Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto

Lockdown With the Enemy

The domestic violence increase perceived in the developed world is also taking place in Venezuela, but without a state—or society—capable of responding

Before the outbreak of COVID-19, violence against women was already referred to as a pandemic. According to the UN, 35% of women in the world have been subjected to sexual and/or physical violence at some point in their lives. Nonetheless, pandemics can aggravate certain conditions that are associated with the increase of violence against women, such as poverty, lack of access to healthcare, and legal aid.

During this global quarantine, calls to domestic violence hotlines increased by 40%  in Argentina,  by 60%  in Mexico, and by 90% in Colombia. But Venezuela is a particular case. 

The crisis that the nation has been suffering for years puts women and girls in a highly vulnerable position, making them more susceptible to gender-based violence (including human trafficking, sexual abuse, and exploitation). Women in the country already found themselves in a position of disadvantage, as they have less access than men to employment (hence, are more likely to work in the informal sector), education, and healthcare. Increasingly, women are also starting to become household heads (in 2011, when the last census was conducted, it was estimated that 39% of women sustain their households, compared to 24% in 1990), which wouldn’t have a negative effect if child care and household chores were distributed evenly.   

During recent years, the rates of domestic violence and femicides have also increased significantly. In 2015, the Public Ministry (which is under the Prosecutor’s Office in Venezuela), reported 121 femicides. In 2016, the official number was 122. Nonetheless, data collected from NGO Cotejo.info denounced 169 femicides that year. 

Obtaining official data for the most recent years is a challenge in itself, that’s why NGOs have taken up the task of keeping records. In 2019, CEPAZ launched a Digital Observatory of Femicides and showed how, between January 1st and March 13th, 2020 there was one femicide every 36 hours in Venezuela. 

Faulty Protection for Those Abused

This data is uncertain; under normal circumstances, there isn’t a comprehensive system in place to respond to survivors of this type of violence. There are eight institutions where survivors can denounce their abusers, including the Public Ministry, MinMujer, and many police stations. Nonetheless, although there’s jurisdiction in place to protect survivors of gender-based violence, the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights denounced that between 2001 and 2014, only between 10% and 16.35% of domestic violence complaints resulted in charges against the aggressor. Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, budget constraints and lack of personnel limited the capacity of state institutions to respond to survivors of gender-based violence. Survivors reported difficulties placing complaints, restrictions to enter tribunals, misplacement of files, and interruption of trials.

Women have to show signs of actual abuse: bruises or obvious signs of violence on their bodies, for example

Since the quarantine was imposed in Venezuela, the National Institute of Women launched a campaign through social media with prevention messages and announced mechanisms for complaints. Representatives of the institute have declared that shelters have been adapted for women who are at higher risk. However, according to unofficial information, there are four shelters in the country located in the states of Aragua, Cojedes, Sucre, and Trujillo. The first two apparently closed in 2018. The others remain open, but they face severe restrictions in their operations. Other sources claim that there are no public shelters currently operating in the country. 

Despite the existing state initiatives, several NGOs have denounced irregularities with the services provided during the pandemic. Some survivors have reported that the telephone numbers provided by the authorities don’t work and that once they are able to reach the institutions in charge of receiving the complaints, the authorities tell them that the COVID-19 pandemic is the priority at the moment. Women have to show signs of actual abuse: bruises or obvious signs of violence on their bodies, for example. But the quality of the response sometimes deters the victims from denouncing their abusers—these reports are seldom taken seriously. Despite all the defects in the system, NGOs recommend that survivors follow the formal protocol to file abuse reports before the authorities.

Magdymar León Torrealba, psychologist, and coordinator of Avesa (Venezuelan Association for an Alternative Sexual Education), says that there are no state shelters for survivors of gender-based violence in the country and that the public healthcare system can’t respond. With the outbreak of COVID-19, authorities haven’t developed a tailored approach to seeing to the victim’s needs. Amidst this scenario, a number of Venezuelan NGOs, such as CEPAZ, Fundamujer, Doctors without Borders, have enabled hotlines for survivors to report abuse. 

Ofelia Álvarez, director of the NGO Fundamujer, revealed that the organization has received a very low number of calls. Álvarez believes this doesn’t show a decrease in domestic violence, but the control that women in abusive relationships are subjected to. Álvarez explains that most of the complaints received have been made by a third person, like a friend, or a family member. 

The actions of NGOs are highly restricted; they can serve as channels for complaints and as providers of psycho-social attention in some cases, but they can’t act further to offer protection to survivors. CEPAZ and Fundamujer recognize that the efforts they make aren’t enough and don’t guarantee the victim’s safety. Hence, they call on women to find support in their community, through neighbors, family members, and friends. Psychologist León Torrealba calls on women at risk to follow the next recommendations: a) Quarantine in the house of a family member (when possible); b) have your phone with you at all times; c) have the gender-based violence hotlines identified, and; d) alert people in your community about the situation. 

Finding support in communities can also be a challenge, as there are stigmas associated with violence against women

Finding support in communities can also be a challenge, as there are stigmas associated with violence against women. Venezuela is a country with a male-centric culture and, with the deepening of the humanitarian crisis, a normalization of violence (not only against women but also against children) has been taking place. In some instances, communities believe domestic violence is a private matter and they would rather not intervene. Nonetheless, there are examples of successful implementation of community-based support networks to address gender-based violence. These interventions have been based on the creation of counseling, support groups, and focus groups. Technology has also played a relevant part in responding, as it serves to educate people and it also makes communication easier. 

In Venezuela, we might not know with certainty the impact that COVID-19 has had on women living with abusive partners. But experience has shown that crises exacerbate levels of this type of violence. For instance, during the 2013-2016 Ebola outbreak, economic hardships put women and children at a higher risk of exploitation and sexual violence. We know that women make up the majority of frontline workers and are also economically more vulnerable than men. Today, women in abusive relationships, being forced to quarantine with their abuser, are, evidently, at a higher risk of suffering physical, sexual, and emotional violence. 

Violence against women can’t be considered a private matter: it affects communities, and it represents a public health problem that affects all of us. 

For the actual women living with abusive partners, home isn’t a safe place.

Nisan Kassam

Nisan is based in Caracas. She holds a degree in Human Rights, and is particularly interested in gender relations and forced displacements.