In January 2021, Governor Pedro Pierluisi (NPP, D) of Puerto Rico declared a state of emergency to combat gender-based violence in the territory. Puerto Rico has a history of disproportionate rates of femicide and interpersonal violence (IPV) against women and transgender people, with some notable cases coming from within law enforcement. Activists had been calling for Governor Pierluisi and former governor Wanda Vázquez (NPP, R) to declare a state of emergency for years, with no action until January 25 last year.
IPV is often referred to as gender-based violence, even though men have been victimized by domestic violence. Why, then, is it a women’s issue, and why is it deemed gender-based violence? IPV is a women’s issue because women face violence at disproportionate rates. While 1 in 9 men in the United States experiences severe IPV, the rate for women is 1 in 4. While 1 in 25 men have been physically injured by a partner, that rate increases to 1 in 7 for women. Men are not immune to abuse, but men are not victims of violence because they are men. For male victims, their gender is an incidental part of their identity; for women, it is the cause of the violence.
In his statement following the declaration of the state of emergency, Pierluisi concurred: “For too long vulnerable victims have suffered the consequences of systematic machismo, inequity, discrimination, lack of education, lack of guidance, and above all lack of action.”
Overall, Puerto Rico has higher rates of gender-based violence than the mainland United States. In 2018, the territory reported more than one woman murdered per week, on average, which is approximately double the per-capita rate of the US. In 2020, Puerto Rico reported 60 femicides, including six cases with trans women and 26 cases still under investigation. These numbers include random acts of violence against women, such as the kidnapping case of Rosimar Rodríguez Gómez, but also acts of interpersonal violence from those known to the victim.
Rates of IPV and sexual violence are harder to estimate, as the nature of the crime leads to underreporting. Non-fatal acts of IPV and sexual assault often go unreported because there is a pattern of police not believing victims or worsening their trauma. According to the director of Taller Salud, a non-profit that assists victims of IPV, “Puerto Rico’s state of ‘long-term crisis’ is further exacerbated by inconsistent support, disorganization, and apathy from the police and the government in femicide and abuse cases.”
The aggravating factors
Interpersonal violence is exacerbated by times of stress, such as the pandemic. Amidst COVID-19 lockdowns, interpersonal violence rates increased by 25-33% around the globe, and rates in Puerto Rico specifically increased by 83% during the pandemic. COVID-19 shutdowns increased rates of gender-based violence because they heightened feelings of anxiety, anger, and generalized stress. In a study conducted in 2022 looking at stress in America, 84% of adults reported feeling at least one emotion of prolonged stress. Such feelings only agitated already-violent abusers. Along with added stress and anger, the pandemic’s lockdowns forced victims to stay home with their abusers and gave them no escape. To make matters worse, shelters and other resources, such as social work programs, were inaccessible during the lockdowns, leaving victims with nowhere to turn. Abusive conditions, therefore, went unreported until conditions worsened irreparably.
The pandemic shutdowns were a long-term disaster that has, for the most part, passed us by. However, increased rates of IPV rear their ugly head each time tragedy strikes, such as with natural disasters. According to Vice News in an article from 2020, “In the wake of natural disasters and now the pandemic, minor assaults against women have become more severe, and severe assaults have become homicides and premeditated murders.”
Natural disasters are generally shorter-term crises, but they create similar conditions of stress, isolation, and lack of resources. Hurricanes have been proven to increase rates of IPV, and Hurricane Maria is an example of this. In the nine months prior to the disaster, the number of IPV-related femicides was seven. In the nine months following the hurricane, it was 14.
Social work programs such as shelters work hard to stay open in the face of hurricanes and other natural disasters because they understand the severity of the issue and that victims of violence need more help than ever in times of crisis. Although power and water may be inaccessible and the building may be compromised to the elements, they still have residents and are determined to provide service.
The pandemic and the series of natural disasters in the past decade have shed light on the problem and brought the issue to the government’s attention. The state of emergency declared by Governor Pierluisi in January 2021 lasted until June 30, 2022, and has not been renewed. The state of emergency called to establish a committee to provide education, support, and rescue around gender violence, along with a mobile app with which “victims of gender violence can request emergency help without arousing suspicion from their aggressors.”
These initiatives have not proven particularly effective. Activists and non-profit organizations are still working tirelessly to combat this crisis. The government has done very little in the wake of Hurricane Fiona, which was bound to bring increased rates of violence with it. An article by Latino Rebels states that amidst a dozen press conferences, the government has failed to provide “ information that helps victims and survivors of gender-based violence get the specialized aid they need during an emergency” or “disclosed the government’s strategies to address the increase in gender-based violence after the disaster.”
The women and LGBTQ+ community of Puerto Rico need the help of their government now more than ever, but the government has failed to provide help in their most vulnerable time. Until the government begins making bold strokes toward gender equity and a culture change, this violence will continue and only be worsened by natural disasters and territory-wide tragedy.