Gender-Based Violence Declared a National Crisis in Puerto Rico

Earlier this month, Coordinadora Paz Para La Mujer, a women-led anti-violence coalition, declared gender-based violence a national crisis in Puerto Rico. 

Since Hurricane Maria, there has been an increase in sexual violence and harassment and a decrease in access to resources for survivors in Puerto Rico. The national disaster recovery plans and emergency responses lack a gender analysis, causing a mismanagement of reporting processes and little attention to violence prevention plans.

To date, there have been 12 reported deaths caused by domestic violence in Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria. This number is a gross misrepresentation. Five out of eight shelters are operating. And even when shelters are fully functional, gender-based violence is severely underreported.

Prior to the hurricane, gender discrimination was already rampant in Puerto Rico. For example, women are more likely to live in poverty than men and even in women-dominated fields like nursing and education, men are more likely to be promoted and earn higher wages than women. Transgender and gender non-conforming individuals are barely represented in accurate data collection, which alone indicates violence against their communities. And non-profit organizations serving women experienced funding cuts in wake of the island’s ongoing financial crisis that peaked in 2015.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), natural disasters tend to exacerbate violence against women and girls, multiplying threats to their health and wellbeing. The Center for American Progress explains that disasters place women in precarious circumstances — they often have to search for food and water in the dark and many have to live in overcrowded shelters. The coupling of scarce provisions and lack of law enforcement, which is already an imperfect reporting mechanism for sexual violence, puts women at heightened risk of violence.

Taller Salud, coalition member of Coordinadora Paz Para La Mujer, is one of many local Puerto Rican feminist organizations empowering women with the skills, knowledge, and resources to enable community resilience in light of the government’s inaction on gender-based violence. Tania Rosario, director of the organization, says the organization’s goal is to ensure that any issue women face in their community becomes part of their feminist priorities.

Based in Loiza, which gained electricity in February nearly five months after the hurricane, Taller Salud reduced violence in their neighborhood by 90 percent compared to the immediate aftermath of the hurricane. After the hurricane, they expanded their peacebuilding programming and reproductive health workshops to include leadership trainings to support women and teenagers who were rebuilding each other’s homes and cooking meals for the neighborhood. Cognizant that lacking electricity, food, and water is a hotbed for domestic violence, they employed prevention programming by listening carefully to their constituents’ needs and facilitated intergenerational community support. For example, when asked what their main health concerns were, women responded that the wellbeing of their children mattered the most and that they wanted to help rebuild the neighborhood’s infrastructure. Taller Salud created relief brigades to sustain this work, while integrating mental health services through acupuncture and massage therapy, understanding that extreme stress and pressure for survival can incite violence.

The government should learn from Taller Salud’s feminist strategy as they develop long-term recovery plans and listen to community-led coalitions. Coordinadora Paz Para La Mujer is calling on the local and federal government to co-design disaster management protocols to address the health and safety needs of women and to improve data collection on gender-based violence.

The coalition’s work is demonstrating the power of community resilience and the importance of feminism as a principle in disaster relief.

Image header: Taller Salud

Amanda R. Matos, proud Nuyorican from the Bronx, NY, is the co-founder of the WomanHOOD Project, a Bronx-based youth-led organization for young women of color. She is dedicated to empowering communities of color through capacity building, political education, and civic engagement. Amanda has led community organizing and policy initiatives at Planned Parenthood of New York City and Girls for Gender Equity. She is currently pursuing a master's degree in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government as a Sheila C. Johnson Fellow. On her free time, Amanda eats doughnuts and watches great TV shows like Jane the Virgin and Blackish.

Amanda R. Matos is a community organizer and reproductive justice activist from the Bronx, NY.

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