Ignored by the State, Venezuelan Women Rely on NGOs

The quarantine caused an upsurge of the already alarming gender-based violence. And women’s organizations do whatever they can to protect them

Helping when they're most needed.

Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto

Karla Ríos Rodríguez, a 39-year-old swimsuit designer, was shot twice on July 31st on the ground floor of her building, located in downtown Caracas. According to people close to the victim, her killer was her ex-boyfriend, Edward Chacón. The couple had been in a relationship for five years, but she ended it after being tired of his aggressions, including death threats, gun in hand.

Karla filed a complaint against Chacón in early March, at the detective unit known as Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas, Penales y Criminalísticas (CICPC). However, they only interviewed and released him; he continued to follow and harass her, until he finally killed her. After being declared the prime suspect of the femicide, Edward Chacón hasn’t been apprehended yet.

The case of Karla Ríos evidences the little support that victims of domestic violence get in Venezuela. When a Venezuelan woman is threatened with death by her partner or ex-partner, the right thing would be for the state to take her to a safe house, which, according to the Instituto Nacional de la Mujer (Inamujer), are “discreet, confidential, and safe shelters” where they’re temporarily lodged, along with their children under the age of 12. The program is described in Article 20 of the Ley Orgánica sobre el Derecho de las Mujeres a una Vida Libre de Violencia.

However, NGO Centro de Justicia y Paz (Cepaz) insists that these houses either don’t exist, aren’t effective, or have important flaws. According to Cepaz, four safe houses were created since 2014 in the states of Aragua, Cojedes, Sucre and Trujillo; the ones in Sucre and Trujillo were open until the first half of 2018, and the ones in Aragua and Cojedes tended to victims until the first trimester of 2019.

Now, everything is worse. The lockdown in Venezuela has resulted in an increase of femicides because girls, teenagers, and women have to spend 24 hours a day with their aggressors. Uthopix’s Monitor de Femicidios states that at least 157 women were murdered between January and July of 2020, averaging five cases per weekfor perspective, they registered 167 during the whole of 2019. These 157 women were between 17 and 40 years old; 54 were killed by gunshots; 34 were stabbed, and 25 were beaten to death. 

The case of Karla Ríos evidences the little support that victims of domestic violence get in Venezuela.

According to Monitor de Femicidios, at least six of these 157 victims had filed complaints before Venezuelan authorities, detailing the physical, psychological and verbal abuse they were subjected to by their partners, or ex-partners. However, the state didn’t do much about that.

And women’s rights organizations are moving to become that shelter.

Aimee Zambrano, anthropologist and member of the Monitor de Femicidios Uthopix, maintains that, as numbers show, isolation to prevent the spread of COVID-19 has increased the number of female victims of gender-based violence. This is why Monitor, as well as the feminist movement Tinta Violeta and FundaMujer, have put in motion a volunteer network that offers support to those who need it.

One of these volunteers is Orlanys Barreto, a journalist and human rights activist who, along with four other members of the Tinta Violeta organization, listen to all those Venezuelan women that get in touch with them through their website, as well as their Facebook and Instagram accounts. She explains that before the quarantine, she only had nine survivors to look out for, but now she has 42 under her wing, most of them residents of Caracas, and the states of Miranda and Lara.

Tinta Violeta provides psychological and legal help, human rights advisory, and they literally accompany the victim to the police station or the Prosecutor’s Office to file the complaint. Volunteers from organizations like Tinta Violeta have offered their own homes as safe houses. One of them, who asked to remain anonymous for her and the survivor’s safety, says that when the pandemic began she had to take in a victim of verbal, psychological, and physical abuse, because the authorities didn’t help.

“For many women and girls, the threat looms largest where they should be safest.”

“I was her companion,” the volunteer says. “She got in touch with us through our social media and I was advising her, but on March 13th, she called after 7:00 p.m. telling me that her aggressor was close to her home and had sent her a message saying that he would kill her. She had called the police and the police officers had come by, but since the restraining order had expired, they said that they couldn’t take him if they caught him; all they could do was talk to him.”

She says that, when she heard what was going on, she asked her mom’s permission and told her: “Come to my house and we’ll go to the Prosecutor’s Office to file a complaint again. And that’s what we did.”

The victim has two children and stayed until May at the volunteer’s house. In June, she decided to go to her mother’s house because it was closer to her new jobshe was fired as a result of the pandemic.

After five months, the victim still hasn’t had a satisfactory response from the authorities, but the aggressor has toned it down, so she’s moved back to her residence and tries to live taking precautions: she talks to her companion every day and she avoids being alone.

“For many women and girls, the threat looms largest where they should be safest. In their own homes… We know lockdowns and quarantines are essential to suppressing COVID-19. But they can trap women with abusive partners.” said António Guterres, UN Secretary General, while highlighting the need to support “trapped” domestic violence victims during COVID-19 pandemic. But what was a general recommendation for all governments, has only been taken into account in Venezuela by the civil society, through organizations structured to help women or those who identify as such amidst the complex humanitarian emergency. Venezuela keeps reporting a rise of femicide, intrafamily violence, and NGOs and women denounce an overwhelming new dynamic as they juggle house chores and remote education for children in what may be a hostile environment. Women bear the burden of the pandemic, and the civil society has proven once more to be more effective than the government.

Daisy Galaviz

Journalist for El Pitazo and Monitor de Víctimas (Runrunes). Writes for Cosecha Roja, El Espectador, Revista Semana and Historias que laten.