WASHINGTON, D.C. — Shelters for abuse victims are struggling to adjust to the new health measures due to the lack of adequate resources from the government against the COVID-19 pandemic. Domestic violence in Puerto Rico rose to 83% during the COVID-19 pandemic according to a study published in February 2021 by the Coordinadora Paz para la Mujer, Inc.
Femicides in Puerto Rico
After Hurricane Maria, around 65% of femicides on the island occurred within the victim’s residence marking a drastic increase that would continue on to the pandemic. Between 2014 to 2018, around 266 women were victims of murder on the island. Casa Protegida Julia de Burgos, a women’s shelter in Puerto Rico, has increased resources for women by ensuring that its confidential hotline functions all hours of the week, increasing counseling services and increasing restraining orders.
The Link Between Domestic Violence and the Pandemic
According to an article by Pavement Pieces, one can attribute the rise of cases during the pandemic to the lockdowns that forced many victims to stay at home with their abusers. The conditions made it more difficult for victims to reach out to support groups or shelters, which left many cases unreported until the situations escalated.
Governor Pedro Pierluisi stated the start of a state of emergency in January 2021, ordering new government programs to educate and prevent domestic violence in response to the number of domestic violence cases increasing by 83% during the pandemic. Officials in charge of various shelters on the island agreed the order is a “step in the right direction” while the officials said a lack of government funding to implement the programs remains the most significant challenge. The government has yet to implement the executive order and shelter officials say they feel “abandoned.”
About Coordinadora Paz para la Mujer Inc.
The Women’s Advocate Office, a government agency that provides legal help for women around the island, has not responded to media inquiries about the rise in domestic violence in Puerto Rico during the pandemic. The silence has prompted Coordinadora Paz para la Mujer Inc., a coalition against domestic violence and sexual assault, to investigate the government’s inaction and the problems shelters are facing.
Coordinadora Paz para la Mujer Inc. Communications Director Nereida Valentin stated in an interview with The Borgen Project that the government’s women’s advocate division had been facing uncertainty since the director resigned in December 2020 abruptly. The organization has been operating throughout the pandemic without any leadership since the end of 2021. Valentin said the division did not provide shelters with enough money or other resources and lacked a “concrete” plan of action for addressing domestic violence in Puerto Rico during the pandemic.
Valentin also stated that “many were left uncertain on how to approach the pandemic as they were left with an empty space at the head of the table,” as “the situation worsened many of the current resources the division held were stretched thin due to lack of coordination from the different governmental departments.”
The State of Coordinadora Paz para la Mujer Inc. During the Pandemic
Valentin stated that the government did not view shelters as essential services during the pandemic, prioritizing health services in hospitals. Valentin also said that vaccines and tests are arriving in minimal quantity due to the fact that the mainland processes them. This has led the government to focus on vaccinating Puerto Ricans at the highest risk during the pandemic.
Valentin spoke about how “In the end, the division did their best with the conditions they faced at the time which were not optimal.”
In the current age, Valentin found that “we are working with the division to form a better plan of action to alleviate the needs of the shelters, but as it is still in process, I cannot share the details as of today.”
The shelter had to implement measures for more safely distanced stations and rooms, which meant that fewer women could stay in the shelter. The shelter also had to reduce its number of employees so that it did not exceed the capacity limit.
About Casa de la Bondad During the Pandemic
Gloria Vázquez, the shelter executive director of Casa de la Bondad in Humacao, said that the shelter struggled to communicate with many victims who needed to stay at the shelter at the beginning of the pandemic. In fact, shelter employees had to create escape plans for the victims so that they could leave their homes and get to the shelter facilities.
Vázquez said that the shelter “focused on communicating with the victims via text messages and calls to connect them with the professionals they needed.” In the present, Vázquez also stated how “we had some cases where we lost contact with many of the victims as they were locked in with their abusers.”
Vázquez said her shelter was able to shift all its programs onto virtual platforms to continue providing many services to participants. The director also said the shelter focused its efforts on guaranteeing that many victims receive legal services to protect them from their abusers.
Vázquez said that in the weeks after the governor issued the state of emergency, the shelter received more women into their facilities. The shelter has noticed an increase in the number of women more than 50 years old in their ambulatory services program while the shelter employees are not sure why.
Leaders in many shelters say the government has offered shelters financial aid during the crisis as the relief has yet to materialize. Similar to the Hogar Nueva Mujer shelter, Casa de la Bondad did not receive any safety gear or COVID-19 tests from the government during the first month of the pandemic.
At the end of the day, Vázquez stated that “It really worries us as shelter services are essential services and it’s important to take care of our personnel who have been supporting the victims and their children,” as “we are left to wait.”
– Nuria Munoz