The Crisis of Violence Against Women in Puerto Rico
By Gia Berrios,
December 21, 2018
In Puerto Rico a woman is murdered every 14 days. Twenty-four women were murdered at the hands of their intimate partners or exes in Puerto Rico in 2018 alone.
Say their names!
Jackeline Vega, Moesha Hiraldo, Aida Irizarry, Ilia Millán, Maritza de Jesus, Zuliani Calderon, Lorein Figueroa, Milagros Ortiz, Leissin Ortiz, Annette Garcia, Fransheska Miranda, Frances Pagan, Marisol Ortiz, Rosabell Rodriguez, Nilda Medina, Ingrid Garcia, Sandra Marrero, Pilar Guerra, Ana M. Morris, Shakira Carrero, Marcela Montañés, Maribel Diaz, Dohanna Carrasquillo, Carmen Dominguez.
At the beginning of December, the number of women murdered by an intimate partner already stood at eight more than in all of 2017. The numbers are alarming but only start to scratch the surface of the problem.
The grim reality is that thousands of women in Puerto Rico suffer from aggression, intimidation or some type of expression of male violence daily, including physical, emotional and sexual violence. The statistics are frightening and continue to get worse with every passing day.
In response to this crisis, the Colectiva Feminista en Construcción (Feminist Collective in Construction) has led the way in building a movement against gender-based violence in Puerto Rico.
On November 23, 2018, the Colectiva called for a march and sit-in at la Fortaleza, the mansion where Puerto Rico’s Gov. Ricardo Rosselló lives. The main demand of the demonstration was to pressure the governor to sign an executive order declaring a state of emergency in relation to gender-based violence.
The sit-in quickly became an occupation of the street leading up to the governor’s mansion that lasted three days and two nights.
Over the course of the long weekend, the compañeras pitched tents and took the street in a peaceful and powerful feminist gathering. They chanted, improvised revolutionary songs against machismo, and held meetings about the political and economic crisis on the island, where many groups convened and gathered in discussion and debate.
There were activities for children, Bomba and Plena music circles, speak-outs and many different activities and gatherings. The compañeras of the Colectiva declared: “[N]o one moves from here until the governor signs the executive order and engages with the women.”
In the end, the action did not succeed at forcing the governor’s hand. But importantly, it brought hundreds of women into struggle. In their actions, they have forced a national discussion in Puerto Rico about the permanent state of violence that women live under as mothers, workers and students.
They also have succeeded at breaking the silence surrounding gender-based violence in Puerto Rico and have posed an important question which is being grappled with across the whole country: What is causing this alarming wave of femicide in Puerto Rico, and can the government of Puerto Rico be forced to do something about it?
The police and legal system of Puerto Rico are not set up to effectively handle the problem of violence against women. How could they be, when police are themselves disproportionately the aggressors in cases of intimate partner violence?
Of the 24 women murdered in 2018, three were murdered by police officers. The murders are just the tip of the iceberg. In cases of domestic violence reported in the last year in Puerto Rico under Law 54, 180 have been committed by police officers.
Only 14 percent of domestic violence complaints end with a conviction, and none of the convicted have been police officers. Of the 14 percent who are convicted, 70 percent do no prison time for their violence.
The same agency that is supposed to investigate the aggressors when they are reported is the same one that lets police hide behind a “blue wall” of silence. Additionally, there are some 2,554 unprocessed rape kits collected in Puerto Rico since 2006.
How can women have faith in a “justice system” to protect them when, time and time again, their traumas are treated with such indifference by the police and the government?
What has become increasingly clear is that if the government of Puerto Rico won’t take gender-based violence seriously, the feminist movement will.
In November 2017, a broad-based national feminist assembly of more than 400 women from many different organizations came together in Puerto Rico to discuss the crisis of gender-based violence. Out of this meeting, a series of concrete demands were developed to address gender-based violence.
These demands are summarized in the Colectiva’s November 23 draft of an executive order, which has been submitted multiple times to the government, only to be ignored again and again. The executive order is a document with an organized plan that centralizes and channels efforts and resources to combat the wave of violence against women.
After being ignored for so long, the Colectiva decided to escalate its tactics as a part of the growing chorus of the #NiUnaMenos (Not One More) movement throughout Latin America.
The lack of action on the part of the government has contributed to a great upsurge in gender-based violence in Puerto Rico. The violence is fueled by many factors in society, and there are many interrelated forms of violence.
The public bankrolling of Fiscal Control Board, the body which is responsible for bankrupting the country, has contributed. So has the cutting of public services and resources, which plunges more people into poverty every day. The closing of hundreds of public schools and the elimination of gender studies programs has contributed to the violence — and it is, on its own, a form of violence. As we know well, where there is neoliberal austerity and growing inequality, violence against women increases.
According to the Colectiva, by forcing the governor to declare a state of emergency, they would:
establish a precedent for the level of urgency with which sexist and gendered violence should be treated. [The executive order] declares that this violence is not a private or interpersonal issue alone, but a public one created by many intervening factors that the state is responsible for taking on and working to reduce. It promotes the immediate allocation of funds for public agencies and nongovernmental organizations to address the crisis, and allows the mobilization of the directors of public agencies to prioritize services and establish plans to work together.
The measures taken would be coordinated between departments and agencies whose work is related to public health, education, housing, work and family. Within this inter-agency plan, strategies, programs and training would be developed that support and help survivors of gender-based violence.
The plan requires the women’s ombudsperson of Puerto Rico and the Secretary of Education to immediately re-establish a gender studies and anti-sexist curriculum in schools and a history of Puerto Rico class that focuses on Puerto Rican women. Lastly, it would require the inclusion of gender sensitivity training in the police department.
On November 25, the International Day Against Gender Violence, the third day of the occupation, a protest was called by the Colectiva. Everything was peaceful until the order came down from the governor’s office to crack down on the women and disperse the occupation and demonstration.
There were clashes when the protesters tried to once again deliver the executive order. Instead of sitting down to negotiate with the women of Puerto Rico, Rosselló gave an official order to repress the movement using brutal force.
The government decided to repress a critical and necessary movement of women in the streets — on International Day Against Gender Violence no less — with the full repressive force of the state. The protesters were pushed, beaten with clubs and sprayed with pepper spray. They were attacked in the press and accused of being violent provocateurs.
This attack on the feminist movement is a blow to the overall social movements of Puerto Rico, including as the movement for self-organization and mutual aid, the fight against the neoliberal Fiscal Control Board and the struggle to defend public teachers, 85 percent of whom are women. It is an ideological, as well as a physical, blow.
The Colectiva summarized the outcomes of the sit-in and occupation:
Let there be no doubt where the violence came from and who were and who continue to be the violent ones. Women are teaching the country political discipline. They have been organizing and structuring a plan of action for a long time, they have been educating the country for a long time with the protest, and they explain their political action with real and concrete proposals.
When asked by the press to respond to the police’s violent crackdown on the protest, the governor largely avoided the content and demands of the protest by declaring himself a feminist. He said that he would refuse to sign the executive order because “I do not think it is prudent to sign an executive order…[A]fter all that is just a paper”.
Some of us had to laugh at his response and others had to clench our fists to control our anger. Rosselló shows that he has no commitment to the people, and even less to women. In the process of dismissing the sit-in, he washed his hands of the problem and suggested that the government should not be blamed for the ills that afflict the island.
Jackeline Rodriguez, the women’s representative of Rosselló’s conservative New Progressive Party (PNP), said in an interview on Playing Hardball that she agreed with the demands of the demonstration, but did not understand why the feminists used violence to make their point.
Shariana Ferrer, a Colectiva spokesperson who was also on air during the interview, responded by clarifying that the police were the ones that incited the violence during the demonstration — after the protesters had peacefully taken the street for three days of educational and political activities.
Ferrer also declared that government is responsible for the spike in violence against women: “They are called ‘femicides’ for a reason — because the state is responsible. They close schools and universities, deny us quality education with an anti-sexist perspective, and impoverish us with austerity policies. Gentlemen of the government, inequality generates violence.”
Vanesa Contreras, another spokesperson for the Colectiva, said that although the sit-in did not succeed at forcing the governor to sign the executive order, it raised the profile of the movement and increased awareness of the issues at stake.
The Collectiva sparked a nationwide debate on the consequences of gender-based violence in Puerto Rico. The issue is now constantly in the news, on the radio and TV, in the newspapers, and all over social media. By doing this, these activists managed to raise a political issue that is extremely urgent to address, and set up a basis on which the struggles and mass mobilizations can continue.
In addition, Contreras noted, “The women’s ombudsperson in the government was able to put more emphasis on this issue” — a reference to a meeting held on November 26, 2018 with Lersy Boria and other cabinet members. In that meeting, Boria said that a state of emergency cannot be decreed as part of the plan to confront the murders of women at the hands of their partners and ex-partners because there are “legal requirements” to do so.
It’s unclear what “legal requirements” Boria is talking about, but activists know as clear as day that the governor of Puerto Rico has the power to declare a state of emergency and also has the power to veto any current law during his term of office. We know this since just last year he repealed the law that established an anti-sexist curriculum in public schools.
The activists even managed to force the politicians of the Democratic Party-aligned Popular Democratic Party (PPD) to speak up against the indifference of the Roselló government. They have forced a conversation among men, to reflect on themselves and recognize their own privileges, as well as to consider and act on their own role in creating and preventing violence in society.
The priorities of the government of Puerto Rico are very clear. In addition to the indifference toward the demands of the women of the country, it is important to take note of how and when they do mobilize their resources.
When there are robberies and spikes in violence, murders, sexual assaults and domestic violence, the police take their time in responding — and sometimes never even show up or open an investigation. When this happens, we are told that there are not enough cops, no one to answer the emergency calls, no vehicles available — and that we need checkpoints and more repressive mechanisms.
But when women are out in the street, making demands; when students defend public education; or when the Jornada Se Acabaron Las Promesas (an anti-austerity activist group) takes to the streets, the government can immediately channel all of the resources of the modern state to crack down on these activists.
When people turn out into the streets to stand up for what’s right for the country, and truckers join in with strikes that threaten the legitimacy of the whole capitalist system, that’s when we can see the full resources of the system on display. When the government mobilizes its resources to repress and oppress the working class in Puerto Rico with such force, that’s when we see through their lies that the resources just aren’t there.
The Feminist movement in Puerto Rico needs international solidarity. Women workers and people in struggle need social movements in the US and around the world to raise their voice in protest and in solidarity. Without this, the struggle of the compañeras in Puerto Rico against gender-based violence and sexist violence is an uphill and heavy battle.
We need to organize talks, write articles and offer platforms and spaces so that their voices are heard and can resound within the belly of the beast. The Puerto Rican diaspora, which has been displaced and forced to leave their land and families behind, must continue to strengthen those ties with their home and help to empower women.
Socialists must oppose imperialism and abuse of power, wherever it comes from. The left in the United States has to strengthen ties of solidarity with the struggles of women in Puerto Rico.
We can learn from the beautiful history of struggle and resistance that has existed and continues to live on in Puerto Rico today: from the history of Agüeybaná, the Taino chief who resisted Spanish conquest, to the abolitionist and nationalist movement of Betances; from the maroon communities of free Black people, to the labor leaders Luisa Capetillo and Juana Colón, to independentistas Lolita Lebrón and Blanca Canales; and from the struggles to defend public education today to the models of self-organization and mutual aid that flourished after Hurricane María and help chart a path forward for the movement today.
It is our responsibility to know about the struggles and resistance from our comrades in Puerto Rico and to inform new generations by telling the true history of Borinken — the indigenous name of Puerto Rico. With that history and knowledge, we can join in solidarity with the voices of women against gender-based violence in Puerto Rico and throughout the world.
Translation by Monique Dols
Monique Dols and Sixto Lopez contributed to this article.