Long before COVID-19, Latin American women suffered from a pandemic of violence. Now, amid lockdowns, domestic abuse is rising.
As the region battles both the virus and domestic abuse, women’s advocates see a glimmer of hope in innovative protective measures set up by governments and women’s groups that could endure well into the future.
“I’ve talked to local organizations who are combining domestic violence messaging and COVID messaging in their outreach,” said Lisa Davis, a senior legal adviser for Madre, the New York City-based human-rights and women’s advocacy group. “And what we are going to see after we come to the other side of the pandemic is that the communities organizing around progressive gender information and COVID prevention will see a reduction in domestic violence.”
Davis said that several of Madre’s nonprofit allies in Latin America are setting up WhatsApp peer counseling and hotlines to advise women who may be vulnerable. While distributing food, health care and sanitary supplies, they are also offering prevention training.
The actions come amid a “substantial” spike in domestic violence in Latin America, according to UN Women preliminary figures, shared last weekend with PassBlue. Domestic violence reports have increased by 30 to 90 percent in Colombia, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Brazil and El Salvador, among other countries.
Domestic violence in Latin America and the Caribbean was already intensifying when the pandemic struck. In 2018, at least 3,529 women were killed by a current or former partner (so-called intimate femicides), up from 2,795 the previous year, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (Eclac).
Facing an alarming level of femicides and sexual violence, Latin American women have developed some of the most vigorous feminist movements in the world. With the arrival of COVID, they have adjusted their grass-roots help to women, forced the costs of gender violence to be more visible and pushed governments to take action.
Latin America has the highest rates in the world of income inequality among its citizens, according to Eclac, and not coincidentally it is also one of the most violent regions for women, a problem worsened by poverty, few social protections and vast underemployment.
Dysfunctional justice systems in several countries also boost violence. More than 95 percent of murders in Mexico never result in a conviction, according to official statistics.
The number of murdered women in Mexico nearly tripled from 2007 to 2017, according to an analysis of official figures.
Women who do file complaints risk sexual torture by the police, a widespread problem in Mexico, according to reports by Amnesty International.
Women are naturally reluctant to visit a precinct where they could face further abuse by officials untrained in gender attack cases, said Tarah Demant, the director of Amnesty’s Gender, Sexuality and Identity program.
While the perpetrator is responsible for the violence, Demant said, the pandemic has created a “pressure cooker situation where reduced freedom of movement, economic instability, loss of jobs and a sense of lack of control have added to the stressors.”
Violence often compounds the challenges facing women as the virus continues to spread. In some Latin American countries, more women than men serve as first responders, health workers and community volunteers. As caretakers, women bear physical and emotional costs as they tend children, older people and sick family members.
Latin America is not unique in having a patriarchal culture. But its patriarchy has distinctive characteristics, shaped by the conservative views of the Roman Catholic Church, which has had a strong presence in the everyday lives of people throughout the region’s history, explained Silvia Ferreyra, the coordinator of Mujeres de la Matria Latinoamericana (Women of the Latin American Mother, or Mumalá).
A 20-old organization based in Buenos Aires, Mumalá has been practicing what Ferreyra calls “feminismo popular”—supplying the most vulnerable women of society with food and other basic supplies.
The movement against femicide gained widespread support after a series of marches—beginning in Argentina in 2015 and coordinated by Mumalá and other organizations under the banner Ni Una Menos (Not One Less)—quickly moved across the region.
Mumalá has now launched a campaign asking the president of Argentina, Alberto Fernández, to declare a national emergency for women. The campaign urges Fernández to increase the budget for victims of gender violence and relatives of victims and to improve the monitoring of convicted sex offenders.
Last November, in neighboring Chile, the theatre group Las Tesis (The Thesis) created a choreographed song with lyrics that squarely blame state institutions for gender violence. Now considered an international feminist anthem, “Un Violador en Tu Camino” (A Rapist in Your Path) was performed outside the New York City courthouse where the disgraced film mogul Harvey Weinstein was sentenced for various sexual violence abuses, including rape.
In Mexico, more than six million women staged a stay-at-home protest in early March to emphasize how crucial they are to the economy and society. The protest came after hundreds of activists spray-painted national landmarks in Mexico City to decry the rise in femicides.
“As societies, we had taken extremely important steps and we have forced discussions about issues that were taboo not so long ago,” Ferreyra said, adding that 18 of 23 Latin American and Caribbean legislatures have included a special category for femicides in their penal codes.
Having fought for every inch of social and legal advancement, Latin American feminists and their allies are bending their strategies to reflect the reality of the pandemic. The Mexican collective Brujas del Mar (Sea Witches) has used its countrywide social-media network to offer cellphone tracking and peer advice for women who feel unsafe.
In Mexico City, Gendes, a therapy group for people with a record of domestic violence, has offered a hotline to calm down men quarantined with their families. In Argentina, the five-month-old Ministry for Women has created a 24/7 hotline to report domestic abuse during the pandemic.
“We are glad about these changes, but the pace has been far too slow than what’s needed, especially in the justice systems,” Ferreyra said.
Conceding that women’s hard-won victories in the region will be tested in the post-pandemic world—amid a profound recession with high unemployment rates and budget restrictions—she said another world could still be envisioned when COVID-19 recedes.
Demant of Amnesty International agrees.
“The feminists’ movements and their allies in Latin America have been working for a long time, but now we see a larger spectrum of people coming out to demand answers and government accountability,” she said.
“I am very hopeful because these movements are very smart and dedicated. They know the solutions they need; now it’s up to the governments to start listening.”