and without a comprehensive view that incorporates prevention, punishment, eradication, and reparation of violence,” she asserts.
Along the same lines, Feministas del Abya Yala – an articulation of feminist collectives with a plurinational, territorial, popular, indigenous, and community nature – considers that the States’ approach to gender violence has shown “once again, be reductionist”. Given that any measure “is insufficient if the problem is not considered integrally, intersectionally, and from multi-causality, together with the seriousness of the effects it generates.” Abya Yala is the name used to revendicate the territories known as the Americas after colonization.
Most of the policies have aimed at strengthening hotlines and encouraging people in situations of violence to report. But supporting the lines is not enough. According to data from Violence During Quarantine, in March and April 2020, almost all the countries in the sample registered an increase in calls regarding violence after the quarantine decreed because of the pandemic. However, this was not reflected in some countries’ legal complaints, such as Argentina, Venezuela, and Costa Rica. There were even cases like in Ecuador, Puerto Rico, and Guatemala, where complaints dropped. According to the explanation of various public actors, this may be due to women’s difficulties when they are in constant coexistence with their aggressors.
María Noel Vaeza, regional director of UN Women, said: “We see with concern that there are still many barriers for women to access justice and care services. In some countries, care services have been interrupted, or the authorities’ focus is on responding to the crisis and enforcing measures of social isolation, which can generate greater impunity for the perpetrators”.
Regarding justice, Feministas del Abya Yala emphasizes that framing the problem of violence as a security issue is to reduce the problem: “Violence is pure structure, it is a historically and culturally entrenched relational model, an inequality of power that circulates between those who hold it and those who suffer from it; and this goes from domestic ties to the highest sphere of the hierarchies of the State and society”. They also refer to the violence perpetrated by the State itself. They exemplify it with situations of violence against women, lesbians, trans, transvestites, bisexuals, and non-binary people during the repression of the de facto self-proclaimed government in Bolivia and, in Chile, with the multiple violations of human rights by the repressive forces since the social outbreak of October 2019.
“The domestic space works as a microworld in which neither more nor less of all the other violence that women, lesbians, transvestites, trans, bisexuals, asexuals, intersex, and non-binary people suffer are reflected,” says Feministas del Abya Yala. They ask: “Can it be trusted that this same State that governs crime in the neighborhoods, in collusion with drug trafficking, human trafficking, and prostitution, is the one that will guarantee a dignified life?”
Although it is not new, and violence against women had different and alarming angles before covid-19, the health crisis showed that States are not prepared to respond to the “magnitude of this universal problem”, as María Noel Vaeza from UN Women said. The social and digital gap contribute to this panorama because “virtual communication media were, in many cases, the only alternative. However, it is a valid option for women in urban contexts or women who have access to the internet and have computers, tablets, or smartphones, but is not an option for women in remote or rural areas”.
About this issue, the president of the MESECVI —a convention that was born under the premise of preventing, punishing, and eradicating all types of violence against women— agrees that current public policy measures are aimed at women being able to request help and follow the complaint mechanisms. “Knowing that many women do not have or do not know how to use these mechanisms, alternative means should be made available, such as mailboxes in the courts, supermarkets or pharmacies, to be able to present the demands there,” she said. Likewise, she considers that the State should provide follow-up and additional response after the first contact with a victim, for example, by strengthening the shelters or establishing ways for women to access the administration of justice.
Also, some States such as Argentina and Chile have adopted new ways of requesting help, taking into account the difficult conditions to report. These include codes in pharmacies (using a red face mask, asking for mascarilla 19), or other discrete mechanisms to request help, which could work in cases where women are in a position to come out and report. Simultaneously, measures have been adopted to remotely access courts, and new protocols in shelters enable them to receive more women without increasing the risk of infections.
Violence in public spaces should also be reviewed in the pandemic context. Although there is little official data available, several reports illustrate that violence, sexual harassment, and other forms of violence against women did not stop occurring during the isolation measures. Due to the low circulation of people in the streets, the risk factor could increase.
Of the 19 countries covered in this research, Cuba is the only territory that does not mention this violence in its legislation. The Caribbean country did not have government channels to report during the first part of the quarantine, so civil society organizations, such as the #YoSiTeCreoEnCuba platform, had to fill the role. Only until mid-July, the Cuban state implemented a national line.
However, not even the countries with the most significant number of policies with a gender perspective could reverse the increase in sexist violence. According to the Global Tracker of Gender Responses to COVID-19 document, Argentina is one of the countries that considers the gender perspective the most in its policies to face the pandemic. The report highlighted that among the 44 measures adopted, 26 (49%) “are gender-sensitive.” Even so, the southern country is in the ranking of countries in the region with the most femicides. From March to June 2020, 97 women and trans people were murdered due to sexist violence, and in April, there was a femicide every 34 hours in the country.
On the same list, Colombia follows, it has the same number of measures to face the pandemic, but only 20 have a gender perspective. From March 25, the beginning of the quarantine, until July 2 (100 days), according to the Colombian Women’s Observatory, calls to line 155 had increased by 130%.
Tatiana Rein, president of the MESECVI, adds that a notable fact was that, despite the general decrease in crime, there was an increase in cases of domestic violence, sexual abuse of girls, cases of femicide and frustrated femicides. There were cases of men released from prison as a measure to contain COVID-19, who murdered their ex-partners after their release. The expert relates the growth of violence to the increase in vulnerability when living with the aggressors, but also to the absence of collective spaces such as school, work or care centers for adults and the elderly, which directly affects the tools available to girls and adult women or women with disabilities, to detect cases of violence or receive information to confront and report it.
Likewise, for María Noel Vaeza, from UN Women, the confinement and social distancing measures, as well as the restriction of mobility within and between countries, are generating -without a doubt- more significant risks of violence against women and girls, intensifying their isolation and generating additional barriers to access to essential services: “As the covid-19 pandemic deepens economic and social stress, it can also intensify violence against women, especially in the domestic sphere, since, for the perpetrators, losing their jobs, having economic instability or stress can generate a feeling of loss of power, and this can increase the frequency and severity of violence against women”. She also warns that, in the face of this context, if there is no adequate response from the authorities, “violence can escalate and reach more extreme forms such as femicide.”
In the COVID-19 Observatory of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), UN Women insisted on creating a specific gender section to monitor the measures taken by 33 countries in the region. When reviewing the specific measures that the tool registers for 18 countries that are part of the research – no data from Puerto Rico is recorded – it was found that of the 2,128 actions implemented by the governments to deal with the virus, 182 are for gender issues and 75 specifically to address gender violence against women.
The data collection of Violence During Quarantine concluded that most countries simplify gender violence into “violence against women” in their legislation. Therefore, the data does not include other gender identities, such as the LGBTIQ + population. This happens despite the massive attacks on this community in Latin America. As recognized by UN Women, during the quarantine due to the pandemic, cases of harassment against trans people by the security forces and violent attacks or acts of discrimination against the LGBTIQ+ community have been reported. This is particularly problematic in countries that have implemented segregation by sex to limit the number of people outside, as in Panama, Peru, and Colombia.
Likewise, both the regional director of UN Women and the president of the MESECVI express their concern about the effects on women belonging to the health sector. There are reports in some countries of the region of violent attacks against women who work in the health sector in public transport, within which women represent 50% of the medical staff and more than 80% of the nursing staff.
As another notable factor, there was an increase in the records of violence within the digital sphere, manifested in cyber violence and cyberbullying in virtual spaces such as social networks, chat rooms, teleconference services, and online games, says UN Women. From the MESECVI, it is added that they have evidenced a lack of access to sexual and reproductive rights, “for example, by restricting the care of pregnant women to all necessary care, care, and services,” explains Rein.
Given the possibility of decreeing new compulsory isolations in Latin American countries, evaluating measures and proposing strategies is essential to promote quarantine frameworks designed from possible gender violence. The regional director of UN Women calls on governments, society, and private actors to join forces to prevent, address and punish violence against women and girls through four main strategies: guaranteeing access to essential services of care (justice, health, psychosocial services, legal advice); work in a coordinated manner with civil society organizations and networks of women human rights defenders and strengthen their capacities and resources to respond to the crisis; generate zero tolerance towards violence against women, ensuring that police and judicial services prioritize the attention and punishment of violence; and increase investment in the prevention of violence against women through education programs, public campaigns, programs to empower women and girls, and programs that seek to transform harmful masculinities or social norms that encourage or tolerate violence against women and girls.
For their part, Feministas del Abya Yala states that “since violence is multi-causal, preventive and cross-sectional measures, as well as complaint mechanisms that don’t violate rights, need to be taken, with a feminist perspective.” To the measures mentioned above, they add the need for public policies that comprehensively consider prevention, that is, that take into account the different factors that need to be addressed when formulating and actually executing the actions. “Safe spaces, without a prison logic, for those who cannot continue to live with the violent persona and who do not have the means to pay rent. [Women need] access to health services with a gender perspective and consistent protocols. Material responses, understanding that economic violence is largely what makes it impossible for many to stop living with the violent and that autonomy allows us to think about life projects and carry them forward”.
In the report Violence against women in the face of measures aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19, the MESECVI and the Inter-American Commission of Women (CIM) refer to several of the points prioritized by María Noel. They group the measures into “public policies, access to justice, institutional strengthening and information and statistics measures”. Regarding the latter, Tatiana Rein points out that information and statistical measures are essential to be able to know what has been faced in this period, what measures have been adopted, which ones have yielded results, which areas have been left out, “and so we can be better prepared for a future scenario”, he says.
María Noel recalls what different social sectors have been saying: local governments are the first responsible for making the “prevention, care and punishment of violence against women and girls a priority”, due to the proximity and greater capacity to identify the problem. Likewise, the articulation with civil society is one of the points marked by the regional director. In this regard, the organizations that make up the fabric of Feministas del Abya Yala are the ones that listen, accompany, denounce, organize and propose strategies for the lives of women and other feminized identities.
Finally, the UN Women referent expressed particular concern about intersectional factors of discrimination: disability, LGBTIQ women, migrant or displaced women, women in rural areas, indigenous or Afro-descendant women, which make them more susceptible to violence.
“We have many challenges left, and we know that part of these is to establish policies to eradicate violence and generate economic autonomy so that there is never one less between us and us,” concludes Feministas del Abya Yala.
The desire of the different sources consulted for this research is to achieve a life free of violence for women and girls. In the words of María Noel: “what would be important to reinforce is the need to address the entire continuum of violence against women and girls, during the pandemic, in the recovery phase, and in the post-COVID world, placing greater emphasis on strategies for medium to long-term prevention and to further increase investment in transformative programs and policies that seek not only to respond to violence against women but to prevent and eliminate it so that the so-called ‘new normal’ can be a reality free of violence against women and girls”.