“We didn’t know how to protect victims,” Yadira Pizarro Quiles, executive director of the nonprofit ESCAPE, told Refinery29. “Who would we call when their abusers came near them?”
“The immediate crisis our island was going through was focused on getting food and water to people, saving lives,” she said. “But the social part, from the police’s involvement to support systems for survivors, was overlooked.”
According to the World Health Organization, the aftermath of a natural disaster fosters a surge in incidents of intimate partner violence and sexual violence. In a place like Puerto Rico, which was sent into a state of emergency with no power or telecommunications following the storm, survivors found themselves more vulnerable than ever.
“These women were in crisis and couldn’t reach out to the authorities. There were times where our team would try to figure out who would take in the victims or how could we relocate them because their abuser was already harassing them and could show up at any time,” Pizarro Quiles, who has led the intervention and prevention nonprofit for two decades, said. “It was complicated, but we were able to help our survivors without putting them in dangerous situations.”
ESCAPE, which offers prevention and intervention services for domestic violence and children’s abuse cases in several areas of the island, saw a 62% increase in requests for survivor-related services and a 47% surge in requests for preventive and education resources. Other organisations offering services for survivors reported similar surges. “We also witnessed the intensity of the violence after Maria through the hits women received, where and which type, the aggression towards children,” she said. “The trauma of the storm and the current economic situation are bound to be triggers for more violence.”
Earlier this summer, advocates said that though they found an increase of cases in violence against women in their work, this is not backed up by stats because of how telecommunications failed after the storm and the lack of reliable data collected by the Puerto Rico Police Department (PRPD), the Women’s Advocate Office (known in Spanish by the acronym OPM), and the judicial system.
“In Puerto Rico, there’s currently no standardised way to collect data about violence against women,” Angela Cruz, from the women’s rights coalition Coordinadora Paz para la Mujer (Peace for the Woman Coordinator), told Refinery29. “But it matters to have hard numbers on who are the survivors we’re helping and what are their needs.”
According to Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism, each branch of the government — OPM, PRPD, the courts — records a different type of information. OPM counts the calls to its hotline and the requests it gets for survivor-related services; the police are in charge of handling incident reports for cases of domestic and sexual violence, which survivors can make both in person and over the phone; and the courts are responsible for tracking criminal cases related to violence against women and the orders of protection that have been filed. But the stats don’t match because there’s no unifying system.
After Hurricane Maria, ESCAPE saw a 62% increase in requests for survivor-related services.
Women's Advocate Lersy Boria, who is at the helm of OPM, told Refinery29 via email that though there is no data showing an increase of domestic violence cases after hurricanes Irma and Maria, "we can't say that there was a decrease either, since studies show that [in these circumstances] there's no reporting and the victims, who continue to be victimized by their partners, remain silent. In the face of a natural disaster, it's possible that the population's priority and focus is on survival and recovery."
She added that OPM's 24-hour hotline was up and running two days after Maria. The agency also had a social worker on the 911 emergency centre to help with calls from survivors. "We were able to help with around 200 cases through that effort," she said.
Other than OPM's direct number, four emergency domestic violence hotlines were down in the immediate aftermath of the storm. The few survivors who might have had access to cell service probably couldn’t get through to 911 because emergency responders were attending other issues, Cruz said.
The statistics were crucial post-Maria in order for organisations to receive the funding and resources to help the influx of women seeking help, Pizarro Quiles said. “Since the storm, we’ve seen waiting lists for our services. That’s something that has never happened, and if you’re in a situation of violence, you just can’t afford to wait three or four months to get help.”
Puerto Rico is no stranger to intimate partner violence. In fact, the island has historically seen some of the highest domestic violence rates in the world. The local police in particular were hit with charges that the department was routinely and systematically failing survivors: A years-long investigation by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found “significant delays in the adjudication of protection orders ... dramatic under-enforcement of violations of protection orders; inadequate staffing ... lack of adequate evidence collection and case investigation,” among other issues.
When Ana* was 17, she began dating a man four years her senior. It was her first relationship, and like so many teenagers before her, she fell deeply in love. But the relationship was volatile from the beginning, eventually escalating to physical abuse. Her story is not uncommon given Puerto Rico’s patriarchal society, which still puts a lot of weight on traditional gender roles, including pressuring women to settle down early, and the island’s rampant machismo, which is at the root of most gender violence.
“He first started by threatening to kill himself [if we broke up]. If we were supposed to go out, he would show up high on cocaine. He would yell and insult me, but then he would tell me I was ‘the best thing that has ever happened’ to him or would call me a goddess,” she told Refinery29. “Then he started raising his hand to me, until he finally hit me. The last time he hit me it was in public — and no one did anything.”
Once, the man beat Ana so violently she ended up in the hospital. There, she said, emergency personnel and the authorities told her it seemed like she had hurt herself because she was acting too emotional. When she finally found the courage to report her ex-partner to the police, they told her that she was lying because she didn’t have any visible bruises. “One of them told me, ‘If you like to be spanked, then you like getting hit,’” she said. “It was horrible trying to get help from the system.”
Her efforts to get a protective order after their breakup were unsuccessful, despite evidence that her ex was harassing and stalking her. She eventually gave up on trying to get any type of help, changed her phone number, and moved on. Today, Ana is 26 and a psychologist helping other survivors, mostly because of her frustration with the way the system handles violence against women. She said Hurricane Maria is a reminder of how far Puerto Rico needs to go before treating survivors, regardless of their gender, with the compassion and justice they deserve.
“There needs to be more education and training on the island, particularly for everyone who comes into contact with survivors and those trapped in the cycle of violence,” she said. “The abusers are the ones in power right now. We need to recognise how that affects survivors’ transportation, housing situation, their basic needs.”
The struggle to survive after the storm, including having access to basic needs such as clean water and electricity, is one of the reasons some women might have stayed with their abusers or returned to them. “I would have wanted for survivors’ shelters to have multiple floors, so we could have housed everyone,” ESCAPE’s Pizarro Quiles said.
“I would love to say the domestic violence and children’s abuse situation has gotten better, but what we’ve seen is an increase on how lethal the violence truly is,” she added. For example, police statistics show that as of early September there had been 31 femicides this year alone. Nearly half of the murders were at the hands of the women’s current or former partners.
[A cop] told me, ‘If you like to be spanked, then you like getting hit.' It was horrible trying to get help from the system.
Ana, survivor of domestic violence
Cruz, from the coalition, said after the hurricane there were four shelters for survivors working at full capacity and two working at half — to service the entire island. Advocates said in late June that there are no survivors’ shelters in the southern part of the island.
“One of our biggest fights was that the government would give us some funding help, because these shelters were not in their list of priorities,” she said. “For an upcoming natural disaster, there needs to be an emergency plan in place that has a gender lens.”
She added: “We were on the line of fire after Maria. The government needs to work with us on a national plan that prioritises the prevention of violence against women.”
*Name has been changed for privacy reasons.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247.
Si estás experimentando violencia doméstica, por favor llama a la Oficina de la Procuradora de la Mujer al 787-722-2977 o al Centro de Ayuda a Víctimas de Violación al 787-756-0910 para apoyo de manera confidencial.