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Latin American women battle shadow pandemic of gender-based violence

‘In Peru, it’s scary to be a woman.’

Image shows severl people holding a banner with faces of women and girls as they walk down a street.
Protest on 25 November 2020, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women in Peru’s capital, Lima. (Natalia Roncal/TNH)

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When a 12-year-old girl was allegedly raped last year in Peru, she became one of the youngest victims in a shadow pandemic of gender-based violence that has skyrocketed around the world as the coronavirus crisis has unfolded.

Before COVID-19, Latin America already had 10 of the 12 countries with the highest rates of femicide in the world – the exceptions being South Africa and Central African Republic. The region has since suffered some of the worst coronavirus outbreaks, with lockdown measures contributing to huge spikes in GBV cases and greater difficulty in accessing assistance. Violence against trans women and trans men has also increased during the pandemic.

Peru reported nearly 16,500 cases of violence against women and girls between March and December; while calls into the country’s emergency sexual violence hotline almost doubled in 2020 compared to 2019. In Colombia, levels of gender-based violence have risen by more than half since the pandemic began, while in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, the number of femicides rose by 65 percent from March to April 2020 as it entered lockdown.

In Central America, high levels of gender-based violence have been a major driver of migration towards the United States for years. But since the start of the pandemic, countries such as El Salvador have seen a 70 percent rise in reports of such violence.

Spikes in gender-based violence around the world have set off alarm bells. In November, the UN launched an appeal and released $25 million from its CERF emergency fund to support women-led groups that tackle GBV in humanitarian settings – $18 million went to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), while UN Women received $7 million. But still only 0.12 percent of humanitarian funding and 0.5 percent of the UN’s global COVID-19 response plan have been dedicated to fighting GBV, according to the International Rescue Committee.

In Latin America, some of the new CERF funding was expected to go to groups in Venezuela and in Colombia’s Nariño and Chocó regions, which are already facing “multiple humanitarian impacts and conflict-related consequences”, according to Maria-Noel Vaeza with UN Women.

But three months after the announcement of the UN emergency funds, UNFPA’s money was yet to be disbursed in several countries as it was still identifying the best organisations to support. “In Venezuela and Colombia, the CERF funds are forthcoming and will be transferred to partners,” UNFPA spokesperson Ann Erb-Leoncavallo told The New Humanitarian.

Raped, killed, or disappeared

Peru has seen some of the highest rates of GBV in the region despite protests and public campaigns against such abuses in recent years.

“Here in Peru, they kill us for whatever reason. In Peru, it’s scary to be a woman,” Idaly Fernández Alvarado, whose mother María was killed in December 2019 after her new partner allegedly poured gasoline over her and set her ablaze, told TNH.

Fernández Alvarado fears her mother’s alleged killer – currently in prison awaiting trial – will soon be released from custody as little progress has been made in investigating the case.

For Katherine Flores, whose 20-year-old sister was killed by her ex-partner shortly after returning from a trip to the police station to tell them he had just tried to strangle her, the authorities need to fundamentally rethink the way they treat women reporting cases of GBV.

“When they laugh at you and don’t take you seriously, they are practically killing the victim,” Flores told TNH.

The 12-year-old rape victim’s case demonstrates just how many hurdles female victims in the region have to overcome to get justice – from investigative deficiencies and sexist attitudes to a lack of basic services and conservative Catholic beliefs.

First, the authorities disregarded the girl’s initial story, eventually freeing her accused abusers – two men were involved but only one man allegedly raped her, before a passerby prompted both to run off. Health workers then failed to give her an emergency kit that would have included a birth control drug. The girl later learned she was pregnant, but was denied a termination as abortion is still illegal in Peru, even in rape cases.

Many women across Latin America have also disappeared during the pandemic, and especially in Peru.

An official registry of disappeared women in Peru was finally launched in October – calls for it had gone unanswered for 17 years. But Katherine Soto, director of the Association of Disappeared Women, said information for the official records was still not being collected correctly, nor accurately published.

Collection of reliable data has been a recurrent problem throughout the region, and globally.

Since restrictions were put in place in March 2020 – nearly half of Peru’s states are still under lockdown as it grapples with another wave of coronavirus infections – 8,549 more women and girls have been listed as missing, mostly girls and teenagers under the age of 20. Although some cases are thought to be linked to people-trafficking and organ-trafficking, many are suspected femicides, according to Soto.

Systems unravelled by the pandemic

Peru has been one of the countries hardest hit by the pandemic, with more than 45,000 deaths, or 1,360 per capita.

“We were not prepared for the eventuality of a pandemic,” Teresa Hernández Cajo, director of programmes against gender-based violence at Peru’s women’s ministry, told TNH. “When there’s a situation such as a pandemic or earthquake, women lose their protection. Systems for reporting and protection are unravelled.” 

Due to social distancing measures, some 400 government-run shelters for abused women around the country had to close. They only re-opened late last month after a government decree declared they were an essential service. 

Meanwhile, Peru’s healthcare system has been overwhelmed and unable to provide regular physical and mental health services for victims of gender-based violence.

In some countries, local NGOs and private associations play more of an active role, but the response to GBV in Peru is largely government-run.

The closure of in-person services due to lockdown restrictions in Peru led to the creation of Mobile Emergency Teams to visit women and girls, but Plan International said their effectiveness is limited as they don’t provide the same kind of round-the-clock attention. 

In April 2020, an emergency decree in Peru called for the strengthening of programmes aimed at helping GBV victims, but no additional funding has been forthcoming from the treasury despite it doling out the region’s biggest per capita stimulus package.

Other countries were also unprepared to tackle spikes in violence as the pandemic unfolded, exposing existing shortcomings. In Colombia, for example, a report found that nearly 600 police departments lacked the basic infrastructure, including the internet, to take domestic violence calls.

Crisis innovation

Across the region, international groups have been working with authorities, police forces, the private sector, and local communities to come up with innovative ways to tackle soaring rates of GBV. 

The UN Development Programme is supporting an initiative in Lima, Peru’s capital, that sends government workers door to door – while delivering food baskets – to share domestic violence helpline numbers with victims who may be unable to leave their homes. The agency has also been working with garbage collectors to blast messages over loudspeakers about gender-based violence and try to connect with women as they take the trash out.

In Bolivia, training has been boosted to help police officers spot signs of gender-based violence, while pharmacies in Chile and Argentina (and also in Spain) have launched initiatives allowing staff to collect contact information and relay it to the authorities if women ask for a “red face mask” or a “number 19 mask”.

And, after being first used in Argentina and Chile, an emergency app called “No estás sola” (“You are not alone”) was launched in Peru on 1 December – it sends out alerts to five close contacts when the holder shakes their mobile phone.

But such progress is limited and much more needs to be done, especially at a government and legislative level, according to Elida Guerra with PROMSEX, an organisation set up to help protect Peruvian women’s sexual and reproductive rights.

“In Peru, there are many laws. The difficulty is to apply those laws,” Guerra said, condemning the lack of implementation of several measures already passed by parliament and intended to prevent and punish violence against women.

Another hurdle is having male leaders take the issue seriously. For example, Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has repeatedly downplayed the escalation in violence against women and soaring number of femicides in his country.

Speaking to TNH, Funmi Balogun, head of humanitarian action at UN Women, put it bluntly: “You cannot legislate against machismo.” 

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