Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi declared a state of emergency Sunday over a tide of violence against women, a measure local activists have demanded for years to address a scourge that continues to go largely unpunished.
The emergency declaration calls for a series of wide-ranging policies to combat femicides and other forms of violence. The executive order was hailed by advocates as an important step in addressing a long-existing issue that jumped back into the spotlight after a recent murder.
“Gender violence is a social evil, based on ignorance and attitudes that cannot have space or tolerance in the Puerto Rico that we aspire to,” Pierluisi said in a press release. “It is my duty and my commitment as governor to establish a STOP to gender violence and for these purposes I have declared a state of emergency.”
As part of the order, a mobile app will be created to help victims request assistance and report aggressors to emergency services. Authorities will create a program to check in with women who have filed restraining orders. And the government will launch media campaigns to educate the public about gender violence.
A compliance officer will be charged with ensuring the order is followed, while a committee including local rights groups will simultaneously recommend public policy, monitor implementation, and publish progress reports.
“To eradicate gender violence we have to make concerted efforts between the state and society in which, in addition to a comprehensive plan, there is an educational approach to teach our children that every human being has to be respected, as well as empower to our next generations to eradicate this evil,” the governor said.
The move comes days after Angie Noemi González, a nurse from the mountain town of Barranquitas, was found dead in a ravine in a crime that outraged many on the island. According to police, her partner of 16 years, Roberto Rodríguez, admitted to killing the mother of three.
The woman’s uncle, Alex Santos, told el Nuevo Herald she had been working at a nursing home throughout the pandemic and had survived cancer. He said she had expressed fear for her life but thought that filing a restraining order would be pointless.
“It’s a piece of paper that won’t protect me at all,” he said she told him.
The order is the latest measure to bring attention to violence against women in Latin America and the Caribbean, considered one of the most dangerous regions in the world to be female. A recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperative and Development notes the region has the world’s highest rates of femicide, with over a quarter of women experiencing violence from an intimate partner at least once in their lifetime. Advocates fear those trends have gotten worse during the pandemic, with lockdowns putting vulnerable women at further risk.
Throughout the streets of Latin America women have protested, demanding an end to violence and calling on governments to grant full reproductive rights in the predominantly Catholic region. Argentina recently legalized abortion up to the 14th week of pregnancy after mass demonstrations in support of the measure. In Mexico City, protesters occupied government offices, creating a women’s shelter while demonstrating against femicide.
Puerto Rico has at least one femicide a week, according to a 2019 study from Kilómetro Cero and Proyecto Matria, two island-based rights groups. There were at least 60 such crimes in Puerto Rico last year, according to a local watchdog group, the Observatory for Gender Equity. That figure represents a 62% increase from 2019. The U.S. territory registered the world’s highest per capita rate of women over the age of 14 killed by their partners in a 2012 report from the American Civil Liberties Union.
Declaring a state of emergency due to gender violence was one Pierluisi’s campaign promises. Shortly after being sworn into office earlier this month, he said his team was working to issue the executive order as soon as possible, and one of the first measures the new Puerto Rican Senate approved in January was requesting the declaration of emergency from the governor’s office.
Experts, local activists, and feminist organizations say that a lack of public policy from the Puerto Rican government exposes women and girls to sexual and gender violence. Local groups and shelters have pushed for the declaration since at least 2018. It appears to be one of the first such designations in the region.
— Taller Salud (@tsalud) January 24, 2021
“Today we allow ourselves to feel joy for the progress that it signifies for the feminist struggle of Puerto Rico and the world, having made the State recognize its responsibility and obligation to tackle the crisis of gender violence,” said Colectiva Feminista en Construcción, on Twitter Sunday.
Taller Salud, a women’s rights group focusing on community and public health initiatives, said in a statement its staff was still reviewing the order but expressed cautious optimism about the measure.
“We feel we are headed in the right direction,” the group said.
Siempre vigilantes, siempre escépticas, fiscalizando y exigiendo transparencia pero sosteniendo espacio para RECONOCER y CELEBRAR el camino andado y el terreno político ganado. pic.twitter.com/07ZRNlqkAI
— Colectiva Feminista (@ColeFeminista) January 24, 2021
Former Gov. Wanda Vázquez, who left office in early January and was Puerto Rico’s ombudsman for women, declined to declare an emergency over gender violence during her time in office. Instead, she opted to sign an executive order that issued a “national alert” to address gender violence integrating public agencies in a coordinated response and enforcing already-existing laws.
“Signing a document issuing an emergency declaration will not make any significant changes if we do not have a concrete and structured response plan, ‘‘ Vázquez said at the time.
Débora Upegui-Hernández, an analyst from the Observatory for Gender Equity, said little had been done to enforce Vázquez’s order.
“Really, nothing has been seen in terms of the protocol of government actions to address the situation,” she said.
As part of his campaign platform, Pierluisi also pledged to address gender-related educational disparities and pay gaps; support female professionals and workers; and offer education about women’s equality in schools. The executive order released Sunday also stipulates that the local Department of Economic Development and Commerce expand initiatives to support professional opportunities for women, since gender violence often comes hand-in-hand with financial vulnerability.
Upegui-Hernández hopes that the new administration and its emergency declaration will bring changes to public policy that prevent and reduce gender violence in Puerto Rico.
“That state of emergency has to be tied to plans and plans that are executed,” she said. “There has to be a way to control the execution of those plans. It can’t be just putting a name on it and nothing happens.”
You can read the executive order here: