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The Women Of Peru Are Suffering From A 'Shadow Pandemic'

Demonstrators in front of the prosecutor's office in Lima, Peru, protest gender violence and femicide on June 20.
Demonstrators in front of the prosecutor's office in Lima, Peru, protest gender violence and femicide on June 20.

It's a grim roster of alerts. A woman, age 19, last spotted in July wearing sky blue jeans, a black sweater and black sneakers. A 16-year-girl missing since she left her home one morning in July. A 14-year-girl last seen heading to the supermarket at the end of June; she was wearing blue shoes.

Such are the reports of missing women and girls that can be found on the Facebook page of Mujeres Desaparecidas, or Missing Women, a Peruvian advocacy and support group for families. The case reports are shared by distraught families and friends seeking help from the public in their search for loved ones who have been caught up in a grim statistic: Thousands of women — many of them girls and adolescents — have gone missing in Peru since January, including at least 1,423 reported missing since the country entered a state of emergency amid the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-March.

"These aren't just numbers. They are real women being erased," says Katherine Soto, who founded Mujeres Desaparecidas after a close friend went missing four years ago.

As much of the world entered lockdown this spring, the United Nations in April warned of a "shadow pandemic" – a global increase in violence against women and girls, particularly domestic violence. Even during normal times, violence against women is high globally, with 1 in 3 women experiencing physical or sexual violence during their lifetime, according to the U.N. But evidence from past pandemics and humanitarian crises has shown that the stress from economic hardship, social isolation and restricted movement can exacerbate the problem, with many victims trapped at home with their abusers, with limited access to services that could help them.

"This confinement and restriction can exacerbate violence within homes. That's what we're seeing throughout this pandemic," says Isabel Ortiz, a human rights lawyer with the women's rights office of Peru's National Ombudsman's office, an independent group that monitors the country's human rights.

Many of the missing women and girls are feared dead, Ortiz says, given earlier research from the Ombudsman's office that found a sizable portion of women reported missing are later discovered to be victims of femicide.

"So far this year [January 1 to August 21] there have been 75 cases of femicide and 35 violent deaths of women, of which 18% [19 cases] were previously reported as missing," says Eliana Revollar, who heads the women's rights division of the Ombudsman's office. She says 38 cases of femicide and 19 deaths have occurred since mid-March.

But it's not just disappearances and femicides. Calls to a national hotline for victims of domestic and sexual violence also skyrocketed between March and the end of July to 104,000 – more than double the calls fielded during the same time period the previous year, according to data from Peru's Ministry for Women and Vulnerable Populations (MIMP), which runs the hotline. And MIMP's emergency-response workers attended to nearly 1,000 victims of rape, including 703 girls and adolescents, during this same time period.

"All of this is really troubling," says Clea Guerra Romero, a human rights lawyer with the Flora Tristan Center for the Peruvian Woman, a feminist organization.

Guerra Romero says she's received calls during the pandemic from women whose landlords offered them breaks on rent in exchange for sex, as well as from women experiencing increased violence from their partner after one or both of them lost their job.

Peru is far from the only country where reports suggest that fears about increasing violence against women and children have come to fruition: From Tunisia to Argentina to the United States, calls to domestic abuse helplines spiked during the early days of confinement, according to the U.N. For example, calls to the U.K.'s National Domestic Abuse hotline spiked by 25% in the first week of lockdown, and France reported a 30 percent increase in domestic abuse cases, according to the U.N.

Violence against women is pervasive across Latin America as a whole, in part because of the region's history of political and military sexual violence against women that hasn't really been addressed, says Jelke Boesten of King's College London, who has spent years researching gender-based violence in Peru.

In Peru, domestic violence against women was a longstanding problem before the pandemic, with 5 women and girls reported missing each day on average, according to the Ombudsman's office. The fact that the figures remain so high during the pandemic is striking, given that Peru enacted some of the strictest lockdown measures in the world back in mid-March, with police and armed soldiers on the streets enforcing stay-at-home orders and nighttime curfews.

"How is it possible that women disappear even during lockdown in such high numbers? It is shocking," says Boesten. "How can women still disappear if we're all behind closed doors?"

"It seems to me that this proves the fact that the majority of these missing women are [victims of] domestic disputes," Boesten says. "Women disappear, get killed. This is intimate partner violence or family violence."

Boesten and Ortiz note that reports of both femicides and disappearances were down somewhat in the first months of the pandemic compared to the same time period last year. "It's not because cases have really decreased," Ortiz says, "but rather, given the restrictions on freedom, it's harder for victims or their relatives to file complaints [with authorities]. People were still getting used to this new normal."

Indeed, Peru saw a jump in missing women reports after it eased some of its pandemic restrictions at the start of July: 508 women and girls were reported missing in July, compared with 358 the prior month, according to the Ombudsman's office.

This pandemic has exposed "another emergency that's been made invisible for decades, and that's the emergency women live inside their own homes, with multiple forms of violence," says Soto.

Soto and others note that it's impossible to know for sure the fate of the women reported missing. That's because Peru lacks an up-to-date, national database for tracking missing women, even though a law requiring the creation of such a database has been on the books since 2003. That means there's no way to track information like the circumstances under which they disappeared or whether they were later found alive or dead, women's rights advocates say. Last month, Peruvian Prime MinisterWalter Martos promised the country's congress that the database would finally be operational in October. Soto says she welcomes the news but notes that it comes after 17 years of such government promises.

But Guerra Romero says that while the pandemic has forced the issue of violence against women and girls back onto the political agenda, it has also made it harder for victims of that violence to get the physical and mental health services they need from the government. Most health services "are currently primarily focused on COVID care," says Guerra Romero. Peru has one of the highest death rates per capita in the world from the coronavirus — 90.87 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants as of Sept. 3, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. "So many health services, even sexual and reproductive health services, in practice have been neglected," she says.

The Peruvian government operates emergency centers for women (Centros Emergencia Mujer, or CEM) that offer legal help and counseling for victims of violence, but in practice, these centers haven't been able to do much for all but the worst cases, says a worker with one of these centers who asked not to be named because of fears of losing her job for speaking out.

"I know we are only addressing urgent, emergency calls, for example sexual violence or attempted femicide or physical violence," the CEM worker told NPR. But more moderate cases of assault – such as verbal assault or pushing — aren't being attended to, she says. "They are being told that they will get a visit when lockdown measures ease more. Can you imagine? I mean, we're so many months into this already."

She tells me about a case emblematic of the obstacles victims of violence face: a 12-year-old girl who was assaulted and raped while walking home in late May in the Vilcashuamán province of Ayacucho, a region in south-central Peru. The girl reported the rape, but the health workers who examined her failed to give her the emergency health kit that victims of sexual violence are supposed to receive under Peruvian law. The kit includes the emergency birth control drug levonorgestrel. The girl later found out she was pregnant. Two men were charged in the case, but relatives of one man testified that the girl was in fact his girlfriend, while the relative of the second man vouched for his whereabouts at the time of the rape. A judge eventually let both men go free, with some restrictions on their movement. Meanwhile, the girl is in a state shelter, according to Peruvian news reports.

Boesten says that while Peru has passed several laws in the last two decades to address violence against women and girls, in practice, there's no actual infrastructure. "And that means that one can report violence, but nothing will happen." For example, she says the police in practice do not enforce restraining orders against men reported for domestic violence. And cases of physical abuse are classified as misdemeanors, not criminal offenses, unless the victim is deemed injured enough to be incapacitated for at least 10 days, she says.

Guerra Romero of the Peruvian feminist group Flora Tristan says at the heart of the problem is a deeply ingrained culture of machismo. She points to a 2019 survey from the Peruvian government that found nearly 53 percent of Peruvians think a woman's job is to focus first on her role as a mother and wife, and only after that on "her dreams." She says these attitudes pervade Peruvian society, including government officials tasked with applying the law.

"This type of data tells us how hard it is to fight against societal prejudices," Guerra Romero says. "It's a huge problem throughout the civil service. We're talking about police, courts, prosecutors."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.