When Dorotea Gómez and her team tried to call the government’s designated number for gender violence reports in Guatemala, they received no answer. Gómez is the women’s advocate at the office of the Human Rights Ombudsman in the Central American country, and in early May, she and her team spent three days attempting to get a hold of someone on the other line of the help hotline, yet never heard back.
Gómez didn’t need what the number promised—immediate help against gender violence—but she wanted to hold the state accountable for the management of women’s issues during the state-mandated quarantine. While gender violence was predicted to increase given the amount of time women would have to spend at home with aggressors, in Guatemala, official complaints decreased, according to official numbers, even as overall calls to the reporting line increased. Just how much is a question.
Initially, the Public Prosecutor's Office reported that in March, when the quarantine started, there were 3,556 complaints reported, compared to 5,140 that month of the previous year, a decline of over 30 percent. As months went by, the Office updated their March numbers, adding up to a total of 4,399 complaints, more than 800 complaints more than what they had originally reported. Yolanda Sandoval, head at the Public Prosecutor’s Office for Women, couldn’t really explain why and attributed the discrepancy to errors in the request of public information, but since both requests were identical, it’s possible that they’re instead due to administration problems or the mere computation of data. Either way, though the numbers have risen as lockdown measures have became more flexible, quarantine exposed an inadequate justice system for victims of gender-based violence.
“Women are already in vulnerable positions. It’s even more complicated when their rights—such as the right to move freely—are restricted, in a country where the right to live a life free of violence is not guaranteed,” said Fabiola Ortiz, from the Grupo Guatemalteco de Mujeres (Guatemalan Group for Women). According to the National Institute of Forensic Sciences in Guatemala (INACIF), there were 140 violent female deaths from March to June 2020. Approximately 49 percent of them have been femicides, according to an independent analysis by the Guatemalan Group for Women.
Guatemala’s coronavirus lockdown was partial: Citizens were allowed to go out on certain days—determined by their car plates—and many businesses were allowed to remain open as long as they followed sanitary guidelines. However, public transport, schools, and universities have been suspended since March, and a mandatory curfew starting roughly at 6 pm and ending at 4 a.m. has been in effect since then. On Monday, July 27, Guatemala started to slowly reopen using a system that assigns municipalities a traffic light color depending on the prevalence of coronavirus cases, but in the majority of the country, the justice and educational sectors are still closed, and public transportation is limited in time and capacity.
These measures are precisely what experts assume have caused a decrease in complaints. On April 14th, the first month after the quarantine started, the Women’s Division at the Public Prosecutor's Office held a press conference where it acknowledged that the measures taken to curve COVID-19’s spread were proving harmful to women, given that they tore away their ability to denounce or even escape violence. That day, it pledged to implement programs and campaigns that would—supposedly—help women on the path to justice, even given the global pandemic. But Guatemala’s justice system—one of the most ineffective in the region—doesn’t have the infrastructure to create these ambitious programs.
In fact, according to Gómez, the pandemic has come to shine a light on the fact that the country’s search for justice is inadequate for a great majority of the victims. The help hotline—the one Gómez insistently tried to call—was originally set up in 2016, but didn’t start reporting complaints until the pandemic hit, four years later; before that, it was only meant to guide women through the emergency and the legal options they had. Additionally, it’s only answered in Spanish and a few Mayan languages, when 24 languages are spoken in the country. The government installed a panic button on an app in a country where around 12 percent of homes don’t have access to electricity: (There have been 193 reported uses of that button in the four months of quarantine, compared to 441 compared to that same period last year.)
“There’s a lack of institutional conditions that guarantee women access to the agile and thorough justice the law promises,” said Gómez. “A lot of the time, women will file a complaint of gender violence and the hearings will not happen until a year later. You can imagine the impact that has on the life of a woman.”
The coronavirus pandemic complicated the problem even further: Many courts have been closed for fears of COVID-19 spread, and the few that have remained open are not working efficiently. Some hearings—not all related to women’s rights—have already been postponed until 2024, and many experts worry it will be even longer.
“Police are overwhelmed with the pandemic, so there is no conscious or effective response from them. [Non-governmental] organizations have been accompanying women who report domestic violence and helping them take action,” said Giovanna Lemus, executive coordinator of the Grupo Guatemalteco de Mujeres.
The GGM has been offering women stable and safe spaces to go to in case they need to escape violence for more than a decade. They receive state funding, but their budget was cut more than 95 percent last year, putting thousands of women at risk.
To all of these complications, add the lack of reliable information. Women in Guatemala face a historical challenge: Close to 25 percent of them cannot read, let alone understand their rights and the judicial process that they would have to go through after filing a complaint. One of the biggest women’s rights issues in the country is the lack of social understanding and prevention measures, which has led to the normalization of a patriarchal culture.
As Guatemala begins the reopening process, Gómez assumes that reports will spike. “Many women will be waiting for an opportunity to physically move or to be able to call,” she said, “but the cycle of violence is so normalized, that if after some time the aggressor stopped the abuse or changed just a tiny bit, some may think they’re free; but usually, [violent men] tend to go back to their aggressive attitudes.”