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Domestic violence cases spiked across the nation shortly after the pandemic began.
For some, the lockdown order was a form of sanctuary, but for some others, it was a nightmare that they almost didn’t survive.
Domestic violence hotline calls skyrocketed amid the uncertainty and frustration that came with the public health crisis.
In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed off on Senate Bill 70, aimed at providing an extra layer of protection for domestic violence victims. It would ban unlawful disclosure of some information about domestic violence centers, like their locations. This bill became a permanent stamp of legislation in July 2021.
“I was able to go to a shelter seven years ago to get my life back on track,” said Yansis Gonzalez of Orlando. “I left my home in Puerto Rico after my boyfriend of 12 years kicked me in the stomach when I was seven months pregnant; I had to make a decision for a new life.”
Puerto Rico’s Office of Ombudsman helped Yansis Gonzalez relocate her family to Orlando. She says legislation that protects women transitioning into shelters can help save lives. Though she expressed concern for the continued violence back home.
Recently, Puerto Rico’s governor, Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia, declared a state of emergency to address the spike in domestic violence cases. Puerto Rican activists like Tania Mendez of Taller Salud, a community organization for women in Puerto Rico, said this is a good start but not the full solution, adding that the history of violence toward women on the island is deep rooted.
“We see it as systemic oppression,” said Mendez, Taller Salud’s executive director. “We have historically marginalized communities; we have traditional and rigid gender roles that are assigned and so we have behaviors inside of that.”
There were other factors in Puerto Rico that made this growing issue even worse: Hurricane Maria in 2017, then the pandemic in 2020 spilling into 2021. Domestic violence cases rose 62 percent, according to the civil rights coalition.
“In terms of gender justice and women’s rights — we have a long way to go,” said Mendez. “Taller Salud focuses on the overall health of the community: What are our young boys learning about gender? What should be normal for them to do and react and to prove their manhood — what is expected of boys and girls and how that interacts with violent behaviors?”
Mendez said poverty is at the root of many domestic violence cases she’s seen, adding that natural disasters apply more pressure.
You suddenly have no income, job, electricity — uncertainty in general, it’s easy to do that math,” said Mendez. “But we still have elected officials on TV saying that gender violence doesn’t exist. Why should it take two years, 90 victims and two governors to listen?”
However, acknowledgment from Puerto Rico’s governor gave power to the possibility of change.
Ten agencies have been assigned to different pockets of Puerto Rico to create solutions and coordinated responses for domestic violence victims.
“This made a difference,” said Mendez. “We are started to see more support. There is a stigma around the word gender here, so to have the governor come out and acknowledge that there is a problem and assign resources towards it, that is huge.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, call the national hotline at 800-799-SAFE (7233).