Puerto Rico’s State of Emergency: Gender-based Violence

Puerto Rican flag in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

By Alexia Rauen

Like much of the world, Puerto Rico has been plagued by the epidemic of violence against women, and in January 2021, Puerto Rico’s governor Pedro Pierluisi issued a State of Emergency in response. In May 2021, Puerto Ricans took to the streets in protest after two femicides occurred. Andrea Ruiz was murdered by her ex-boyfriend Miguel Ocasio after being unable to obtain a protective order, and Keishla Rodriguez was murdered by boxer Felix Verdejo after confessing to him she was pregnant with his child. The outrage over gender violence has reached even Bad Bunny, the Puerto Rican trap artist, whose video for “Solo De Mi” shows a woman growing progressively bruised and bloody before leaving the stage in what the viewer assumes is her leaving her abuser. But for many women in Puerto Rico, there are few options or protections for those desperately trying to leave. According to NBC News, the courts in Puerto Rico denied 68% of protective orders requested in the last nine months. 

The Observatory of Gender Equality of Puerto Rico, a coalition of feminist and human rights organizations in Puerto Rico, marks the hurricanes in September 2017 as a turning point of increased violence against women. With “shelters and police stations…decimated,” women had few options. And, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused an increase in violence against women, in what the United Nations is calling a shadow pandemic. But the violence against women in Puerto Rico is not new – the ACLU reported in June 2012 that Puerto Rico had the “highest per capita rate in the world of women over 14 killed by their partners.” Puerto Rico’s police force is complicit as it fails to investigate violence against women, fails to enforce protective orders, and perpetrates domestic violence itself. 

The State of Emergency declared in January 2021, through Executive Order 2021-13, established a committee – PARE – to report to the governor on the implementation of the order’s goals, which include programs aimed at violence prevention and the provision of services to survivors of gender-based violence. The Washington Post noted that “the executive mandate is broad and powerful: It helps protect women who have filed restraining orders, calls for the creation of a mobile app for women who feel threatened and launches a media campaign to educate the public.” In Puerto Rico, PARE’s April 2021 report highlights several important goals – among them, establishing regulations around sexual assault evidence, protocols for the investigation of violence against women, and plans for the economic development and financial independence of women. The State of Emergency also led Pierluisi to request $7 million from within Puerto Rico’s budget and “‘federal pandemic funds’” – of which only an initial $200,000 was approved. Finally, in May 2021, the full $7 million was approved.

The State of Emergency is a result of collective action demanded by activists in Puerto Rico since 2018. The prior governor, Wanda Vasquez, previously declared a “national alert” but failed to declare a state of emergency – and little implementation of the alert occurred. There are new concerns from feminist groups, such as the Colectiva Feminista (Feminist Collective), that PARE, several months after the State of Emergency was declared, has disappointed them and failed to produce tangible results. Puerto Rico still has a long way to go, but Puerto Rico’s feminists will not give up any time soon.

Image: Flickr, Lorie Shaull