Ecuadorean women are using code words to seek help in situations of domestic violence as the country’s quarantine is creating conditions for increased abuse of women and children and has also forced the closure of many organizations that provide support.
Some women have resorted to sending specific emojis in cell phone text messages or approaching neighbors to ask for salt as a way of alerting that they face danger from abusive partners with whom they are now locked inside.
In the Amazon province of Sucumbios, women send a specific emoji to the local chapter of Care International to alert of domestic abuse. The emoji is frequently changed for security reasons.
When women call a hotline run by an office of the province of Pichincha and ask that “a red basket” be delivered to their address, social workers send out alerts about domestic violence in that home.
“We receive a call from someone saying, ‘I want a red basket,’ and we immediately … contact ECU 911 (Ecuador’s emergency service), police and state prosecutors,” said Pamela Quishpe, the coordinator of the project, adding that the system has helped save the lives of several women.
The phrase originally referred to a basket of food that state authorities began delivering during the pandemic.
When the quarantine to prevent COVID-19 began in Ecuador on March 17th of this year, there were no protocols to attend to women, children and adolescents who were victims of mistreatment and abuse and who remained in confinement with their aggressors due to the health crisis.
Activists and human rights defenders immediately set off alarms due to the increasing violence in homes—as happened in other nations in mandatory quarantine—especially in Ecuador, where according to a survey of the National Institute of Statistics and Censuses (INEC), more than 90% of women abused or violated at home do not report these facts (as opposed to 40% worldwide according to the United Nations).
Reporting domestic abuse is more difficult in rural areas because few people have cellular phones and women must travel long distances to reach state aid agencies.
Recently, the director of ECU911, Juan Zapata, revealed that between March 12 and April 14 there had been 7,508 calls for help due to domestic violence at the national level. About 30% of these calls, 2,312 cases, were received by the central ECU911 Samborondón that covers Guayas and Santa Elena. Zapata said that according to figures from the entity from the previous year, in the same period of time more than 12,000 calls were registered for this type of aggression.
Research from INEC has shown that 65 out of 100 women in Ecuador have suffered some type of violence throughout their lives and one in four have been psychologically abused in the last 12 months.
Legislative response has not been enough to stop the violence
On March 18, the Committee of Experts of the Follow-up Mechanism of the Inter-American Convention to Prevent, Punish, and Eradicate Violence against Women—Convention of Belém do Pará— (Mesecvi) of the Organization of American States ( OAS ), requested that the member states, of which Ecuador is part, to incorporate the gender perspective in the measures that were being dictated to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic. The nations were asked to reinforce actions for the prevention and attention of gender violence.
In response, on March 27th Ecuador’s National Emergency Operations Committee (National COE) approved the protocol for Communication and Care of Cases of Gender and Intrafamily Violence in the Coronavirus Emergency (COVID-19).
On April 9, the Secretary of the United Nations, António Guterres, presented a report on the exacerbation of violence and inequities to which women and girls were exposed and called on governments to take “urgent measures” to protect them.
In Ecuador, the protocol approved by the National COE was launched on April 16th to facilitate, in a situation of immobilization, the inter-institutional articulation and the face-to-face operation of executive and judicial services to not leave women and children unprotected, said Cecilia Chacón, Secretary of Human Rights in Ecuador.
Also, on April 19, the State Attorney General’s Office enabled the option to denounce domestic violence online, in addition to the physical or face-to-face complaint that could be made in “flagrante delicto” units that operate 24 hours a day in the country.
And although services, mechanisms for reporting online or by phone, campaigns, community chats, programs and other projects to help victims were expanded, the scale of domestic violence against children and women does not stop. And many are even unaware of these proposals and cannot report because their attackers go through with them.
“I wanted to help a friend, but they ask me (in the online complaint of the Prosecutor’s Office) to put her identification, email (email), telephone …, how am I going to put her phone if they call her later and she will not be able to say anything because she is with her husband all day. And the husband is very jealous, he does not even let her go to the store “, asks Ángela M., from the northwest of Guayaquil.
Given this, public entities such as the Ombudsman’s Office and other human rights defense groups have issued several declarations and public exhortations for the State to assume its responsibility and give urgent responses.
Sybel Martínez, Vice President of the Council for the Protection of Rights of Quito, and one of the signatories of these declarations, says they have not seen any effective action, with a gender and human rights perspective, to prevent violence against children and women during the pandemic.
“We have not had any positive change; we have seen how femicides have increased during the quarantine. We are alarmed by this and by the increase in sexual violence against children;throughout the quarantine we have registered 19 cases of violent deaths against children: 11 girls and 8 boys.”
In the face of multiple cases of femicides that have happened since the pandemic began, on August 21st the Ombudsman’s Office urged the Presidency of the Republic, the State offices and the Judicial Branch to seek efficient mechanisms to stop the wave of attacks against women and the family.
“It is not possible to combat gender-based violence and femicidal violence if there is no real political will translated into a budget , so that all the institutions that are part of the National System to Prevent and Eradicate Violence against Women, in the framework of their competences, solve policies of care, protection, but, above all, of prevention and comprehensive reparation that, until now, are absent on the map of public action,”said Freddy Carrión, defender of the People of Ecuador, in the exhortation which he posted on August 22nd.
“The discourse must be translated into real events that allow the growth curve of the number of femicides to be flattened, since the only thing they allow us to glimpse is the dehumanization that public policy has to deal with these atrocious crimes against the women of our country,” he said.
By mid-May, eleven women, including two girls under the age of 5, died violently during the last weeks of confinement in Ecuador.
Two other cases were reported as alleged suicides, as the victims were found hanging from rafters in their homes. However, relatives asked the authorities to investigate the deaths, as they suspected that they could hide femicides.
Confinement only deepens the rage and anger of abusers
Psychologists, activists and police agree that mandatory confinement causes more stress on couples and that complaints of gender violence have multiplied in both rural and urban areas.
During lockdown, Kiesha Preston, an advocate for survivors of domestic abuse, has heard from many people facing physical, psychological and/or sexual abuse that the violence against them is escalating without reprieve.
Stress and isolation create combustible tensions. A lack of privacy subjects many victims to closer surveillance by their abuser, making it difficult to call crisis hotlines, for example. And Preston worries that high unemployment will make it harder to afford moving out — though she hopes that this won’t stop anyone who is being abused from reaching out.
“Financial resources are a huge factor in being able to get away from your abuser, and right now we are in an economic crisis” in addition to being socially isolated, says Preston. “This honestly creates a situation where it’s easier for abusers to utilize finances as a tool of abuse.”
Those ready to leave often cannot find places to go, she says. Shelters are open but often full, and the coronavirus pandemic complicates staying with relatives.
“And fleeing is just the beginning,” says Patti Giggans, CEO of an anti-sexual and domestic abuse group. Once victims are moved, she says, many are then tracked by perpetrators through their phones.
“It’s not so much you’re looking over your shoulder for someone anymore — it’s with you. It’s in your purse. It’s in your pocket,” she says.
Enduring the many forms of abuse can feel like a never-ending ordeal.
Increased domestic abuse is happening worldwide, not just in Ecuador
“For many women and girls, the threat looms largest where they should be safest. In their own homes… We know lockdowns and quarantines are essential to suppressing COVID-19. But they can trap women with abusive partners.” – UN Secretary-General António Guterres
12 June 2020 – T.C.*, a Palestinian woman in Al-Bureij camp, one of the poorest and most crowded camps in the Gaza Strip, had long been verbally and physically abused by her husband. The situation took a turn for the worse under the COVID-19 pandemic, with the abuse becoming a daily occurrence.
“Sometimes I feel that this is a nightmare that I will eventually wake up from, but the nightmare is never-ending, and I do not know how much longer I can handle this,” she told the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
Oleksandra* says she felt the quiet war her ex-husband was waging against her had escalated under quarantine. Both living in the same apartment with their two children in Kyiv, Ukraine, she felt she had no escape from his abuse. She was afraid to seek help, knowing he might eavesdrop on her phone calls.
T.C. and Oleksandra are among the hundreds of millions of victims of violence against women and girls, which has intensified since the outbreak of COVID-19.
The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) says that domestic violence was already one of the greatest human rights violations. Some 243 million women and girls (aged 15-49) have been subjected to sexual or physical violence by an intimate partner in the last 12 months, Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka wrote on 6 April.
“As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, this number is likely to grow,” she says.
Increases in interpersonal violence during times of crisis are well documented. But wide underreporting has made response and data gathering a challenge, with less than 40 per cent of women who experience violence seeking any help or reporting the crime. Of those women who do seek help, less than 10 per cent go to the police.
However, early data shows that helplines in Singapore and Cyprus have registered a more than 30 per cent increase in calls. In Australia, 40 per cent of frontline workers in New South Wales reported more requests for help with violence. In France, domestic violence cases increased by 30 per cent since the lockdown on March 17. In Argentina, emergency calls for domestic violence have increased by 25 per cent since the lockdown on March 20.
“Unfortunately, every country in the region is already all too familiar with the scourge of interpersonal violence,” says the World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Office for Europe.
In the United Kingdom, calls, emails and website visits to Respect, the national domestic violence charity, have increased 97 per cent, 185 per cent and 581 per cent respectively.
In the first 3 weeks of COVID-19 lockdowns, 14 women and 2 children were murdered in the country.
Confinement under stay-at-home orders is “a perfect storm” for violent behaviour behind closed doors, says Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka, as it exacerbates tensions about security, health, and money.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres said that for many women and girls, the COVID-19 threat looms largest where they should be safest – their own homes. “We know lockdowns and quarantines are essential to suppressing COVID-19,” he said. However, “they can trap women with abusive partners.”
He urged all Governments to make the prevention and redress of violence against women a key part of their national response plans. Over 140 Governments have supported this call.
A need for silent and safe services
In addition to exacerbating fear, anxiety, financial stress and alcohol consumption, COVID-19 has challenged the ability of health and social services to connect with and support victims of violence. In response, countries are putting in place solutions to offer safety.
In Ukraine, Tetyana Franchuk, a psychologist with a UNFPA-supported mobile psychosocial team in Vyshneve, near Kiyv, has been providing services via Skype, Viber, Zoom and phone since the quarantine started. These new platforms have become popular.
“Now some clients even tell us that this way of work is more suitable for them than visiting us, and they want to continue in such way even after quarantine ends,” she says.
In Norway, too, teachers and other child welfare service workers have gone mobile, prompting more direct follow-up measures with known vulnerable children.
In France, Germany, Italy, Norway and Spain, pharmacies and supermarkets have become safe “go-to” spaces where the utterance of a code word (“MASK 19”) signals an urgent request for protection from domestic abusers. These locations are often the only retailers open, and shopping for essential groceries is the only accepted reason for people to leave their homes.