María Suárez Toro
October 19, 2017
- 442 cases of requests for protection orders for gender violence under Law 54 have been filed since Hurricane María hit the island on September 20, 2017.
- Women activists are stepping forward in support of women in their communities to design a mobile health strategy to deal with the massive trauma. Just two shelters for women victims of violence have emergency sources of electricity.
Data on the alarming increase of violence against women were presented to Judge Sigifredo Steidel, director of the Office of Court Administrations (OAT) in Puerto Rico on October 19, 2017. These statistics show that arrests for gender-based violence are the second highest basis for legal action under Rule 6, with a total of 680 cases.
“It is not surprising the high level of gender violence in the data, but we know that the number is much greater because following events such as Hurricane María, the numbers increase,” said Vilma González, General Coordinator of Peace for the Woman (CPM – Paz Para la Mujer)**. She noted that there are many concerns in this “post-María” context because courts are not functioning to capacity, nor are police or the Superintendent of Police (Intendencia Policia) as shown by evidence presented in these legal cases.
González explained that when stressful events occur such as loss of housing, property or jobs, women are more vulnerable to being beaten and are even more isolated in “post-María” because there is no communication or means of support during this time.
Gender-based violence is also a serious problem in refugee shelters. Nearly 11,000 people in Puerto Rico were evacuated to shelters with the total devastation of the Category 4 storm with winds up to 155 mph.
“Unofficially we know that there are many more women attacked in [refugee] shelters but the State does not have a clear protocol to deal with them in that context,” added González.
CPM had warned about the increase in violence against women at its first meeting with 40 women activists on October 8. “In emergencies there is an increase in violence against women,” explained Tati Fernós, spokesperson for the organization.
Allegations received by women activists in communities where the courts were still not functioning revealed a reality recognized internationally by the United Nations that when there are emergencies such as natural disasters women are subjected to a greater degree of violence at home at the hand of their companions and also in refuge shelters.
“Disasters affect women, girls, boys and men differently. Gender inequalities increase the vulnerability of women and limit their access to the information and resources they need to reduce the risks of disasters,” according to a report by UN Women.
“This was widely documented in the case of Hurricane Mitch in Nicaragua and Honduras in 1998,” noted Irene Ferman, a Nicaraguan activist in a comment she posted on the ESCRIBANA Facebook page. “We lived in Nicaragua during Mitch, and violence increased in Nueva Vida,” a shelter for displaced persons who evacuated with the massive flooding of Lake Managua.
In Puerto Rico, when women in communities are left without access to justice for gender-based violence, they rely on women’s social organizations for support and seek out shelters for immediate protection for themselves and their children.
But conditions in the shelters have been deplorable after Hurricane María on September 20, according to an analysis by Puerto Rican women activists organized by CPM.
When they met, the women identified resources for shelters as a central piece of their emergency work agenda with a campaign to enable these facilities to care for women. Most of the shelters were closed due to lack of electricity and drinking water, and those still functioning under these circumstances did not have enough beds to accommodate the women who were requesting protection. According to a report by CPM, Casa Julia, Casa Luisa Capetillo and Hogar Nueva Mujer were closed for lack of an electric plant to operate, while Hogar Ruth was open with 35 women, but only 21 beds to accommodate current and new victims of post-María.
In the first weeks of the campaign, CPM has been able to gather critical equipment and basic necessities to contribute to the shelters. “We already donated a generator of 9 kilowatts that was placed in Casa Julia for its operation, which meant that they had been transferred to the Casa de la Mujer Dominicana (House of the Dominican Woman), which could also resume operations,” said Jossie Pantoja of CPM.
The activist added that they have managed to accumulate this week a quantity of provisions and water to take to all the shelters, operating out of a collection center established in the Bar Association in Miramar.
The Coordinator’s agenda includes support work for women survivors of violence, but also for women in the emergency shelters.
Gonzales, coordinator of the initiative, explained that another important line is to address the trauma, not only of violence, but of the situation in which women have remained in their devastated communities. “For this we are addressing health through a mobile movement,” the Health Route (La Ruta de la Salud) “with volunteer students and professors of the Faculty of the University of Puerto Rico and the Faculty of Psychology of the University Albizu Campus, assisting women in their communities to identify needs and treat the trauma.”
CPM developed this action strategy with other social organizations of the Community Initiative, a non-profit organization that has played an important role in communities in the country. On this occasion the Initiative lent the Coordinator a travel guide for medical services to address trauma issues among people in different villages of the island.
Chefs of Puerto Rico also provided support by taking food to women and their families in the communities.
You can support these efforts by calling Vilma González, General Coordinator, at 787 2358208.
**The Coordinator of Peace for the Woman (Paz para la Mujer, Inc. – CPM) is a Coalition whose membership is made up of 35 organizations and 14 individual members. It is made up of emergency shelters, service organizations, universities, feminists and human rights activists dealing with the issue of violence against women, particularly dating violence and sexual assault. CPM provides community education, technical assistance and referral support for survivors of gender violence, victim assistance programs, and other related organizations working with survivors and their hijxs.
Translated by Margie Thompson, ESCRIBANA