Puerto Rico declares state of emergency over violence against women

By Syra Ortiz-Blanes
Miami Herald/TNS

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi declared a state of emergency Sunday over the island's gender violence crisis, a measure local groups have demanded from the government for years.

The executive order - which allocates public resources to address femicides and other forms of violence against women - is considered an important step in addressing a long-existing issue that jumped back into the spotlight after a recent murder.

"Gender violence is a social evil, based on ignorance and attitudes that cannot have space or tolerance in the Puerto Rico that we aspire to," said Pierluisi in a press release. "It is my duty and my commitment as governor to establish a STOP to gender violence and for these purposes I have declared a state of emergency."

The emergency declaration, established through an executive order, implements a series of wide-ranging policies to combat gender violence on the island.

A committee made up of 17 members, including representatives from local groups offering services for victims and survivors, will be formed. A mobile app to help victims report their aggressors to emergency services will be created, per the order, as well as a program where public order officials visit people who have active restraining orders to ensure their safety. The executive order also stipulates that a media campaign to teach the public about gender violence will also be launched.

A compliance officer will monitor and enforce the implementation of the order. They will respond directly to the governor.

"To eradicate gender violence we have to make concerted efforts between the state and society in which, in addition to a comprehensive plan, there is an educational approach to teach our children that every human being has to be respected, as well as empower to our next generations to eradicate this evil," the governor added in his announcement. "Equity between boys and girls, men and women is key to achieving the Puerto Rico without gender violence that we all want."

The crackdown on gender violence comes days after Angie Noemi González, a woman from the mountain town of Barranquitas, was killed by her partner of 16 years, police said. Her death left three young girls orphaned and was seen as another urgent reminder of the gender-based violence that plagues the island.

There were at least 60 femicides in Puerto Rico last year, according to local watchdog group El Observatorio de Equidad de Género. That figure represents a 62% increase from 2019. The U.S. territory registered the world's highest per capita rate of women over the age of 14 killed by their partners in a 2012 report from the American Civil Liberties Union.

Declaring a state of emergency due to gender violence was one Pierluisi's campaign promises. The governor said recently his team was working to issue the executive order as soon as possible, and one of the first measures the new Puerto Rican Senate approved in January was requesting the declaration of emergency from Pierluisi's office.

Many experts, activists, and local organizations on the island say that a continued lack of an organized public response or policy from the Puerto Rican government exposes women and girls to sexual violence and gender-based violence.

Local groups and shelters, such as Hogar Ruth, Coordinadora Paz para la Mujer, Colectiva Feminista en Construcción and Proyecto Matria, have been at the helm of the push for the emergency declaration since 2018.

Former Gov. Wanda Vázquez, who left office in early January and was Puerto Rico's ombudsman for women, did not agree to declare an emergency over gender violence during her time in office. Instead, she opted to sign an executive order that issued a "national alert" to address gender violence integrating public agencies in a coordinated response and enforcing already-existing laws.

"Signing a document issuing an emergency declaration will not make any significant changes if we do not have a concrete and structured response plan, " Vázquez said at the time.

But Dr. Débora Upegui-Hernández, an analyst from the Observatory, told the Miami Herald that little had been done to enforce Vázquez's order.

"Really, nothing has been seen in terms of the protocol of government actions to address the situation," she said.

In his campaign platform, Pierluisi has also pledged to address gender-related educational disparities and pay gaps, support female professionals and workers, and offer education about women's equality in schools.

Upegui-Hernández hopes that the new administration and its emergency declaration will bring changes to public policy that prevent and reduce gender violence in Puerto Rico.

"That state of emergency has to be tied to plans and plans that are executed," she said. "There has to be a way to control the execution of those plans. It can't be just putting a name on it and nothing happens."