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Latin America shelters struggle to help women in coronavirus lockdowns

Thursday, 9 April 2020 22:22 GMT

Women wait outside a market on after the Peruvian government limited men and women to alternate days for leaving their homes, in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Lima, Peru, April 4, 2020. REUTERS/Sebastian Castaneda

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Governments including Chile, Argentina and Colombia have expanded hotlines, added messaging services and kept shelters and family courts open to help victims

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By Anastasia Moloney, Christine Murray and Oscar Lopez

BOGOTA/MEXICO CITY, April 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The unassuming domestic violence shelter in the Mexican border city of Tapachula has been filled to capacity since January, and manager Elsa Simon already had to refuse three women seeking to escape abusive partners.

With coronavirus lockdown measures intensifying, Simon worries she will be forced to turn away many more as shelters struggle with rising domestic violence and femicide across Latin America.

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Femicide - when a woman is killed because of her gender - claims the lives of a dozen women per day in Latin America, which is home to 14 of the 25 countries with the highest femicide rates in the world.

Nearly 70 shelters for female victims of violence are spread across Mexico as part of the non-profit National Network of Shelters. They often operate on shoestring budgets, and their locations are kept secret.

With families shut in at home under official guidelines to help fight the spread of the coronavirus, tensions and spats over the simplest household chores to weightier concerns like losing a job can easily escalate into violence.

"Their homes become chaotic," Simon told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "Women and kids are stressed.

"Right now they can't leave, because we can't guarantee them what will happen out there."


Countries worldwide have reported increases in domestic violence under coronavirus lockdowns, prompting the United Nations to call for urgent government action.

In Brazil, the state hotline "Ligue 180" for callers to report domestic violence recorded an 18% rise in complaints from March 17 to 25, compared with the first two weeks of the month.

In Bogota, a government-run domestic abuse hotline received four times as many calls than usual during the first weekend of the lockdown that started in the Colombian capital on March 20.

Yet a rise in complaints may not reflect the true scale of violence, if women find it harder to seek help, experts said.

"There are women who simply can't make calls because their partner has confiscated their cell phone ... and he's watching them all day," said Nina Chaparro, a gender rights researcher at Dejusticia, a Colombian rights group.

"At the moment, there are no escape routes," she said.

The Digna Ochoa Human Rights Centre in Mexico's southern state of Chiapas normally receives five to 10 victims of domestic violence per day.

But in the week before the country declared a health emergency on March 30, only two people arrived, according to Jazmin Hernandez, who runs the centre's legal department.

The decrease does not indicate less abuse but shows victims with fewer opportunities to seek help, she said.

"An aggressive person's behavior is control, and control over absolutely everything," she said. "If women are spending 24 hours a day with their aggressor, when are they going to be able to make a phone call?"


A shelter in Brazil's Mato Grosso do Sul state was less than half full, and Salette Marinho de Sa, superintendent at the state's secretariat for human rights, said she expected the number of victims seeking shelter to fall as abuse continued.

"We're sure of one thing - violence hasn't diminished," she said.

To address the crisis, governments including Chile, Argentina and Colombia have expanded hotlines, added online and WhatsApp messaging services and kept shelters and family courts open.

The Mexican government has declared shelters for female victims of violence to be essential services to remain open during the pandemic. About 3,000 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in the country.

But an annual grant program that funds shelters was only started this week, later than expected, leaving them more strapped than usual for money.

Simon resorted to paying for urgent needs like antibacterial gel and face masks with a credit card.

Inside the shelter in Brazil, residents were keeping their distance from one another, taking turns using the kitchen and laundry facilities to help prevent the spread of the virus.

"These are measures that we have to take," said Marinho de Sa.

(Additional reporting by Fabio Teixeira in Rio de Janeiro. Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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