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Opinion Puerto Rico’s women have been heard — finally

A member the Feminist Collective in Construction wears a shirt bearing the Spanish phrase: “For them. For us. For all.” (Carlos Giusti/AP)
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Angie Noemi González, a Puerto Rican nurse who tended to the elderly and nurtured three young daughters, knew it was a risk. It was always a risk. Would he hurt their children? Would he explode? But, after 16 years, her uncle later said, she was drained; it was time for González to break away from her abusive husband. On Jan. 14, her husband reported her missing, police said, but a few days later confessed and led them to her strangled body, which had been dumped in a ravine.

González’s harrowing death marked a turning point in Puerto Rico: After years of insisting and persisting, organizing and protesting against a government that appeared largely indifferent to violence against women and femicide, Puerto Rico’s women were heard. Finally.

On Jan. 24, Puerto Rico’s newly elected governor, Pedro R. Pierluisi, declared a state of emergency on gender-based violence. Women’s rights groups had been asking for a declaration since 2018, when they took to the streets in a three-day demonstration led by the Feminist Collective in Construction.

“Gender violence is a social evil, based on ignorance and attitudes that cannot have space or tolerance in the Puerto Rico that we aspire to,” said Pierluisi, who pledged on the campaign trail to address the injustice, in an announcement. “For too long, vulnerable victims have suffered the consequences of systematic machismo, inequality, discrimination, lack of education, guidance and, above all, action.”

The executive mandate is broad and powerful: It helps protect women who have filed restraining orders, calls for the creation of a mobile app for women who feel threatened and launches a media campaign to educate the public. It establishes a committee that includes advocacy groups, and it appoints a compliance officer to monitor progress. The order also calls for better statistics and secures pipelines of money, a key component in this financially strapped U.S. territory.

Not surprisingly, the announcement went largely unnoticed in much of the rest of the United States (as Puerto Rican issues often do). But in Puerto Rico, where women have continued to demonstrate and hold vigils for the dead, Pierluisi’s declaration is a long-awaited, hard-fought victory.

“It’s a win; the government now recognizes the importance of this issue,” Vilma González, the executive director for Coordinadora Paz Para Las Mujeres, an anti-violence umbrella group, told me. “We have been issuing these complaints for many years and they were never heard.”

Last year, Puerto Rico saw at least 60 femicides — the murder of women because they are women — according to a local watchdog organization, the Gender Equity Observatory. This represents a frightening 62 percent increase over 2019. At least once femicide was committed every week from 2014 to 2018, a figure that rivals some Latin American countries where domestic violence is endemic, according to a 2019 study. And the ACLU Puerto Rico, in a 2012 report, found Puerto Rico had the world’s highest per capita rate for women older than 14 who were killed by their partners.

After Hurricane Maria, which razed much of the island in 2017, there was a dramatic jump in violence against women. They often had nowhere to turn; shelters and police stations had been decimated, Johanna Pinette, a lawyer for the ACLU Puerto Rico, told me. Faulty police statistics, which remain a problem, failed to fully reflect reality, she said. Then came covid-19, with its lockdowns and joblessness, and violence climbed again, she said. Transgender women (and men) have also been frequent targets.

The ACLU report and other studies spurred modest progress, and police leaders insist they are doing a better job. But Pierluisi’s emergency declaration makes clear that bolder steps are needed to protect women and upend the machista culture that permeates much of Puerto Rico.

This won’t happen overnight. As Vilma Gonzalez said, “This system has been in place for hundreds of years.”

Pierluisi deserves credit for spotlighting machismo. Far too many men in Latino culture still believe they have the power and the prerogative to menace women, control jobs, dismiss and discriminate simply because they are men.

No need to look further than former governor Ricardo Rosselló to see male entitlement play out. He was forced to resign in 2019 after a group Telegram chat, peppered with crude and threatening misogynistic patter between the governor and his advisers, all men, was leaked and published by Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism.

But women are fighting back in greater numbers than ever, not just in Puerto Rico, but across Latin America. Mexican women have protested and taken over government buildings. And large women’s rights protests have broken out in Argentina, Chile and Brazil.

In Puerto Rico, at least for the moment, there is reason to celebrate. “This is a big step,” Vilma Gonzalez told me. “But this is only the beginning.”

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