Medellin Colombia – Letica Estacio hoped the wave of gender-based violence that erupted during the coronavirus lockdown in Colombia would slow after the South American country eased restrictions in early September.
After the five-month lockdown was lifted, femicides – the killing of women based on their gender – rose across the country, data from the Colombian Femicide Observatory shows.
In Colombia in September, an average of nearly three women were killed a day, with 86 femicides recorded in the month. It’s the highest monthly total that researchers have documented since tracking the murders began in 2017.
Guard dogs said the rise in violence against women is a product of exacerbating the long-term effects of the pandemic – a resurgence of group armed violence and economic consequences – that disproportionately affect women.
“Every day the conflict gets worse and worse. The drug trafficking, the murders, ”said Estacio, a 52-year-old suffragette in the western coastal town of Tumaco. “It’s incredibly difficult, and even more so for women.”
Women participate in a protest against violence against women in Medellin, Colombia, amid the new coronavirus pandemic on June 19, 2020 [Joaquin Sarmiento/AFP]
Increase in gender-based violence
At the start of the pandemic, there was a surge in domestic violence in countries around the world as lockdown restrictions linked women with their abusers. Latin America, a region that had a high rate of gender-based violence before the pandemic, was hit even harder.
Estacio and other leaders in Tumaco, a drug trafficking and armed conflict center, were overwhelmed by an initial spike in domestic violence cases after the country launched a nationwide lockdown in March.
However, when the state diverted resources from some parts of the country to control the coronavirus outbreak, a patchwork of criminal groups – left-wing fighters, right-wing paramilitaries, and drug trafficking gangs – moved into areas that had been cleared by the government and became territorial War.
“There is no law here,” said Estacio.
As a result, mass murders and similar bloodshed, reminiscent of times before the country’s 2016 peace process, has risen across the country.
Sexual and gender-based violence have long been used as a weapon of war to sow terror in communities. Now, Estefania Rivera Guzman, a researcher at the observatory, is concerned that women’s strategic direction may be on the rise.
So far, the group has recorded 445 femicide cases in 2020, up from 431 cases in the same period in 2019. The numbers recorded in September were more than double what they were earlier this year.
Since September, suffragettes have noted another worrying trend: as armed groups clash in rural areas, exploiting the vulnerabilities created by the pandemic to increase child recruitment, the number of women and girls killed by guns has increased.
In the past few weeks, a man pleaded guilty to beating and stabbing a woman who refused his sexual advancement and tossed her into the western Cauca River, where her body was found swimming.
Armed men reportedly stopped and shot the car of a local leader for women and indigenous peoples’ rights near Tumaco.
In downtown Segovia, a 14-year-old girl was reportedly killed by a killer, and the day after the funeral, her body was dug up in the cemetery and found naked.
“It is these acts of violence that are so extreme that they send a message,” said Rivera Guzman. “And the message is directed not only to women, but also to the men who live in the zone, and is: who has power?”
While officials in Segovia said they “oppose all acts of violence” against women and girls and police say they are investigating the crime, the majority of femicides in the country end with impunity.
Women play the drums during a protest against violence against women in Medellin, Colombia, on June 19, 2020 amid the new coronavirus pandemic [Photo by Joaquin Sarmiento/AFP]In Tumaco, Estacio and other observers say women are often too anxious to report gender-based violence because men who work with armed groups camp outside government offices where women usually report.
In the meantime, the economic fallout caused by the pandemic and lockdowns has hit women disproportionately, putting them at increased risk.
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, Colombia had one of the largest economic gender gaps in Latin America. In recent months, female-dominated industries such as tourism and services have been hard hit.
In August, the female unemployment rate was 21.7 percent and the male unemployment rate was 31.4 percent, according to the latest government data.
Estacio said that women in her community, who would normally make a living from informal work and selling street food, have run out of income as work has dried up amid the lockdown.
It has robbed vulnerable women of “economic autonomy,” said Carolina Mosquera, researcher at Bogota-based think tank Sisma Mujer. And with it, their ability to escape an abusive situation that could escalate into something as extreme as femicide.
In a recent case, a woman called the organization’s domestic violence hotline and they worked to get her out of her home, where she was mistreated by her husband. Hours later, when they called back, she told the helpers that she could not go because she was surviving on her husband’s salary.
When they tried to follow suit, “she just stopped answering.”
“It’s a loss of 10 years of work for gender equality because women are returning to these patriarchal spaces,” Mosquera said. “It brings us back to that old dynamic of the man providing and the woman taking care of the home.”
The pandemic has put more than 15,000 women in Colombia at extreme risk of femicide, according to the National Institute of Forensic Medicine and Forensics. Similar improvements were seen in other Latin American countries such as Guatemala and Mexico.
While local and national governments tried to respond to the violence and set up resources such as local and national attention lines for domestic violence, critics have said that this is insufficient and that women do not have effective resources for justice.
The Colombian Ombudsman’s Office, which oversees human rights protection, declined to comment, stating that due to the lack of state presence caused by the pandemic, it is not possible to officially register the femicides.
“A line does not guarantee access to justice, a restoration of their rights. No, a call is just a call. “Mosquera said. “These government efforts are inadequate compared to the cases, killings and violence we saw in the pandemic.”