Since Hurricane Fiona struck September 18, the government of Puerto Rico has held more than a dozen press conferences, but in none has it provided information that helps victims and survivors of gender-based violence get specialized aid they need during the emergency, when they are most vulnerable. 

Neither has it disclosed the government’s strategies to address the increase in gender-based violence after the disaster. Thistask  has fallen primarily on nonprofit organizations, which are experiencing a lack of resources and limited outreach capacity in some towns.

“The government’s response to domestic violence victims and survivors has been scarce,” said Vilma González Castro, executive director of the Coordinadora Paz para las Mujeres, a coalition that brings together 38 organizations and 14 feminists dedicated to protect the rights of women and LGBTTIQ+ people.

“The government hasn’t run a campaign that’s good enough or comprehensive enough so that women have information on the signs of gender violence, where to seek help and what to do in a situation of gender violence, and that puts them at a high risk of death without knowing it, without seeking help,” said Amárilis Pagán Jiménez, executive director of the nonprofit organization Proyecto Matria.

The risk is preventable. Prior disasters have shown how the fragility of the most vulnerable groups worsens most dramatically.

One of the indicators of the spike in gender-based violence after Hurricane María was the surge in feminicides. The number of intimate feminicides — those committed in circumstances of domestic violence — in the nine months before Hurricane María was seven, while in the nine months following the hurricane it was 14, according to “La persistencia de la indolencia: feminicidios en Puerto Rico, 2014-2018,” an investigation by Proyecto Matria and Kilómetro 0.

After hurricanes Irma and María in 2017, it was noted that the situation for women in Puerto Rico is different from that of women in the Caribbean and Central American region due to the limited access that there was to emergency funds and how the colonial status in Puerto Rico  also meant a barrier to receiving international solidarity funds, as the organization Inter-Mujeres documented in its investigation entitled “Voces de mujeres: Estrategias de supervivencia y de fortalecimiento mutuo tras el paso de los huracanes Irma y María.”

The absence of a safe home implies a lack of stability to make decisions related to schools, health services, and work, that is, for economic development, Pagán Jiménez said. To this she added the lack of transportation. Many families lost their cars in the floods and Puerto Rico lacks a reliable public transportation system, complicating moving around to apply for aid or to reach the places where support is offered to get over the disaster.

“If you add a gender violence situation to these conditions, whether it’s domestic violence, stalking or sexual violence, we’re talking about a lethal combination,” Pagán Jiménez warned.

When asked about a plan to deal with a possible increase in gender-based violence after disasters, the Women’s Advocate Office (OPM, in Spanish) referred to a section included in the Department of Housing’s Safety Guides in Shelters to address cases of gender violence, protection orders and sex offenders, and a poster with information from OPM to be placed in shelters during emergencies. The Department of Housing is responsible for shelters during emergencies.

The OPM also stated that it has several strategies to channel orientation and intervention needs for survivors who need it, such as ensuring that its telephone line remains operational and having an alternative plan in the event of a possible power outage for extended periods.

However, the percentage of women in shelters is small compared to the number of women who remain in situations of gender violence in communities throughout the island, the executive director of Proyecto Matria noted.

“An effective response from the State cannot be limited to having electricity and helplines in the OPM. It can’t also be limited to shelters,” Pagán Jiménez argued.

The OPM noted that on June 23, 2022, the intergovernmental Protocol to Coordinate the Response, Orientation and Exchange of Information for the Care of Gender Violence Survivors in Situations of Domestic Violence was signed. “This protocol must be put into practice even in times of emergency due to natural causes or in the face of a possible rise in domestic violence cases due to a hurricane,” the OPM established.

The document does not address the challenges that come up in the context of an emergency after a disaster.

Increase in calls for help

Since Hurricane Fiona’s on September 18, shelters have registered an increase in calls for orientation and help, Vilmarie Rivera Sierra, president of the National Network of Gender-Based Violence Shelters in Puerto Rico, confirmed.

Between September 18 and 28, the 24/7 helpline that Proyecto Matria coordinates with other organizations and entities, 787-489-0022, received 120 calls, Pagán Jiménez said. “It’s a significantly higher increase, almost double that of August,” she said.

In contrast, the OPM said it has registered a slight reduction in calls to its Orientation Line, 787-722-2977, which has been operating uninterruptedly. From September 15 to October 4, 2022, 214 calls were received, compared to 263 in the same period last year. However, the agency indicated in writing that the 49-call drop does not mean that there were no domestic violence cases, but rather that in times of a weather emergency, victims could be prioritizing other ways to safeguard their lives, property and protect their households.

Organizations have limited capacity

Matria and Taller Salud are two of the organizations that took to the streets to guarantee the safety of the residents of the communities in which they work, as well as in others. But their capacity has a limit, said Tania Rosario, executive director of Taller Salud, a community-based feminist organization that works for women’s health and the development of communities in Loíza, in the northeast, and nearby towns.

“There’s no way that organizations, even putting all our staff to work, all our budget and all our expertise, have the scale that’s necessary to stop the problem or at least mitigate it,” Rosario said with frustration.

In December 2021, Taller Salud carried out a Housing Study in Loíza that shows that 100% of the homes in the seven census communities were at risk in the face of a natural phenomenon and that 30.6% of roofs were still covered with blue tarps after Hurricane María, which struck in 2017. When this year’s hurricane season began, the organization shared its findings and denounced the lack of government support to guarantee the right to decent housing. Four months later, Fiona hit.

Emergency response work has largely fallen on nonprofit organizations with limited resources.
File photo | Courtesy of Taller Salud

Anticipating the blow, Taller Salud had prepared two community kitchens with non-perishable food storage that opened the day after Hurricane Fiona. At the Emiliano Figueroa Torres Community Center in Piñones and the El Ceiba Community Center in Medianía Alta, they have offered nearly 500 breakfasts and lunches daily, the organization said.

“I feel that organizations have learned, and the government hasn’t. All the strategies that we put into practice when that hurricane made landfall, we learned from the experience of Hurricane María, and it didn’t take us 24 hours to get them going. How’s it possible that the government cannot do the same?” Rosario claimed.

Ignored recommendations

One of the recommendations that multiple organizations made to the government of Puerto Rico after Hurricane María was to develop a plan to address the possible increase in gender-based violence in these scenarios.

“The Police must draft and publish a plan specifically designed for socio-environmental disaster situations, aimed at dealing with a possible rise in gender violence. The plan must detail the actions to be carried out in all police regions and at the central level and the number of human resources to be assigned to the different tasks,” according to one of the recommendations included in the “Sin información ante el desastre: Gestión de la información para el manejo de riesgos socioambientales en Puerto Rico,” report that the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish) commissioned after María.

That plan, whether in the Police Department or at the central government level, does not exist, but several of the organization directors who were consulted agreed.

The interim OPM head, Madeline Bermúdez, acknowledged that she would like to have more resources.

“I can’t say that we have a lot of staff because I would like to have 30 or 40 social workers, 10 additional legal intercessors , but we don’t,” she stated.

As a preventive measure, she said she has reassigned some of her staff to reinforce the helpline. There are three social workers and five legal intercessors in each of the three shifts each day. Meanwhile, several of the organizations that OPM funds also have their staff available 24/7.

“To the extent that the organizations are supported and the OPM is strengthened, we’ll be able to address the situation,” Bermúdez said.

She added that her office has been publishing information on the prevention and identification of gender-based violence through social networks. But the Gender Research Unit noted that the scope of this effort has been very limited as most posts are poorly shared. What a person sees depends on having access to devices, the internet, and the social networks’ algorithm. For example, since September 16, when Hurricane Fiona was already expected to strike, the OPM has posted 14 publications in its Facebook page including its help and orientation phone number. OPM posts have not been shared more than 60 times.

Housing passes off responsibility to shelter management companies

As for shelter protocols, the Department of Housing (DV, in Spanish), which is responsible for the shelters, only included in its Guide for the Operation of Emergency Shelters in Puerto Rico, revised in 2020, some general recommendations to identify victims and survivors and address situations that occur in these locations, as part of Appendix L: “Safety Guidelines in Shelters.” The document barely mentions that “in cases of those seeking shelter who have a protection order, they will be placed in an adequate space and different from where the opposite party is.” In addition, they will be offered the option of going to a specialized shelter for domestic violence survivors, along with their children and pets. The relocation to another shelter must be handled by the staff that oversees the public shelter and the Police Department’s Specialized Domestic Violence Unit must provide transportation.

Shelters must also warn, with a sign, about the presence of a sexual offender and provide this person with the appropriate location, also considering the presence of minors, the guide states.

“The guide that’s being used right now to manage shelters and which includes the handling of gender-based violence cases, was developed with recommendations that the Coordinadora Paz para las Mujeres made at the time after visits they made along with other nonprofit organizations to shelters, after Hurricane María hit in 2017,” Department of Housing responded to questions from the Gender Investigative Unit.

When the DV was asked how it is ensuring the implementation of protections and care for gender violence survivors that are included in the Guide for the Operation of Emergency Shelters, the agency did not detail the specific actions that are taken and passed that responsibility along to the private companies contracted to run the shelters.

Housing only said “shelters must have adequate staff that’s prepared and has the necessary professional skills to operate and provide services. The administrative agents in charge of the shelters will hire this staff. Among the people necessary to operate the shelters are shelter administrators, social workers, and service coordinators, among others.”

“In addition, government agencies will assign staff, as is the case of the Puerto Rico Police, to provide security at the shelters. It’s essential that the staff in charge of managing the shelters know their responsibilities and do the best job to support the integration and coordination of resources and services to efficiently offer services to people,” the agency said.

The same week that Hurricane Fiona hit, the Gender Investigative Unit visited the William Rivera Betancourt School in Canóvanas. The person in charge of the shelter, Maribel Osorio Cepeda, who is also the municipal coordinator for Emergency Management and Public Housing, said she works hand in hand with Police to identify cases of domestic violence and sexual offenders. She also said the 140 people they had in the shelter were informed of the protocol for dealing with these situations.

“The victim is protected, they’re moved to a separate room, with the collaboration of the Police, the person in charge of the shelter, and if there is one, a social worker available in the shelter to help us interview that person. It’s done privately and is totally confidential,” she explained.

Although she said she had posters showing the directories of services to provide attention to gender violence victims, at the time of the interview, when there were 15 people left at the shelter, they were not posted.

At the shelter in the Altinencia Valle Santana School in Toa Baja, there were also no information signs.

The interim OPM head said her staff has been actively making sure that the appropriate screening is carried out, that the guidelines are followed, and that they offer helpful information. She acknowledged that it is possible that there are shelter managers who are unaware of the protocol or shelters that have not had posters on display with information for the prevention and attention of gender violence.

“What has happened there? There have been some shelters that at one point weren’t going to be a shelter, so they didn’t have the corresponding framework because they had to improvise in the face of the situation,” said the interim Women’s Advocate.

An old problem

After Hurricane María five years ago, several organizations in Puerto Rico and internationally charged that government authorities did not have protocols in their emergency plans to work with gender-based violence situations that could occur in shelters, which are small spaces where strangers share areas for a period.

There were cases in which women with protection orders were placed in the same area as the opposite party, the president of the National Network of Gender Violence Shelters, Vilmarie Rivera Sierra, said.

After that disaster, in 2017, PhD in Social Work, Diana Valle Ferrer, created the “Protocolo para la identificación y atención para víctimas / sobrevivientes de violencia de género en situaciones de desastres” for Coordinadora Paz para las Mujeres.

After the 2020 earthquakes, The Gender Equity Observatory documented in its study “Cuando tembló la tierra” the absence of protocols for the prevention and attention of gender-based violence when interviewing women in shelters in the Island’s southern region. Aggression between couples, harassment, sexual assault, and theft of their belongings were identified. One of the recommendations was that government agencies adopt the Coordinadora Paz para las Mujeres’ protocol.

The executive director of the Coordinadora Paz para las Mujeres said the document was distributed to all the agencies that comprised the Committee for Prevention, Support, Rescue and Education, which was created by the Governor’s executive order when he declared a state of emergency due to gender violence in Puerto Rico in January 2021. Among these agencies are the Departments of Housing, Family, Health, Justice and Education, and the Police Bureau.

The 25-page document establishes parameters to detect and intervene with victims and survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, due to events that occurred before the disaster or during the period in which the person is in a shelter. It also presents psychosocial first aid recommendations.

The Coordinadora Paz para las Mujeres collaborated with the DV to train the staff of the companies contracted to operate the shelters. In the training they were told about the dynamics of power and control that happen toward victims and survivors, everything related to protection orders, the different manifestations of gender violence and how to work with awareness of the trauma that the violent experience could bring.

In addition, they were urged to have at hand the lists of sexual offenders and people against whom a protection order weighs, to prioritize the safety of the victims.

For the executive director of the Coordinadora Paz para las Mujeres, having these protocols accessible should be a basic consideration in shelters to ensure safety.

The DV indicated that no incident of gender violence has been recorded in the shelters set up for Hurricane Fiona.

Gender perspective is essential in disaster situations

Gender violence can be present in multiple areas, not only in shelters, Jenniffer Berríos Rubert, executive director of Casa Pensamiento de la Mujer del Centro, said. These aggressions can happen, for example, in lines to access water from temporary distribution centers, or between members of the community.

“We know that this can happen at any time, but there are some points of vulnerability that are more susceptible. For example, at night. It’s dark so there’s more risk of harassment, stalking or being sexually assaulted is more likely to happen,” said Berríos Rubert.

The woman recommended that temporary water distribution centers should have better lighting and people in charge of security, who could be police or community leaders. That way not only could violence be prevented, but order and fair distribution are guaranteed, she stressed.

If you or someone you know is in a situation of domestic violence, call 787-489-0022, which operates 24/7, for guidance and help.