This story is Part II of the writer's report series about people living with violent domestic partners during the COVID-19 pandemic. You can read Part I here.
Although exact percentages vary by country, domestic violence affects an average of one in three women in Latin America. The various factors that perpetuate domestic violence have been aggravated during the pandemic and must be addressed from different angles.
Rosario Gómez, founding member of the Casa de Refugio Matilde in Quito, Ecuador, explains that although reporting the aggressor is commonly thought to be the first step in reducing intimate partner violence, this is not the case. In reality, over 80% of women in abusive relationships do not report their partners in Ecuador, and they require preexisting support before any legal action is taken.
En nuestros 30 años de trabajo hemos luchado por las leyes apropiadas, pero la primera entrada no debe ser jurídica. Se puede llegar a la denuncia, pero solo cuando la mujer esté más fuerte emocionalmente, haya logrado una separación afectiva del agresor, y cuente con apoyo.
In our 30 years we have fought for better laws, but the first safe step [when leaving a violent partner] does not involve going directly to court. Charges should be filed only once the woman is in an emotionally stronger place, is emotionally separated from the aggressor, and can count on support from others.
Daniela Pullas, a lawyer from the Ecuadorian Center for the Promotion and Action of Women (CEPAM) in Rumiñahui, Ecuador, explained that these steps are essential because undergoing legal processes can take months and be exhausting for the entire family. Because of this, CEPAM offers psychological support for women and their children along with free legal assistance.
Gómez added that the Casa de Refugio Matilde takes in women who are at high risk of femicide, but clarifies that not everyone experiences violence at the same level. Therefore, it is necessary to determine each case’s risk level and encourage collaboration between different branches of care to create complementary mechanisms that address different needs. For example, ambulatory care centers offer outpatient consultations for less critical cases.
According to Gómez, both the media and civil society can play a crucial role during confinement by broadcasting radio programs that provide guidance to people experiencing domestic violence, or setting up neighborhood watch networks. It is imperative to break the culture of silence in order to do this.
Family and friends are essential support providers, especially during quarantine lockdowns when it is difficult to access outside services. However, Esteban Laso, psychotherapist and social psychologist, explains that this kind of support must be offered free of judgment and with respect to the victims’ decisions:
Hay que comprender que la terminación de una relación de pareja violenta no ocurre de la noche a la mañana. Es fundamental no cortar el vínculo con la persona durante el proceso, no culparla si regresa con su agresor, y no demonizar a la pareja. Ayudan más las preguntas que facilitan la reflexión que los consejos, pero esto puede ser difícil y requiere un entrenamiento, por eso es importante complementar este apoyo con el trabajo de un profesional especializado.
We have to understand that ending a violent relationship doesn’t happen overnight. It is essential to not cut bonds with the victim, or to blame them if they return to their aggressor, or demonize their relationship. Asking questions that encourage reflection are more helpful than giving advice, but this can be difficult and requires training, so it is important to complement this support with the work of a specialized professional.
Along with emotional support, friends and family can provide practical assistance, such as a safe place to stay, financial support, or help with childcare.
Ana, a 31-year-old Ecuadorian woman whose name has been changed for her protection, told Global Voices that her sister's support was the ultimate deciding factor when finally left her abusive partner:
Después de una de las veces que mi exmarido me pegó, mi hermana llegó con algunas personas y entre todos me ayudaron a salir de la casa. Sin ella, yo no me habría animado porque estaba asustada y no tenía la independencia económica para mantener a mis dos hijas sola.
After one of the times my ex-husband hit me, my sister came by with a few other people and they all helped me get out of the house. Without her, I wouldn’t have done it because I was scared and didn’t have the financial independence to support my two daughters alone.
Gómez explains that eliminating unequal situations like the economic dependency that Ana describes is necessary to reduce violence. In his opinion, civil society made important advances to highlight job insecurity and reposition violence as a public problem. However, he adds that destabilizing social structures that maintain inequality is essential to truly achieve profound change.
According to Pullas, governments must prioritize violence prevention and allocate sufficient resources to do so. Advocacy for this is even more important during the pandemic when government budgets are cut. In addition, it is necessary to ensure greater compliance with existing laws, and to change widespread ideas that perpetuate violence.
For Ana, these cultural norms factored heavily in her inability to leave on her own. As a teacher, now that she has overcome these obstacles, she instills new values in her students:
Te meten en la cabeza que si tienes hijos nadie te va a querer, y hay un miedo gigante a quedarte sola. Además, muchas veces permaneces en el ciclo de la violencia por miedo a que te juzguen, y eso la naturaliza. Esas son las ideas que yo intento cambiar todos los días en mis alumnos.
Society puts the idea into your head that no other man will love you once you have children, and there is a great fear of being alone. Also, people often stay in cycles of violence because they fear judgment from others which then normalizes staying in violent relationships. These are the ideas that I try to change in my students every day.
Lastly, Laso stresses that eradicating violence must be a joint effort, and that, although prevention work is essential, these tasks cannot fall solely on the shoulders of women:
La concientización debe dirigirse hacia los testigos y perpetradores, y no solo a las potenciales víctimas. Los hombres tenemos que recuperar nuestra capacidad de querer y ser queridos. Este es un proceso largo y profundo de transformar nuestra forma de entender lo que es ser hombre y ser humano. Solo así lograremos el cambio auténtico y duradero que tanto necesitamos.
Awareness must also be directed towards witnesses and perpetrators, and not just potential victims. Men have to take back our ability to love and be loved. This is a long and deep process of transforming our way of understanding what it means to be a man and a human being. It's the only way that we will be able to achieve the authentic and lasting change that we need so much.