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CULTURE | 21-04-2020 07:55

Women suffer as lockdown worsens Latin America's 'domestic hell'

Confinement in several Latin American countries to curb the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered warnings about violence against women, many of whom are forced to be locked up with their aggressor for extended periods.

Weeks of confinement imposed by the coronavirus pandemic is taking a chilling toll on women and girls across Latin America, where the number of calls to helplines have soared, made by victims of domestic violence who cannot flee. 

In the region, the average number of recorded femicides is higher than 10 a day. Appeals to help women experiencing violence in the home have redoubled in recent weeks, from the United Nations to Pope Francis – Latin America's first pontiff. 

"With increasing economic and social pressures and fear, we have seen a shocking global upsurge in domestic violence," admitted UN Secretary-General António Guterres.

The Pope also warned that women "sometimes run the risk of being subjected to violence because of a coexistence from which they carry too great a burden.

"The confinement is plunging thousands of women into hell, trapped with an attacker who they are more afraid of than the coronavirus," said Victoria Aguirre from the local NGO MuMaLá, which campaigns against violence related to macho culture.

In Argentina, 18 women have been killed by their partner or ex-partners during the first 20 days of a mandatory quarantine instituted by the government from March 20. Appeals to helplines in Argentina are up nearly 40 percent.

The country is still reeling from the shocking murder of Cristina Iglesias and her seven-year-old daughter Ada, killed by her mother's partner in the early days of the lockdown. 

Their two bodies were found buried in the backyard of their home in a town in Buenos Aires Province.

Elsewhere, police – alerted by neighbours – arrived in the nick of time to save a woman whose husband attacked her with a hammer.

Living in fear

The situation is repeated in Mexico, Brazil or Chile, where the actions of the government and civil associations are insufficient to stop the killings.

A staggering 3,800 women were murdered in Latin America in 2019, an 8 percent increase on the previous year, according to preliminary data from the Observatory for Gender Equality at CEPAL, the UN's Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.

"Unfortunately, many women and girls are particularly exposed to violence precisely where they should be protected, in their own homes," said Guterres, who issued a call for a domestic violence "ceasefire" as lockdowns extended into April.

"You live in fear of turning your back on him. It is only later, when the bruises appear, that you realise that he could have killed you," Luciana, a 25-year-old victim of domestic violence, told AFP. She was badly beaten by her ex-husband.

"Every day, a women is abused, raped or beaten at home by her partner or her ex," said Ada Rico, from fellow local NGO La Casa del Encuentro.

"In normal times, we would help her to file a complaint. These days, the urgency is to get her out of the house as quickly as possible."

The situation is similarly grim across the region, where measures taken by the authorities often fall far short of properly protecting victims.

In Mexico, "emergency calls have increased" since the start of the lockdown on March 24, said Nadine Gasman, head of the National Women's Institute in Mexico City.

Maria Salguero, who researches violence against women and created a "femicide map" around the country, estimated that around 200 women have been murdered since quarantine measures began.

Rape and murder

The sordid murder of Ana Paola, a 13-year-old who was raped and beaten to death by a burglar in the northeastern state of Sonora in early April, provoked widespread disgust and anger in Mexico.

Emergency calls to the National Refugee Network, an NGO which caters to women victims of violence, have increased by 60 percent since the beginning of the confinement period. The number of women taken into care by the organisation is up five percent. 

With more than 1,000 femicides in 2019, two recent brutal murders – one of a seven-year-old girl – once again highlighted a lack of action by authorities.

Mexican feminist activists have demanded more effective policies from President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to combat the wave of violence.

It's a similar case in Peru, where 2019 femicides were the highest in a decade.

And in São Paulo, the epicentre of Brazil's virus outbreak, reports of domestic violence have risen by 30 percent since the state government imposed a stay-at-home order.

A group of 700 volunteers have formed a "network of justice" to provide victims with medical, legal and psychological assistance through a WhatsApp messaging service.

In Chile, which has opted for selective confinement in the most affected areas plus a nighttime curfew, reported femicide numbers are low at just four, yet complaints of domestic violence are up 500 percent in Providencia, an upper class neighbourhood in the capital Santiago.

The crisis has resulted in "increased alcohol consumption, mental health effects, increased anxiety, depression and violence within families," said senior health official Paula Daza.

by by Sonia Avalos, with AFP bureaus in Latin America

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