María-Noel Vaeza: Violence Against Women

Latin America has been one of the worst-hit regions in the world during the COVID-19 pandemic, with over 14 million diagnosed cases. Media images of cardboard coffins and bodies being left in the streets of Guayaquil, Ecuador spread throughout the world. However, the UN has declared there is another pandemic in the region lingering in the shadows – violence against women. In Honduras, the country with the highest femicide rate in the world, figures show that one woman is murdered every sixteen hours and in 2014, the UN reported that 95% of cases of gender-based violence in Honduras were never investigated. This situation is being aggravated by the coronavirus pandemic with more than 900 women and girls declared missing in Peru this summer. While significant progress has been made through the work of feminist groups and the UN, much more must be done. 

María-Noel Vaeza is Regional Director for the Americas at UN Women and through this role works to raise awareness of the problem in the region, enact concrete change and empower women. María-Noel Vaeza talks to Flora Davies about the nature of gender-based violence in the region, how the pandemic has affected the situation, and what the UN is doing to protect and empower women in Latin America.

The underestimated magnitude of the problem of gender-based violence in Latin America is evident, with recent UN figures showing that one in three women in the region are affected by this form of violence at some point in their lives. This gender violence is even referred to as its own pandemic. What are the root causes of this gender-based violence and why is it such a pertinent problem in Latin America?

I think it can be linked to social norms and the extent to which violence is accepted. It begins with the way women raise their sons and the ‘machismo that is typical of my region. It is completely unfair how invisible women’s unpaid care work is, and the lack of shared responsibility with men in the same household. We did a survey in Chile asking men whether they shared responsibility in the household during the pandemic, and most said nothing had changed for them – they didn’t feel they needed to share household responsibilities. This disequilibrium is frustrating for women because there is a lack of recognition of the core responsibility that they hold in the household. There is still a belief that women exist to serve men. We are invisible because there are not enough role models in important positions – just think about the lack of female presidents. We are still fighting for a place in politics, economics, science – in every aspect of life.

There is also a lot of tolerance of violence. That is why we are pushing for an improved justice system. We want to better understand the impact of the unconscious biases of judges and prosecutors. The blame is often shifted onto the female victim, because of how she was dressed or because she went out in the evening, which is extremely unfair. I believe the justice system is keen to solve this, but it is difficult due to the way love is portrayed in my region. Love is equated with possession (“I love you, therefore I own you”) which becomes dangerous when a woman wants to leave her partner. There is also a lack of financial opportunities for these women which makes it harder for them to leave their partners, and a lack of women’s shelters which means they do not have a safe place to go.

Ultimately, it is a mix between social norms, the absence of a legal framework, the absence of public policy and the absence of budgets to support these policies, as well as women still being seen to be responsible for violence. The victim is often blamed rather than the perpetrator.

We are trying to shift the conversation to talk about masculinities, about the core responsibility of men in the household, about the meaning of a woman’s unrecognised work in the household. More women are graduating from universities in the region than men, yet when they leave they are met with a gender pay gap, with not being promoted and problems with maternity leave. The frustration is everywhere, but we can come together to talk about these experiences. We are trying to promote this so women know there are other women out there who have shared similar experiences, and that they are empowered. Otherwise, mental health problems can arise and this is only increasing in the pandemic.

We are using different methods to analyse the link between women and the economy, and one is the statistics of time – we look at the minimum wage and measure how much time women’s unpaid care work takes. It comes out at 15% of GDP in Mexico, more than oil, more than manufacturing, more than anything. It is extremely unfair and this should be seen as an emergency. Uruguay and Chile have recently declared violence against women as an emergency in their respective countries, but they are not backing this up enough financially.

There has been a rising number of women going missing in Latin America during the pandemic and there is speculation that this is aggravated by the lockdowns and other pressures leading to an increase in violence. How do you think the pandemic is impacting the nature and rate of violence towards women in Latin America?

The lockdowns came abruptly because of the speed of the pandemic and measures to protect women could not be prepared properly, therefore COVID restrictions often exacerbate violence in the home. Many men and women have lost their jobs and are locked down together, leaving women with limited opportunities to leave the house and seek help. That is what we saw with the activity in the private sector with the ‘barbijo rojo’. Women can go to pharmacies and say they would like a ‘barbijo rojo’ [red mask] which the pharmacist knows is a call for help. Women have also become aware of the power of social media and are using platforms such as TikTok and Facebook to call for help. However, it is important to remember that only the more privileged women have access to the Internet. And even the Internet, while useful in some ways, has also created a space for cyber violence and cyber harassment.

Some women are also more vulnerable than others, such as a disabled woman who will have greater difficulty escaping the home or an indigenous woman living in a remote area without access to the Internet. Afro-descendant women in Brazil who often live in remote areas are also in more danger in these lockdowns. Similarly, LGBTQ+ women, trans people and migrants are more vulnerable to this violence. There is a high risk for migrant women without documentation of being sex trafficked, attacked or being psychologically and sexually abused. Feminist grassroots organisations that provide services for these women are running out of money so that further compounds the situation for women.

All of these factors aggravate the risks of being exposed to violence, and the increase in calls to women’s helplines in the region has been 80%. The problem is that each country in the region has a different way of measuring femicide and we are trying to gather data as statistics are extremely important when it comes to violence against women.

What solutions are there for protecting vulnerable women during the pandemic and preventing gender-based violence?

We are urging governments to prioritise prevention and response to violence with a range of measures. First, it is crucial that services for women (such as women’s shelters and therapy) are considered essential and that they remain in operation during the pandemic. Secondly, governments must tailor restrictions so a woman can walk out of her house in the middle of a lockdown and get help without being imprisoned for violating COVID regulations. We are also hoping to raise awareness and train essential service workers and the police so they understand the issue.

I believe in local, community police which we don’t always have in Latin America, but this is something we can aspire to. We need to train police officers in gender sensitive issues and we need more women in the police force – only 10% of the police force in the region are women. Community police officers can play an essential role by visiting households, making sure people are okay and that they understand they can rely on them.

In Colombia, court hearings and other support services have moved online and this has helped women who could not afford to go to court and pay for a lawyer. Online often feels safer as they do not have to confront the perpetrator.

We have also created a network of prosecutors to better understand femicide and violence cases. This has helped immensely but we also need many more women’s shelters. We have protocols so that health teams can identify gender-based violence, and this is essential because they are the first ones to identify where there is something to investigate when women come and say ‘I fell down the stairs’ or ‘I slipped in the shower’. It is critical that everyone works in close collaboration when it comes to protecting women.

What do you think the role of the UN is in this and how much change has to be in the hands of individual governments?

We are working more and more at a sub-national level, and we have amazing female mayors in Bogotá and Mexico City now. At this level, they are more aware of the local situation and are more inclined to decentralise the police and to have more women in the force so women can feel safe and comfortable. They are trying to do this and to lobby parliaments and finance ministers to make sure that everybody has a say.

The funding, the collection and the response of data is also key. António Guterres [Secretary-General of the United Nations] has launched a strategy to advocate and to make sure that in the context of COVID we acknowledge this other pandemic in the shadow – violence against women.

We have been calling it a ‘pandemic in the shadow’ as, at the start of the pandemic, there were more women dying from this gender-based violence than from COVID itself, which shows that violence towards women is a pandemic in itself that needs to be acknowledged. It is important that the UN keeps this issue visible and keeps governments, parliaments and societies on their toes. This is something that everybody has a role in changing.

More funding is also needed. We cannot fight this without money. The essential service packages to support victims of violence need more funds. So funding, prevention and declaring zero tolerance are all necessary for every government in my region. Shelters must be viewed as essential and more funding must go into these services but also into the collection of data which is extremely important.

Is there evidence of these solutions being implemented by governments in the region and, if so, is it helping?

Violence against women is a problem in every country in Latin America and women’s ministries in all countries were trying to to ensure more attention was paid to these matters. However, if you look at the government budgets, the women’s ministry budget is always so small that it is actually difficult to locate. And that happens with UN Women too – if you compare us to other UN agencies, we are tiny and we do not get enough money. This is something we have to break through.

Aside from the circumstances of the pandemic, how can women in the region be empowered more generally?

First of all, you have to remove women from danger. Then, we need to support women to develop their skills and talents and build their self-esteem, but also help them get a job, so the link between the private sector and these kinds of services is essential. In Argentina, we have 166 companies that have signed the Women Economic Empowerment principles and have also agreed to support women in these situations. Getting them the job will give these women a new life, as well as giving restraining orders to the men they are escaping.

It is essential they are given the opportunity to work because their lack of economic independence is the reason they stay with their partners. This happens in all classes, be it upper class, middle class or what we call ‘las mujeres de los pisos pegajosos’ – the women at the base of the pyramid who do unpaid care work and have children at a very early age. In Latin America, we have a 16% adolescent pregnancy rate – it’s crazy. We need to give these girls a second chance and in Mexico and Chile, we are providing second-chance education to these women, preparing them for work and linking them to private companies. It is about making the private sector realise that they are losing out by not hiring women.

Are you optimistic for the future of the fight against gender-based violence in Latin America? Do you believe significant progress is being made?

Progress is being made and I am moderately optimistic, but I am also super optimistic that the issue can no longer be ignored. We have the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence which runs from the 25th of November (the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women) to the 10th of December (Human Rights Day). We are living in a time when women are going out into the streets to ensure that everybody hears about this problem and I think that governments can no longer ignore the issue. They have to pay more attention and realise that COVID has exacerbated this violence.

In the Americas, we also have the first convention in the world for violence against women, the Convention of Belém do Pará. But most of all, there is a strong presence of protest in civil society. The Ni Una Menos movement has been amazing. It spread from Argentina to Mexico in three days – it was incredible. One million women in the streets demanding ‘Ni Una Menos’ [Not one (woman) less]. It was amazing how powerful the anthem became.

At the same time, I am concerned about the rise of conservative, anti-rights movements and the backlash against women’s rights. The UN will continue to work with the governments of the region and powerful women’s movements in order to ensure that women are protected.

Us women are the solution to the way out of the economic crisis in Latin America. We are transformative individuals. We are agents of change and we have an amazing energy that needs to be used in order to come out of this situation. If we were given the same opportunities as men, imagine what we could achieve. Nobody could stop us.

Interview with María-Noel Vaeza by Flora Davies as a part of the ‘Women & Development in Latin America’ Series

María-Noel Vaeza’s Twitter is @mnvonumujeres