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Women suffer as lockdown worsens Latin America’s ‘domestic hell’

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AFP) — Weeks of confinement imposed by the new coronavirus pandemic is taking a chilling toll on women and girls across Latin America, where the number of calls to helplines have soared, made by victims of domestic violence who cannot flee.

Appeals to help women experiencing violence in the home have redoubled in recent weeks, from the United Nations to Pope Francis — Latin America’s first pontiff.

“The confinement is plunging thousands of women into hell, trapped with an attacker who they are more afraid of than the coronavirus,” said Victoria Aguirre from the Argentine non-governmental organisation (NGO) MuMaLa, which campaigns against violence related to the macho culture.

In Argentina, 18 women have been killed by their partner or ex-partners during the first 20 days of a mandatory quarantine instituted by the Government from March 20. Appeals to helplines in Argentina are up nearly 40 per cent.

The country is still reeling from the shocking murder of Cristina Iglesias and her sevenyear- old daughter Ada, killed by her mother’s partner in the early days of the lockdown. Their two bodies were found buried in the backyard of their home in a town in Buenos Aires province.

Elsewhere, police — alerted by neighbours — arrived in the nick of time to save a woman whose husband attacked her with a hammer. A staggering 3,800 women were murdered in Latin America in 2019, an eight per cent increase on the previous year, according to preliminary data from the Observatory for Gender Equality at CEPAL, the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.

“Unfortunately, many women and girls are particularly exposed to violence precisely where they should be protected, in their own homes,” said UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who issued a call for a domestic violence “ceasefire” as lockdowns extended into April.

“You live in fear of turning your back on him. It is only later, when the bruises appear, that you realise that he could have killed you,” Luciana, a 25-yearold victim of domestic violence, told AFP. She was badly beaten by her ex-husband.

“Every day, a woman is abused, raped, or beaten at home by her partner or her ex,” said Ada Rico, from the NGO La Casa del Encuentro.

“In normal times, we would help her to file a complaint. These days, the urgency is to get her out of the house as quickly as possible.”

The situation is similarly grim in Mexico, Brazil, Chile, and elsewhere, where measures taken by the authorities often fall far short of properly protecting victims.

In Mexico, “emergency calls have increased” since the start of the lockdown on March 24, said Nadine Gasman, head of the National Women’s Institute in Mexico City.

Maria Salguero, who researches violence against women and created a “femicide map” around the country, estimated that around 200 women have been murdered since quarantine measures began.

The sordid murder of Ana Paola, a 13-year-old who was raped and beaten to death by a burglar in the north-eastern state of Sonora in early April, provoked widespread disgust and anger in Mexico.

Emergency calls to the National Refugee Network, an NGO which caters to female victims of violence, have increased by 60 per cent since the beginning of the confinement period. The number of women taken into care by the organisation is up five per cent.

The more than 1,000 femicides in 2019 and two recent brutal murders — one of a seven-yearold girl — once again highlighted a lack of action by authorities. Mexican feminist activists have demanded more effective policies from President Andres Manuel Lopez to combat the wave of violence.

It’s a similar case in Peru, where 2019 femicides were the highest in a decade. In Sao Paulo, the epicentre of Brazil’s virus outbreak, reports of domestic violence have risen by 30 per cent since the state government imposed a stay-athome order.

A group of 700 volunteers have formed a “vigilante network” to provide victims with medical, legal, and psychological assistance through a WhatsApp messaging service.

In Chile, which has opted for selective confinement in the most affected areas plus a night-time curfew, complaints of domestic violence are up 500 per cent in Providencia, an upper- class neighbourhood in the capital Santiago.

The crisis has resulted in “increased alcohol consumption, mental health effects, increased anxiety, depression, and violence within families”, said senior health official Paula Daza.