OPINION: Tackling gender-based violence during the pandemic

by Amparo Peñaherrera | Federación de Mujeres de Sucumbíos
Wednesday, 27 May 2020 11:00 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Women are using emojis to secretly ask for help as they suffer lockdowns trapped at home with their abusers

Amparo Peñaherrera is a coordinator at Federación de Mujeres de Sucumbíos in Ecuador, which is supported by humanitarian organisation CARE International.

COVID-19 is inflicting further cruelty upon the woman and girls I work with, who have already endured gender-based violence: physical assault, sexual abuse or psychological harm. Our shelter is in a border town in the Amazon Basin, where petroleum and extractive industries attract men from all over Ecuador to find work. There’s a prolific sex industry here, with bars and canteens on most streets where sexual exploitation is commonplace, supplied by trafficking networks. The last few years have seen refugee women from Venezuela becoming victims of this system, turning in desperation to transactional sex for survival. It’s a violent context, and COVID-19 is making it worse.

Women from all backgrounds come to our shelter for a range of reasons. The pandemic is increasing their suffering at every level: those trying to access our services, those currently in our care, and those who have left and are trying to rebuild their lives.

The women already in our shelter are screened daily for symptoms of COVID-19. New arrivals are having to quarantine alone or with their children during their first week here. This is an additional hardship for women arriving from traumatic circumstances.

Beyond offering a safe haven, we work with survivors on long-term recovery. We help them work through trauma, build their independence and support them with childcare and counselling once they leave us to rebuild their lives. The pandemic is making life increasingly difficult for women leaving our shelter, who are dependent upon casual labour. Work has dried up, worsening their vulnerable situations.

Our gravest concern is for those who desperately need our services but are trapped in ‘lockdown’ with their aggressors. Their houses are often just one room and the women often don’t have a phone of their own. We are seeing an alarming decrease in women reaching out to us by phone. We usually receive 4-7 reports a day; since the lockdown, it’s this many per month. Women are trapped in violent and abusive situations with no escape. We continue to distribute our phone number, but not many are contacting us. They are too fearful to call, or do not have the privacy to do so. Those able to reach us tell us their aggressor is nearly always present, and we have received reports of violence and other forms of abuse.

For women who do contact us, many risk using their aggressor’s phone.  It’s extremely challenging to support women under these circumstances, but we have found ways. We create a coded system of emojis so women can communicate with us undetected, via WhatsApp.  We agree a set of emojis, with each woman choosing their own unique coded meaning. We make the emojis unintuitive – we wouldn’t use a crying face, for example, as their aggressor might suspect they have been communicating about their situation. It might be an animal, or an object. A mouse might mean “I need to hide”, a cat “I need help to escape”, a sunshine “please send someone to my house”. This offers a lifeline to women too afraid to make a phone call. We keep in contact as much as possible, and they delete all messages immediately. It helps us remain informed of their situation, and reassures them they have somewhere to turn. Vital hope and comfort can be conveyed in one small emoji.

The virus has given vulnerable women a dreadful choice: stay and endure abuse, or leave and risk contracting the virus. Do they leave with their children, putting them at risk of infection too? The virus is causing fear – it’s another agonising layer of confusion and worry for women at their most vulnerable.

Amparo Peñaherrera is a coordinator at CARE’s partner organisation Federación de Mujeres de Sucumbíos in Ecuador.