Domestic Violence in Times of the Corona-19 Pandemic in South America
Author: Gabriel Borba and Thamires Herzing
After more than three decades of work by the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, in 1979, the UN General Assembly adopted the most valuable human rights treaty concerning women’s rights (UN General Assembly, 1979). The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women was created to provide rights and obligations against gender-based discrimination (UN General Assembly, 1979). Furthermore, the Belém do Pará Convention, adopted in 1994 by the Inter-American Commission of Women of the Organization of American States, strengthened women’s rights by specifically addressing gender-based violence. Thus, the Convention asserts that the State parties must criminalize domestic violence inside their territory (Inter-American Commission of Women, 1994). Consequently, domestic violence can be now defined as any kind of violence against women (physical, sexual, psychological, moral or property damage) in the scope of the domestic unit, within the family, or in any intimate relationship (Lei nº 11.340, 2006).
Nevertheless, even with the aforementioned human rights thresholds, South American women are still facing an increase in domestic violence since the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020 (G1, 2021). In this regard, this article limits itself to examine the increase of violence, numbers and specific cases to illustrate South America’s reality.
Understanding why the cases of domestic violence increased during the quarantine period
Due to the pandemic, 116 countries have implemented lockdown and curfews as a public health strategy with the aim of reducing the contagion rate (Hale et al., 2020). This situation has exposed women to greater amounts of domestic work in their homes. As a result, making them spend much more time with the men of the family, amid greater tensions due to confinement in spaces, often in overcrowded conditions, with deprivation of materials and food as the result of the massive loss of jobs and other sources of income (Ariza-Sosa et al., 2021)
In June of 2021, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) and the International Labour Organization released a joint study aiming to analyze the impact of the pandemic on the economy. The Employment Situation in Latin America and the Caribbean report stated that regional GDP in 2020 experienced a -7.1% contraction, the biggest in a century, producing an increase in the unemployment rate, which reached 10.5% on average that same year. As a result, unemployment has intensified strained relationships and created more frustration amongst families (Cepal, 2021), as it forces people to stay at home, with a lack of resources to feed their families.
Consequently, increases have been reported in the different forms of violence against women: physical, sexual, economic, and psychological, in countries such as Argentina (Carrasco & Martínez Reina, 2020), Ecuador (Chamba-Parra et al., 2020), as well as in other Latin American countries. Additionally, this situation has been evidenced with an increase in calls to hotlines for women, the use of shelters, an increase in complaints of sexual violence, as well as higher numbers of femicides and disappearances of women (Ariza-Sosa et al., 2021).
The increase in cases of domestic violence against women in South America
Unfortunately, the numbers support the thesis that the pandemic caused an increase in domestic violence cases in several South American countries. Below we will explore the numbers from Brazil and Peru.
Comparatively, the number of complaints registered in March of 2020 by Ligue 180 (“Call 180” in English), the Brazilian hotline for reporting domestic violence and abuse against women, was 15% higher than in March 2019 (Agência Brasil, 2021). According to the National Ombudsman for Human Rights, Fernando César Pereira Ferreira: “Considering what has happened in countries affected by the disease before Brazil, the results from January to March were, in a way, expected”. Even so, the performance recorded in April was a negative surprise: reports of violations of women’s rights and integrity increased by 36% compared to April 2019. (Agência Brasil, 2021)
In the city of São Paulo, Brazil, from January to April 2019, 55 cases of femicide were registered. During the same period of 2020, there were 71 reports. In 2021, there were 53 gender-based murders of women, according to data from the Public Security Secretariat (SSP). Regarding protective measures, there were almost 47 thousand requests in 2019 in comparison to more than 52 thousand in 2020. In the first four months of 2021, the total had already exceeded 21 thousand. Therefore, the trend for this year is expected to grow (Agência Brasil, 2021).
Meanwhile, in Peru, the Demographic and Family Health Survey (Endes) revealed that 54.8% of women were victims of psychological, physical, or sexual violence by their husband or partner during 2020. In Lima systematic abuse increased from 5% to 8%, according to a study carried out by the National Institute of Mental Health (INSM). According to figures from Line 100, the telephone service of the Ministry of Women to report family and sexual violence, around 235,000 cases have been registered during the pandemic, almost double the number in 2019 (El Comercio, 2021).
The reality of south american women during the pandemic
One should not deny that after the aforementioned discussion, different narratives ought to be examined to showcase the reality of South American women during the pandemic. As documented by G1, a Brazilian newspaper, since March 2020, 1,500 women have sought shelters seeking refuge from domestic abuses in São Paulo alone (G1, 2021). Vitória (fictitious name), 23 years, had to live with her partner during the pandemic, and since then, started suffering patrimonial, physical and verbal abuses after repeated jealousy crises (G1, 2021). Her partner threatened to kill her with a knife, prevented her from talking to other people, and even broke her cell phone (G1, 2021).
Renata (fictitious name), 36 years, also shared her brutal statement:
“He was starting to attack me. It was no longer possible for me to live with him without having anything to do with him, without money to pay for the house. There was no way. That day, I was standing on the couch. He pushed my head into the wall. I was afraid that, at that time, my daughter would be without me. But it hurt more because people heard my screams and no one came to my door to help me” (G1, 2021).
Furthermore, Valeria Caggiano from Uruguai points to the fact that all the tension during confinement results in an escalation of violent feelings and behavior (R7, 2020). The same happens in Peru, as stated by the newspaper El Comercio:
“In the strongest peaks of confinement, as a result of the pandemic, the possibilities of victims to be able to appeal and ask for help, file timely complaints for attacks or even the possibility of being able to resort to making emergency calls were reduced [.. .] These cases have not been possible or have not been made visible as expected” (El Comercio, 2021).
It is clear from these observations that the pandemic only aggravated pre-existing domestic abuses (G1, 2021).
Another worrying fact has to do with the lack of financial freedom that prevents women from making decisions about their own lives and departing from toxic households (G1, 2021). In this sense, during the pandemic, women who are in abusive relationships are confined with their abusers, and without the possibility of government assistance.
To conclude, in times where women are exposed to loads of violence and access to justice is restricted, local governments must emphasize the full implementation of resources to mitigate any gender-based violence. Proper accountability from the perpetrators, access to justice, implementation of shelters, access to health care are only a few examples to achieve a “gender-sensitive intersectional approach in their responses to COVID-19” as established by the United Nations General Assembly in 2020 while delivering the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences (United Nations General Assembly, 2020).
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