BY CLAUDIA MEDINA LOPEZ AND ALTHEA-MARIA RIVAS
Continual increases in social violence across Latin America are producing a pervasive security crisis. The recent report from the Igarapé Institute confirmed that more than 2.5 million Latin Americans were violently killed in 2018 alone. In this context, violence against women and girls is a widespread phenomenon. Latin American feminists Fregoso and Bejarano invoke the term in their discussion of gender-based violence in this region, and specifically the murder of women and girls. Accordingly, feminicide can be understood as:
gender-based violence that is both public and private, implicating both the state (directly or indirectly) and individual perpetrators; it thus encompasses systematic, widespread, and everyday interpersonal violence. The focus of analysis is not just on gender but also on the intersection of gender dynamics with the cruelties of racism and economic injustices in local as well as global contexts. (Fregoso and Bejarano, 2010, p. 5).
In 2018 alone, there were 3529 cases of feminicide in Latin America . Many states within the region are signatories to international conventions, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and Belen do Pará, and have enacted a variety of related national laws. There is often a gap, however, between these written laws, aimed at addressing gender-based violence (GBV) against women and girls and upholding women’s rights, and their implementation in practice. Indeed, the legal rhetoric and public political discourse have outpaced the understanding of the structural and cultural drivers of GBV. Even sustained concrete actions have sometimes reaped uneven results, and progress towards shifting deeply entrenched societal attitudes that continue to devalue women’s bodies and lives has been slow. And of course, no one saw Covid-19 coming.
The onslaught of the pandemic has had devastating impacts on the safety and security of many women across Latin American. In Colombia, the number of emergency calls due to violence against women and girls increased by 103 per cent between 22 March and 05 April 2020. Likewise, between 26 February and 30 April, Mexico registered 26,000 calls from women seeking assistance. Several international organisations, such as UN Women (2020), have called on states to pay heightened attention to how lockdown measures and enforced isolation can increase women’s vulnerability to violent aggressors. Countries within the region have taken action and implemented a variety of measures aimed at mitigating the gendered effects of the virus on the safety of women and girls. These responses, however, have mainly reflected the broader and already existing problematic engagement with GBV and women’s rights within the region. This blog takes a closer look at how the situation has unfolded in Peru.
Peru, home to one of the authors of this blog and where she is currently located, is a place where some of the most extreme lockdown measures in the region have been implemented. The state of emergency and, with it, a lockdown, began on 16 March. Government edicts are being enforced by the security forces, including the military, who patrol the streets daily to prevent people from leaving home without officially sanctioned permission. Those working in the healthcare system, banks, supermarkets or markets, pharmacies or in public transport are required to have a special pass that permits them to be outside of their homes. At the same time, the government enacted a curfew in the national territory. The parameters of the curfew, however, have shifted since the beginning of the state of emergency. Currently, most of the country is under curfew from 10 pm until 4 am. Provisions were also put in place for emergency situations such as sudden health problems requiring immediate medical attention. In such cases, residents can break curfew and leave their homes but must carry a white cloth to signal their plight. Initially, the strict social isolation measures put in place were supposed to end on 26 May 2020. However, the state of emergency and related restrictions have been extended until 31 July 2020
Gender-based policies around physical movement have also been implemented, whereby specific alternating days were identified for women or men to leave their homes. Men are allowed out on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and women on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. For the non-binary Peruvian population, the government provided vague direction announcing they should be treated according to ‘what they look like’. In other words, if a person looks like a woman, they must go out during the designated women’s days and vice-versa. The President also explicitly prohibited the army or the police from asking anyone – in the LGTBIQ community – for ID to confirm or disprove their gender identity. Instead, security forces were told to use their individual and personal judgement to guide their actions. Unsurprisingly, several violent transphobic attacks have been reported since lockdown began (Perez-Brumer and Silva Santiesteban, 2020). This rotating gender-based isolation decree only lasted for eight days (3 – 10 April), after which time the state revoked the policy due to the disproportionate impact it was having on women and the LGTBIQ population, while also not contributing to preventing new cases of Covid-19.
Since the onset of the state of emergency and lockdown in mid-March, there has been a disturbing spike in the number of officially reported cases of violence against women and girls across Peru, and particularly incidents of rape and disappearance. According to the Ministerio de la Mujer y Poblaciones Vulnerable (MIMP), more than 400 cases of rape against underage girls were reported between the beginning of the state of emergency at the start of the lockdown and May 2020. Ironically during the same period, which was a time of severe police-enforced restrictions on people’s mobility, 1,234 women and girls were reported as disappeared. In addition, more than 200 feminicide attempts have been reported since the lockdown began. While the number of actual cases of feminicide that have led to death remains approximately the same as during this same period in 2019 (March-May), there has been an approximate 100 per cent increase in feminicide attempts across Peru.
The Peruvian government has been quick to recognise the impact of Covid-19 on women and girls and has implemented several specific initiatives aimed at addressing the increasing levels of violence. For example, the government has invested in increasing the number of people working at the Linea 100 service, where survivors or witnesses of gendered violence can report incidents. As a result, during the state of emergency and lockdown, Linea 100 answered more than 40,000 calls reporting gender-based violence against women and girls, compared to 25,238 calls for the same period in 2019. Alongside the enhanced phone-in reporting and referral system, the government launched a national social sensitisation campaign. Using videos, informational pamphlets and social media networks, the campaign aimed to highlight the dangers of gender-based violence during and due to the Covid-19 lockdown and, to a lesser extent, to communicate the increasing numbers of reported cases.
The government and media’s approach reflect a problematic tendency to justify certain forms of gender-based violence within Peruvian society. A recent public opinion survey showed that slapping and pulling hair are widely viewed as a manifestation of gender-based violence for more than 97 per cent of the population (men and women) in the regions of Ayacucho, Ucayali and Lima. Conversely, attempting to control an intimate partner’s social life was only considered as a form of violence for 43 per cent (in Ayacucho), 38.5 per cent (in Ucayali) and 61 per cent (in Lima) of the population. Furthermore, in these three regions, around 60 per cent of people believe that domestic violence is a private problem, and that it should be resolved inside the family. The percentage rises to 79 per cent in the urban sector of Ucayali, according to the Instituto de Opinión Pública et al (2019). The state and media campaigns both reflect and reinforce such problematic perceptions by denying the compelling political character of gendered violence and rendering certain types of violence visible, while negating the recognition of others.
Media and state messages in Peru propagate the false assumption that violence is a by-product of mounting cis-male internalised frustrations. These public-facing campaigns have closely associated increased gender-based violence with increased stress, mainly focusing on the experiences of men, due to lockdown and the emergency measures. This approach portrays feminicide and GBV as a result of personal interactions and relations. The ‘individualisation’ of these acts (Segato, 2016) and the focus on the emotional responses of men to the lockdown and the emergency measures as the main triggers of violence against women work to ignore the structural and historical circumstances which create the facilitating conditions for gendered forms of violence to take place. In addition, this narrow lens reinforces the perception that different types of abuse operate in silos, thereby obfuscating deeper understanding of the connection between direct and more subtle forms of violence that also impede women’s rights. Left unarticulated then is the relationship between interpersonal violence and the conditions which, for example, produce the gender wage gap, or influence the disproportionate time that women and girls must dedicate to domestic and unpaid care work, compared with men (see Oxfam, 2020).
Despite government strategies focused on expanding the available platforms for survivors to speak about abuse and public awareness campaigns to encourage women and girls to break the silence, the creation of safe spaces and facilitation of access to justice for survivors have not been central to government plans. Protection is hampered not only by a shortage of spaces in an already inadequate number of shelters but also because of the pervasive lack of sensitisation and knowledge about gender-based violence by the state and justice officials, including the police, military and prosecutors. The Peruvian Ombudsman’s Office agreed that the state of emergency has had an impact in what is considered as a priority for police, attorneys and judges. Cases labelled as ‘high risk’, severe or that were detected ‘in blatancy’ are addressed, but are dependent on the judgement of the officials involved. Incidents of GBV, however, have often not been a priority. In fact, even underage survivors seeking justice have been told by police officials that the state is unable to address these issues because of the Covid-19 lockdown. Subsequently, they have been asked to return home and to continue living with perpetrators within the household. In one such case, an 11-year-old who was being abused in the home was rescued by neighbours after the police failed to act. Similar incidents continue to be reported despite the MIMP requirement that police stations, attorney offices, and judicial branches must receive and act upon cases of gender-based violence (MIMP and UNDP, 2020).
The increase in feminicide attempts and other forms of gender-based violence since the mid-March state of emergency and lockdown in Peru and the state’s response are part of a continuum of violence. Violence against women and girls during the Covid-19 emergency is an extension of what happens during ‘normal’ times, and survivors face intensified but similar limitations in their attempts to seek justice and protection. The spike in violence, combined with the pressure on the healthcare system, has exacerbated the vulnerability of women and girls. The Peruvian state is making significant efforts to gather statistics and information about cases, and has rolled out targeted public awareness and information campaigns. Nevertheless, encouraging women to report abuse or giving advice on stress management to men is not enough. These efforts fail to interrogate how violence is embodied in their daily lives and interactions while also obfuscating the fundamental connections between the interpersonal, structural and political manifestations of GBV. The aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic in Peru may force the conversation on gender-based violence to move in a different direction, however, this should not be at the cost of the lives and wellbeing of Peruvian women and girls.
Claudia Isabel Medina López is a Peruvian feminist sociologist. Her research focuses on gender-based violence, feminicide, socio-legal feminist theory and social justice in Latin America. Claudia has postgraduate degrees from the Pontificia Universidad Catolica del Peru, and the University of Sussex, UK and will begin her doctoral studies at the Institute for Security Studies in the Netherlands in 2020.
Althea-Maria Rivas is a Lecturer in Development Studies at SOAS, University of London. Her research focuses on the intersections of gender and race in areas affected by conflict and violence.
Instituto de Opinión Pública, Movimento Manuela Ramos and PUCP, 2019. Percepción de la violencia de género en Lima, Ayacucho y Ucayali [Perception of gender-based violence in Lima, Ayacucho and Ucayali]. Lima: Instituto de Opinión Pública, Movimento Manuela Ramos and PUCP. http://repositorio.pucp.edu.pe/index/bitstream/handle/123456789/168793/IOP_MR_0819_01_R1.pdf?sequence=5&isAllowed=y
MIMP and UNDP, 2020. En tiempos de emergencia¡ No estás sola! [In times of emergency, you are not alone!]. Lima: MIMP and UNDP. http://www.mimp.gob.pe/files/cartilla-pnud-victimas-covid-19.pdf
Oxfam, 2020. Time to care: Unpaid and underpaid care work andthe global inequality crisis. Oxford: Oxfam International. https://assets.oxfamamerica.org/media/documents/FINAL_bp-time-to-care-inequality-200120-en.pdf
Perez-Brumer, A. and Silva-Santisteban, A., 2020. COVID-19 policies can perpetuate violence against transgender communities: insights from Peru. AIDS and Behavior, April. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10461-020-02889-z
Segato, R., 2013. Las Estructuras Elementales de la violence: Ensayos sobre género. entre la antropología. el psicoanálisis y los derechos humanos [The Elemental Structures of violence: Essays about gender, between antrophology, psycoanalysis and human rights]. Buenos Aires: Prometeo Libros.
Segato, R., 2016. Las Nuevas formas de la Guerra y el cuerpo de las mujeres. [The New forms of war and the body of women], in R. Segato, ed., La guerra contra las mujeres [The war against women]. Madrid: Traficantes de Sueños, pp. 57-90.
UN Women, 2020. COVID-19 and Ending Violence Against Women and Girls. New York: UN Women. https://www.unwomen.org/-/media/headquarters/attachments/sections/library/publications/2020/issue-brief-covid-19-and-ending-violence-against-women-and-girls-en.pdf?la=en&vs=5006
 In seven Peruvian regions the curfew runs from 8pm to 4am.
 It should be noted that MIMP publishes reports of GBV cases monthly. However, these numbers are just for the period of lockdown, until May 2020.
 ‘Blatancy’ is the translation for ‘flagrancia’. In Spanish this word means: to be caught in the act of committing a crime.