“With the pandemic, my freedom took another hit,” a Bolivian mother told the news agency EFE at a women’s shelter in Ecuador, the country in the region with the highest index for macho violence and where 65 of every 100 woman have suffered from it in one way or another.
Seated on the bed in a frugally furnished room decorated with a child’s drawings, the woman – who we will call Alicia – in a quiet voice told how she came to this shelter.
Thanks to efforts by the Bolivian Embassy, she was able to leave behind her ex-partner and father of her one-year-old son, with whom she has a legal case pending that prevents her from leaving Ecuador. “He was leaving me without any money. I left the house where I lived with my ex because he threatened me. He told me ‘If you don’t show up, I’m going to come in the afternoon and let you have it. I don’t care if I go to jail,’” she said before adding “So I said no, I have to get out of here today.”
Tormented by an awful premonition, she waited until her abuser left and then took advantage of “the only chance I had, because I … was in danger.”
Although her then-husband didn’t want her to work, when her baby was four months old she had to leave him in the hands of another lady so that she could earn some money, since she had been constantly “subjected to economic, psychological and physical maltreatment.”
But the COVID-19 pandemic wrecked all her plans and gave a new and bitter twist to her situation. “When the pandemic came, I couldn’t work. My freedom took another hit. I felt free to go out and work and the same mistreatment came back home with me,” Alicia said.
Without a sign marking its existence on an historic colonial street in Quito, the Casa de la Mujer (House of the Woman) is a structure that’s been rehabilitated to house women and their children under age 12. “Forty-one percent are people in a situation of human mobility, from Venezuela, Colombia, the US, Bolivia, Honduras, Argentina … and 90 percent come with kids,” the shelter’s coordinator, Carmen Elena Hermosa, told EFE.
She spoke on a small patio with potted plants all around, symbolizing the cycle of emotional and economic dependence that’s hard to break out of for the majority of victims and survivors of gender violence and abuse.
In the shelter, the first emotional protection is provided by social workers and psychologists, who establish an emergency plan that includes medical treatment and legal advice. The pandemic has forced the center to implement 12 days of isolation for incoming residents, since one of the women who gave birth there became infected with the coronavirus and upon returning from the hospital had to remain quarantined in that special room along with her four children.
Maria, a 32-year-old Ecuadorian from the Andean province of Imbabura, has been living for several months in the shelter along with her five children ranging in age from 4 to 12. For years she endured ill-treatment of all kinds but the tipping point came when her ex-partner attacked one of her daughters. Then, she plucked up her courage and overcame the barrier of fear that had kept her trapped amid the constant threats, and she was able to ask for help from the local authorities where she lived. They, in turn, helped get her moved into the shelter.
“The attacks were physical, psychological and sexual,” she said, adding that despite being paralyzed with fear and indecision for so long, she was able to file charges against her attacker. She broke down crying when she recalled the emotional valley she went through: “I had no desire to go on. The psychologists made me notice that I had to. First, out of love for myself and then out of love for my daughters. This house is a blessing.”
Since it opened its doors on Jan. 29, 2020, the shelter for survivors of machista violence has welcomed 55 women and a similar number of children, and it has not stopped operating for a single day. Today, it is housing seven women with their 13 children.
“From the first day I came here I felt liberated, happy, happy to see my kids smiling, playing and being kids again, which they could never do with my ex-husband,” said Maria, who considers the empowerment the women receive to begin a new life free from abuse to be crucial.
The president of the San Jose municipal management board, Lilia Yunda, said that Quito annually allocated $360,000 to the project, which operates in coordination with the 14 other shelters for victims of gender violence around the country. “The pandemic has worsened gender violence. Since March, there have been 86 femicides and since October up to now in November 16 (murders of women) nationwide,” Yunda said, adding that the scourge “doesn’t respect” age or social class, with the youngest victim being just one year old and the oldest 83.
Agreeing with her is the UN Women representative in Ecuador, Bibiana Aido, who said that “COVID-19 has increased all the gender violence indices.” The latest figures speak for themselves: Sixty-six percent of women during the period of confinement have not felt safe in their homes and 85 percent have not been able to get out of that situation.
In a region where the main cause of death for women between 15 and 44 is gender violence, Ecuador is the country with the greatest social tolerance for the phenomenon, the former Spanish equality minister said. “Ecuador is a peaceful country in general, with a very low murder rate, but the greatest violence comes in the home. That is the thing that the bulk of society needs to reject,” Aido said.
Credit: Latin America Herald Tribune