Medellin, Colombia – As Arussi Unda watched videos of empty Mexico City metro cars and shuttered businesses just one month ago, it felt as if Mexican women had made history.
Unda, a leader of the feminist organisation Brujas del Mar, was one of the organisers of the country’s National Women’s Strike on March 9, when 6.6 million women did not leave the house to show the Latin American country what society would look like without women.
“It seemed like a movie. Honestly, I couldn’t believe it,” the 32-year-old activist said. “I don’t remember anything like this ever happening before. We saw women with very different ideologies, socioeconomic statuses, living in very different realities, united under one call: ‘Stop killing up, stop raping us.'”
But those empty streets have now taken on a much uglier meaning for leaders like Unda as coronavirus lockdowns trigger a new wave of gender-based violence and femicide in Latin America.
Cases of domestic violence have surged in the face of stay-at-home orders and economic turmoil worldwide as countries attempt to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus. But in Latin America, where countries already suffer from high rates of femicide and violence against women, leaders like Unda fear that the pandemic will tip existing crises into tragedy as it begins to hit the region at full force.
“We’re scared because we don’t know how long this is going to last,” she said. “It’s bad everywhere, but Mexico is at the top of the list, and it’s because we live in a country where we have 98 percent impunity … we have killers and rapists walking all around us.”
While Mexico has lagged behind others in the region in imposing strict lockdown orders, countries such as Colombia have already seen what can happen with lockdown curbs.
On the first days of the South American country’s nationwide lockdown on March 24, one man allegedly shot his wife, her sister and mother dead inside their home in the Colombian coastal city of Cartagena.
The bloody triple femicide – the murder of a woman because of her gender – was just a sign of what was to come.
In the capital of Bogota, the city’s mayor said in the first weeks of the lockdown all crime statistics were down, except for one. Calls to police’s 24/7 hotline to report violence against women had surged 225 percent.
Colombia is not alone. Argentina has seen similar reports of femicide and Peru has seen a rise in sexual abuse of girls. Both countries put in place similar measures as Colombia. Mexico, too, has seen a jump in domestic violence calls.
The surge in calls for help was almost instantaneous, said Tara Cookson, director of the feminist research organisation, Ladysmith, which runs a hotline for women on the Venezuelan border city of Cucuta, Colombia.
The region at the centre of the Venezuelan migration crisis already suffered what Cookson called a “hidden epidemic of gender-based violence” as female Venezuelan migrants have been increasingly forced into vulnerable situations, including sex work.
But when lockdown took hold, their WhatsApp hotline for migrant women exploded.
“The quarantine hit and all the sudden we started having more women text message us,” the researcher said. “And more women texting saying things like … ‘My husband is beating me up, but I’m not allowed to leave.'”
But when she and other researchers went to direct them to migrant shelters, she found that most aid organisations had closed their doors, leaving women closed in with their abusers with nowhere to go.
While governments have increasingly been trying to respond to the violence, human rights defenders say states imposed well-intentioned lockdown orders without systems or shelters in place to respond to the backlash.
Many regions already lacked basic services like hotlines and effective prosecution of domestic violence. In the emerging crisis, they have only fallen more behind.
If a woman can't go to her trusted neighbour, or escape to her mother's house, she's that much more isolated and that much more at risk.
Despite orders from Colombian President Ivan Duque for local governments to provide resources to women and children faced with domestic violence, one report found that 590 police forces in Colombia lack basic infrastructure like the internet to take domestic violence calls.
Instead, it has fallen to aid organisations to fill that gap, developing new digital tools to address the new territory they have been thrust into.
“Our entire lives have gone digital now, so if you don’t have physical access to support, virtual access becomes so much more important,” Cookson said. “If a woman can’t go to her trusted neighbour, or escape to her mother’s house, she’s that much more isolated and that much more at risk.”
In Mexico, Unda’s organisation – Brujas del Mar – has pulled upon its countrywide social media network to bolster existing digital aid for victims and develop new ones. For working women in sectors that are still operating during the lockdown, the group offers digital accompaniment and tracking services for women who have to walk alone in empty streets.
Like many across the region, the women’s group has funnelled all its energy into responding to the rise in violence.
Others, like Mauro Vargas’s Mexico City-based initiative Gendes, have completely pivoted their services. The initiative became well-known for offering anti-“machismo” therapy for men. Since they have had to shut down in-person therapy sessions, Vargas launched a new hotline three weeks ago to talk down men at risk of becoming violent.
The goal, he said, was to complement work by other organisations scrambling to take on the aftermath of the violence.
“It’s constant. Every single day someone calls and tells us ‘I’m calling because I don’t want to hit her,'” Vargas said. “At first, it was two calls like this, and they were more like prevention … Now, at least six or eight calls a day have to do with extreme and physical violence we are trying to stop from happening.”
While the hotline asks men to describe their feelings and do breathing exercises to calm themselves, they also try to give men tools so they do not become violent as financial stress deepens and isolation drags on.
Despite the unprecedented levels of violence, some human rights defenders see this moment as a turning point.
Cookson, the head of the Venezuela border hotline, said Latin America can learn from what has played out in other parts of the world like Asia and Europe that have been combatting coronavirus since January.
“They have the opportunity to take steps now,” she said. “I think Colombia and other Latin American countries, they’re at that moment right now where it’s like, ‘OK we know what’s coming.'”
Marta Restrepo is a leader of Colombia’s Femicide Observatory, an initiative tracking the killings of women like the one that happened on the first day of the country’s lockdown.
Each day, two women are killed in the South American country. As those numbers have risen year-to-year, Restrepo and other researchers felt as if they were shouting into the void.
But during the lockdown, she said they felt a shift, a new alertness to what has been happening.
Neighbours began reporting cases of violence like never before and they began to see posts with hashtags #FeminicidioEsPandemia, or #FemicideIsAPandemic, #ViolenciaDeGenero or #GenderBasedViolence on social media.
“This has never happened. I just hope that this never goes back to being hidden, that violence against women becomes a public issue because of this surge,” she said.
“This is a tragedy. What’s happening right now is a tragedy. So I hope we don’t return to normality. This alertness, this understanding, this effort that exists, helps.”