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A Pandemic within a Pandemic: Violence in Latin America against Women and the LGBTQ+ Community during COVID-19

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Date: Feb 12, 2021

Authors: Sofía Muñoz, Jaret Waters

Violence against women and members of the LGBTQ+ community during the COVID-19 pandemic has often been classified as a “pandemic within a pandemic.” This is certainly true in many Latin American countries, where this violence and discrimination has long plagued society. The added circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and each country’s unique responses to the crisis could trigger a devastating increase in violence and discrimination in the region. 

Photo: Felipe Barros/ExLibris/PMI

LAWG has been monitoring the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on human rights across the region. This blog is focused specifically on the impact of the pandemic on women’s and LGBTQ+ rights. Something that rings true for all of these countries is that lockdown measures, while ideally beneficial to check the spread of the novel coronavirus, pose psychological, physical, and other exploitative and abusive threats to women and girls living with their abusers. Women usually seek help and denounce their abusers when they are out of their house and have received support from a trusted friend or family member, or when they feel economically secure enough to leave their partner. This is now harder to achieve due to the nature of confinement and the economic devastation that has occurred as a result of the pandemic. The abuse itself can increase and be caused by the pressure and stress of living in confinement, anxieties surrounding the pandemic, lack of resources, job loss, and increasing debt. The following are brief summaries that capture the situation for women and members of the LGBTQ+ community since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and to call attention to the lack of support and urgency behind addressing this violence by these governments.

 

Guatemala

“Being a child in Guatemala is a high-risk condition,” in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. This quote from UNICEF begins to explain the concern behind the possibilities for an increase in abuse as a cause of lockdown, especially for women and girls. According to the Observatory of Children’s Rights (Ciprondei), from January to the beginning of November 2020, there have been 90,936 reported cases of pregnancies of girls from the ages of 10-19. A majority of these numbers can be attributed to cases of sexual assault. The circumstances around lockdown periods during the pandemic could also mean that these cases may be underreported.  

In March 2020, at the beginning of the lockdown period in Guatemala, the number of reported cases of domestic violence actually decreased by 75 percent, instead of increasing as was expected by many. However, this does not necessarily mean that instances of domestic violence as a whole decreased due to the fact that women in lockdown with their abusers can find it even more difficult to find a way to report the abuse to outside authorities. This indicates that the Guatemalan government must find easier ways for women to report instances of abuse. In May, the numbers increased, and the Public Ministry (MP) received 3,504 reports of violence against women compared to 1,541 reports in March. Paula Barrios, the general coordinator of the organization Women Transforming the World, explains that it is difficult for Guatemalan women from the interior of the country to seek out help because the work of the MP and the National Civil Police (PNC) is mostly concentrated in the department of Guatemala, where Guatemala City is located. She referenced a case of a teenage girl who had been abused by a family member the day before a full weekend lockdown began in Panzós, Alta Verapaz. Her family decided to wait until the lockdown ended to seek medical attention and report her case, which demonstrates both the lack of urgency when dealing with cases of violence against women and the absence of information of how to address abuse during lockdown periods. 

Indigenous women seeking help face discrimination, as suggested by reports that the 1572 call center for dealing with instances of violence against women does not have workers that speak the various Mayan languages of Guatemala. While officials from the MP claim that they do have staff that speak these languages and that they work in shifts, there are not sufficient staff covering these language needs. In addition, the process for getting justice and safety is complex for both indigenous and low-income women, especially during the pandemic. For example, one K’iche’ Mayan woman reported that when she called the 1572 number, “The police agent said that it was not gender violence, because gender violence is when you are hit by your husband. She said that it was a threat.” The language barrier between her and the authorities meant she was only able to get help once she was able to get a translator on the call through the help of the organization Women Transforming the World. She was not given security assistance despite receiving threats from the mayor of her town, and had difficulties attending proceedings due to her low-income status and lack of internet access. The existing policies and practices of the Guatemalan government are failing to protect the lives of women and girls, even though this has proven to be an epidemic far more entrenched and familiar than that of COVID-19.

Honduras

When Honduras went into lockdown on March 16th, some women’s rights activitsts predicted that cases of violence against women would rise. Unfortunately, this proved to be true, as there were 76,520 911 calls reporting domestic violence from January to November 2020 and it is estimated that reports of domestic violence increased by 4.1 percent per week from the beginning of the pandemic to May 2020. In Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, domestic violence was the most commonly reported crime during quarantine. After lockdown had started, there was a notable 15 percent increase in reports of domestic violence in one month, with 7,940 calls in March and 9,134 calls in April. Part of this steep increase in calls in April was due to the fact that 911 response and the courts system had not yet been properly established in the first phase of the lockdown in March. Not all domestic violence 911 calls were responded to. However, there was still a continuous increase in the number of calls, with May registering the greatest number, 9,150 reports, before it dropped down to 7,000 in June

The high number of 911 calls are not mirrored in the number of formal reports that are filed by victims. It is estimated that only 2.5 percent of victims juridically report their abusers. Gilda Rivera, director of the Center of Women’s Rights (CDM) explains, “For women, it has always been difficult for us to denounce and it seems like now it’s even worse. It’s easier to call 911 to request guidance than going to court or filing a report, for fear of infection.” There are other existing obstacles that have always affected women’s experiences trying to combat domestic violence with the help of the state. “In normal times, it is hard for women to denounce due to many factors, mistrust in the justice system and how complicated it can be, the fear that the man can come back and it becomes worse, if she doesn’t have the economic resources to leave, and many other things.” For women who decided to leave their homes due to their unsafe circumstances, there were only 7 shelters across Honduras that were open during the lockdown period to provide help for victims of domestic violence. 

The LGBTQ+ experience in Honduras throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has been characterized by an exacerbation of historical social, labor, and economic exclusion and discrimination, making them more vulerable to the detrimental effects of the lockdown. Many LGBTQ+ people are excluded from welfare programs, making the effects of the pandemic especially harsh for them. During the lockdown, people in Honduras were allowed to move around their cities based on the last digits of their ID, which means that constantly showing identification was a prerequisite for entering supermarkets, banks, shops, and interacting with law enforcement on the street. This practice has been especially concerning for trans people, as many face discrimination if the people who check their identification harass them or refuse to let them enter buildings due to their gender identity or if their current appearance does not match the image on their ID. This constant discrimination has obvious effects on self-esteem and mental health and could put them in physical danger if a situation escalates. Some have even avoided going out for fear of this discimination, negatively impacting their ability to acquire essentials. The risks for trans women have greatly increased during the pandemic, especially those that are sex workers. Some experienced a total decrease in their current sex work opportunities due to the lockdowns, while others who lost formal employment had to turn to sex work, an increasingly dangerous alternative during the pandemic given that they have to break quarantine and risk health and legal repercusions. Many human rights defenders and LGBTQ+ organizations trying to do humanitarian work during the pandemic have been excluded from lockdown exceptions. LGBTQ+ organizations in particular are not given travel permits, as this would be equated to an official government recognition of their work, which is unfortunately still not present in Honduras. 

El Salvador

El Salvador’s response to the pandemic has been regarded as one of the strictest in Latin America, as President Nayib Bukele passed a rigid lockdown order on March 21 and opened containment centers for those entering the country or violating the quarantine order. The country worked to reopen starting in June, but did not see a total reopening until the end of August. However, it quickly became evident that the country’s long history of machismo was also a serious threat to women. During the last two weeks of March, 50 percent more women died in El Salvador from femicide than from COVID-19. By the end of May, the Attorney General’s Office had registered 2,318 aggressions against women. In spite of the intense violence women face, the government’s response was inadequate, as the Salvadoran Women’s Institute (ISDEMU) took three weeks to set up a call line for women facing violence and discrimination. With the lack of governmental response, civil society organizations, including Brújula and Ormusa, launched their own responses and resources to protect women, ranging from the #FemicidioEsPandemia campaign to the mobile application APPFEM that aimed to educate women and survivors of violence on social, legal, and medical resources. 

This failure to protect women is not unique to the pandemic, but is a symptom of the structural aspects of sexism in El Salvador. This is especially evidenced in the country’s fractured institutionality, which has made it difficult for women to seek justice and access systems that provide protection. According to Silvia Juárez, a lawyer from Ormusa, “Now that women cannot leave their homes to file complaints, the system is demonstrating that it is incapable of acting on its own in detecting and preventing that violence, as it did not seek other strategies that would allow victims to make reports.” Moreover, the government plays an active role in downplaying the extent of gender-based violence, as it operates off of a narrow definition of femicide, which does not include violence committed by criminal groups.

For LGBTQ+ people in El Salvador, the pandemic has similarly worsened the violence that they face both in public and at home. The economic impacts of the lockdown were particularly hard on the trans community, as many were left homeless from evictions and had to turn to sex work when they lost formal employment. Working and living on the streets exposed them to additional forms of violence, including abuses from the police and increased levels of extortion and homicide attempts. Despite the fact that trans women regularly face violence from criminal groups, they are often precluded from seeking justice because of discrimination. However, members of the LGBTQ+ community who are able to shelter in place and avoid the streets have nonetheless had to contend with other forms of violence. As Bianka Rodríguez from Comcavis Trans explains, “The message is ‘stay at home’ but that doesn’t mean the same thing for someone who is gay or trans. [For many LGBTI people], home is the first place where your rights are violated, where you are physically, emotionally and psychologically abused.” 

Colombia

Beginning on March 20, two weeks after the first reported case of COVID-19 in Colombia, President Iván Duque ordered the country into lockdown. In total, the lockdown lasted six months, with the order lifted in September 2020. Although the lockdown aimed to control the dangers of the virus, little attention was paid to the fact that the home is the most dangerous place for women in Colombia. During the first month of the national quarantine, a femicide was reported every 25 hours, and an instance of familiar violence was reported every 10 minutes. In fact, the 155 help line, a national resource for reporting domestic violence, experienced a 154 percent increase in calls during the first two months of quarantine. The pandemic exposed women not only to greater levels of physical violence, but also psychological abuse. For many of them, reporting instances of violence was a means by which to also disclose the non-physical forms of abuse they faced, including being confined to specific areas of the home or being ignored as punishment. 

The suspension of certain institutional services during the quarantine, especially within the justice system, drastically delayed cases that would normally be expedited, thus endangering women’s lives. In addition, because the majority of police attention was allocated to the enforcement of the quarantine order, women were often unable or denied the ability to make reports and seek justice. As Sisma Mujer affirms, “It is not acceptable that, in the face of the decrease of the other crimes that are mostly expressed in public spaces, the institutional structure, and in particular the justice system, does not attend to the women who are suffering the greatest levels of violence […], considering that quarantine shuts people in and restricts their lives to the strictly private and domestic realm, […], in which the greatest violences against women and girls occur.”

Photo: Adels/Flickr

The pandemic has similarly put members of the LGBTQ+ community at increased risk, exacerbating existing dangers and creating additional forms of violence. For instance, an ordinance in Bogotá that ran from April to May decreed that men and women would only be allowed out of their homes on alternating days in order to reduce crowds, with a specification that transgender people could follow the ordinance in accordance with their gender identity. Nonetheless, 20 violent incidents against trans people in supermarkets were recorded during lockdown as a result of the ordinance. Beyond Bogotá, the Ombudsman Office of Colombia reported an increase in violence against LGBTQ+ individuals across the country, registering 63 homicides in this year alone. With the increased police surveillance to enforce the quarantine, police violence was heightened, especially against trans women involved in sex work in areas such as the Santa Fe district in Bogotá. As the Vice Ombudsman noted, “during the pandemic, prejudice and discrimination have been exacerbated, and the obstacles to accessing justice in receiving complaints and the institutional barriers linked to the absence of sensibility and empathy that should prevail in the authorities charged with attending to this population increased.”

Despite the differing legal, political, and cultural contexts of each of these countries, the longstanding history of machismo and the failure of public institutions to protect vulnerable populations throughout the region has put women and LGBTQ+ people at an even higher risk during the pandemic. Although the distribution of vaccines now provides hope, it is clear that these human rights violations will not fade with the pandemic. LAWG urges the governments of El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Colombia to take these lessons learned from the pandemic to make structural changes to better prevent gender-based violence and anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination and to seek justice for survivors of gender-based violence. At the same time, the Biden Administration should ensure that the protection of women’s rights and the rights of the LGBTQ+ community, as well as the protection of the organizations that defend them, are a central part of its foreign policy towards Latin America.