It’s been eight months since Puerto Rico was first devastated by Hurricane Maria in September 2017, and the situation has yet to improve—leaving in its waste toxic, unlivable conditions for much of the U.S. territory. Women are especially vulnerable.
According to a new article from Centro de Periodismo Investigativo, domestic violence and sexual assault organizations in Puerto Rico have reported an increase in violence against women since the storm, but a combination of the island’s infrastructure breakdown and unreliable statistics from official sources (including the police) makes it impossible to quantify. As the World Health Organization makes clear in its report of violence and disasters, sexual violence tends to increase following natural disasters for a variety of reasons: increased stress and feelings of powerlessness due to bereavement, loss of property and loss of livelihood, mental health problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder, the scarcity of basic provisions, destruction of social networks, breakdown of law enforcement, cessation of violence prevention and other social support programs, and disruptions to the economy—all of which has plagued Puerto Rico.
Vilmarie Rivera, Executive Director of the Cayey-based domestic violence shelter Casa Nueva Mujer, told CPI that the island’s official records on domestic violence don’t match what she’s seeing day-to-day. “The situation is,” she said, “that we don’t have statistics that prove that we have an increase of those cases.”
The reason these numbers are unreliable is most likely that they’re compiled by three, unintegrated entities: the Women’s Advocate Office, the Police Bureau and the administrative courts. That, and the damages caused by Hurricane Maria—i.e., no access to the internet or phones—ceased victims’ ability to contact authorities or help. This, of course, doesn’t include those who didn’t own phones in the first place; those who don’t have the ability to travel to shelters; or those who have the privilege of mobility, only to learn their nearest shelters have been shuttered due to hurricane damage.
It gets worse: the Puerto Rican Police Bureau, too, has a longstanding failing to report cases of violence against women—in 2011, the United States Department of Justice found that the agency was underreporting sexual assault, that, partnered with Puerto Rico’s standing as having one of the highest rates of violence against women in the world, a number that is only increasing, makes for an intensification of the issue. Violence against women is clearly not a priority.
Amarilis Pagán of the women’s organization Proyecto Matria, told CPI:
“Women in the south of the island didn’t have a place to go...For us, it’s as if [the Women’s Advocate Office] doesn’t exist, After the hurricane they were they were totally lost. Before or after the hurricane they didn’t have a campaign to orient women about their rights and how to deal with domestic violence.”
Read the full report from Centro de Periodismo Investigativo here.