While COVID-19 has transformed life internationally, a “shadow pandemic” of domestic violence is occurring simultaneously (Godoy). Social isolation, as a result of self-quarantine and government lockdowns, has fostered increasingly dangerous conditions for those at home with their abusers. This has become evident globally and throughout Latin America; I will be exploring the impact in Guatemala specifically. Factors which already contribute to domestic abuse – existing machismo, incomplete domestic abuse tracking systems, and the legacy of an authoritarian regime – have been exacerbated by COVID-19, thus leading to increased domestic, often gendered, violence.
To understand gendered violence in contemporary Latin America, it is crucial to acknowledge historical influences. Guatemala, like other Latin American countries, still confronts the effects of a past authoritarian regime. During the 36 years of civil war in Guatemala, indigenous women were targeted disproportionately and soldiers escaped with impunity (The Conversation). The racial inequities continue to this day and women of color are disproportionately affected by gendered violence such as domestic abuse or rape. Legacies of an authoritarian regime have led to corruption and an overall lack of trust in incumbent authorities.
Even after Guatemala’s transition from military authoritarianism and into peace accords in 1996, human rights abuses, violent crime, and direct state-sponsored violence, have contributed to lack of trust in Guatemalan authorities. The legacy of the old regime has carried over into Guatemala’s new civilian police force, which is comprised of 60% of the preceding militarized National Police. Amnesty given to past violators of human rights and impunity given to criminal entrepreneurs have perpetrated violence and its connection to the state (Cruz, 15). This has led to the creation of a culture in which the state becomes partly complicit in violence, pervading into domestic violence in the home. Therefore, even in the midst of a pandemic while trapped at home with their abusers, many women see little use in calling the police due to the internal corruption.
The pandemic has also created economic insecurity and joblessness, factors which when combined with existing machismo, result in threatening circumstances for domestic violence victims. In a 2019 Walnut Street Journal article, journalist Robbie Whelan explained the deep-seated impact of machismo on femicide and impunity, defining machismo as the conditions in which: “men are raised to understand their role in society as providers and protectors, and when that role is challenged, many react with violence” (Whelan). This article, published prior to the coronavirus pandemic, explains a response that has only been exacerbated under current circumstances.
Attorney Maclen Stalney expressed a similar sentiment to Whelan, saying that during the COVID-19 pandemic, with increased joblessness and economic insecurity, some men feel their masculinity is at stake. They then “respond with violence in order to regain a sense of power and control in their relationships” (Stanley). Economic uncertainty, including spiking unemployment, can feed into pre-existing notions of machismo, therefore only aggravating gendered violence. It is also important to address the misogyny and machismo that exist among police officers. As a result, many women see no point in going to the police for help given their distrust in the police force and justice system. This culture of misogyny “further victimizes women and causes many of them to distrust the police and the justice system” (Ruiz, 113). When viewed as lesser not only by their abusers but by officials who are supposed to protect them, women are left with little support. This is made only more difficult by limited access to help services during the pandemic.
Inconsistency in how gendered violence is recorded, made more challenging during a pandemic, contributes to impunity and the perpetuation of patterns of domestic violence. Greater specificity in data recording can allow for greater understanding of patterns. One mark of progress is that 17 Latin American countries have made femicide its own crime, separate from homicide (The Conversation). This shows a move toward greater specificity in incident reporting and acknowledgement of the gender inequity. The Law Against Femicide and Other Forms of Violence Against Women in Guatemala requires that the National Institute of Statistics collects information and generates statistics on violence against women.
However, the National Institute of Statistics confronts many challenges in gathering comprehensive data including an insufficient budget, inconsistencies within data, and lack of cooperation among agencies in data sharing (Ruiz, 106). With greater cooperation among agencies and increased resources, more time and energy can be dedicated to differentiating gendered violence from other forms of violence. This focus might lead to key revelations of patterns of violence. This aligns with Gutiérrez-Sanín and Wood’s method of examining patterns of violence in four parts: repertoire, targeting, technique, and frequency. They explain, “The analysis of patterns of violence might also inform policies to intervene to protect civilians during violence, not only afterward” (Gutiérrez-Sanín and Wood, 36). This underscores the value in recognizing patterns of violence to help intercede pro-actively before the violence occurs. This is only possible, however, with sufficient information.
It is important to note that managing reports during the time of COVID-19 requires greater care and analysis, especially because social isolation makes it that much more difficult for victims to seek help or report their abuse. Inferences need to be made from existing reports (or lack thereof). Just because instances of domestic violence are not being reported does not mean they are not happening. For example, since COVID-19, domestic violence reports have increased in Mexico, but decreased in Guatemala. The decrease of reports in Guatemala is far from an indication that domestic violence is occurring less frequently; rather it is a “likely sign that women are too afraid to call the police on the partners they’re locked with” (The Conversation). Creating consistency and standardization in reports of domestic and gendered violence are critical to discovering patterns of violence and preventing future crime. During the pandemic, reports might not be as readily accessible, therefore requiring greater inference and analysis.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about many visible challenges, but beyond the immediate pandemic difficulties, there are insidious abuses happening behind closed doors. In a time of global crisis, the risk and scale of domestic violence have increased. Latin America is facing the challenges of rising domestic abuse due to social isolation in combination with legacies of authoritarian regimes, pre-existing machismo, and the need for better ways of organizing domestic abuse reports.