The Perils of Quédate en Casa: COVID-19 and Gender Violence in Latin America

By Brenda Werth*

Women performing "A Rapist in Your Path" holding up signs

A Rapist in Your Path – Brasília/ Mídia NINJA/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License (not modified)

Stay-at-home orders during the COVID‑19 pandemic have had a devastating impact on women in Latin America and brought mass protests against gender violence to a screeching, and troubling, halt. Since the foundational march of NiUnaMenos in June 2015 in Buenos Aires, Latin American activists have revolutionized protest against gender violence in a spectacularly public way, bringing together hundreds of thousands of women and allies on the streets of major cities to denounce gender violence and demand protection of gender, sexuality, and reproductive rights. Since its debut last November, the flashmob Un violador en tu camino (A Rapist in Your Path), created by the Chilean feminist collective Las Tesis, has been performed in more than 200 cities around the world, decrying the role of the state and police in perpetuating gender violence.

  • Even as the coronavirus began to spread, movements against gender violence continued to expand. In March, millions of women marched to commemorate International Women’s Day to demand an end to femicide and gender inequality. In Madrid, among the posters condemning gender violence were some declaring “The patriarchy kills more than the coronavirus.” By March 15, however, Spain was on lockdown, and by the end of the month most Latin American countries had instituted either partial or total lockdowns. Suddenly, slogans condemning gender violence and demanding gender equality were replaced by the urgent message for people to stay home: “Quédate en casa.”

The stay-at-home orders have had severe consequences for women across the globe. In Latin America, where seven out of 10 femicides take place in the home, the weeks following the institution of quarantines saw surges in the reporting of domestic violence, primarily against women, children, and LGBTQ individuals. Calls to domestic violence hotlines increased 40 percent in Argentina, 60 percent in Mexico, and over 90 percent in Colombia. Financial precarity, unemployment, and lack of access to child and eldercare all exacerbated preexisting gender inequalities, creating a “perfect storm” for domestic violence.

  • Quarantines have proven crucial and effective in countering the health threat posed by coronavirus, but they have left victims of gender violence trapped under the same roof with their abusers. One unintended effect of quarantine is the reinforcement of the perception of domestic abuse as a private, family affair, separate from the public sphere, and excluded from the jurisdiction of the state.

Government responses to the increased domestic violence in Latin America have varied tremendously, ranging from acknowledgment to denial of the crisis.

  • Elizabeth Gómez Alcorta, Argentina’s Minister of Women, Genders and Diversity, has issued a resolution explicitly allowing individuals to leave quarantine in order to seek assistance and protection against domestic violence. The Argentine government has also collaborated in building innovative campaigns blending awareness of both pandemics – gender violence and COVID‑19. The Barbijo Rojo (red mask) campaign refers to a code word women may employ when talking to pharmacists to let them know they are at risk of harm and unable to seek out help.
  • In comparison, denial has guided Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s response. His government has failed to implement any major policy changes to address the increase in gender violence during COVID‑19, and he has maintained that 90 percent of calls to domestic violence hotlines are false. According to AMLO, Mexico does not have the same problem as other cultures with domestic violence because “the Mexican family is exceptional.” The government’s campaign to address domestic violence during quarantine, Cuenta hasta 10, asks family members to “count until ten” before expressing anger in the home. According to Lulú Barrera, the campaign lacks “gender perspective” by disregarding the structural causes of gender violence and ultimately puts women at risk by asking them to sacrifice their wellbeing to maintain peace in the home.

While the health pandemic has highlighted the dire need for movements like NiUnaMenos and messages like that of  Un violador en tu camino to continue and expand, stay-at-home orders have halted collective public mobilizations and forced women to return to the private sphere of their homes. The movements have radically transformed awareness and perceptions of gender violence over the last five years, but the current crisis, including the alarming increase in domestic violence, shows the gender-violence pandemic remains strong and could get worse. Protecting public health through stay-at-home orders should not neglect the need to protect women. Solutions must be jointly envisioned and enacted by public health experts, activists, and political leaders.

June 29, 2020

* Brenda Werth is Associate Professor and Department Chair, World Languages and Cultures, at American University.

Moving Toward Religious Unity in Response to Violence?

Bishop Oscar Romero mural, El Salvador / Photo credit: alison.mckellar / Foter / CC BY

Bishop Oscar Romero mural, El Salvador / Photo credit: alison.mckellar / Foter / CC BY

Many Latin American churches are struggling to address the criminal violence challenging their societies – and are finding new ways of promoting peace in ways reflecting each country’s different conditions.  As part of American University’s multi-year project (click here) on religious responses to violence in Latin America, 40 grassroots activists representing two-dozen faith-based ministries in seven countries gathered in Guatemala City in mid-July to share experiences ministering to victims of the region’s rampant violence.* Their ministries in Mexico, Central America and Colombia ranged from programs for at-risk youth, to rehabilitation centers for former gang members, to shelters for Central American migrants crossing through Mexico.  Just as they developed a range of responses to the threats posed by authoritarian governments in the past, religion-based activists today are adapting strategies to a wave of “new” violence, a battery of social ills that includes gang violence, gender-based violence, and violence against migrants, as well as the persistent violence in states that have formally democratized but failed to deliver basic security.

Conflicting interpretations of the Church’s message of peace affect how churches define victims, how they emphasize or downplay the structural causes of violence, and how they respond to human suffering.  Thus, while many of the participants characterized the current crisis in terms of structural or institutional violence, such convictions were not always reflected in churches’ proposed solutions to the crises facing their communities.  There was no consensus, for example, on how faith-based organizations can effectively engage state institutions and policies, particularly where governments are perceived as corrupt and ineffective:  some participants believe the church’s role is to condemn corruption, while others saw no alternative to holding elected and appointed authorities accountable by pressing them to deliver justice.  One of the participating ministries based in Honduras, for example, provides legal aid for victims and their families, encouraging them to press charges, provide testimony, and follow-up with police and courts until they obtain a conviction.

For many of those in attendance, the ecumenical meeting was a first – in the words of a Mexican participant, “historic” – by offering a unique opportunity for religious practitioners to learn about the realities of neighboring countries, exchange ideas about best practices responding to violence, and discuss possible means of collaboration across borders.  Despite diverse traditions and circumstances, the churches are becoming a more visible and potentially more unified force in the struggle against violence in Latin America. In a region marked by ecclesiastical competition, they are challenging traditional understandings of “accompaniment” and are recognizing their shared responsibility to respond to violence with concrete action.  Indifference, passivity, fear, and silence received the greatest condemnation from the meeting’s participants.  These churches are realizing that their diverse activities are in fact complementary, and that they have a critical role to play – both to mitigate existing suffering and to eradicate root causes of violence.  

*The seminar “The Role of the Church in the Face of Violence in Mesoamerica: Models and Experiences of Peace in Contexts of Conflict and Violence” was co-organized by AU’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies and the Latin American Anabaptist Seminary (SEMILLA) based in Guatemala City.