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Aggressors at Home and within the State: Sexual and Reproductive Rights Violations of Women and Girls during the COVID-19 pandemic in Peru

Feminist Perspectives
Saskia Riera Zielinska

17 September 2020

In Peru, the bodies of women, girls and adolescents have long been sites of sexual violence and patriarchal control. The country has a history of sexual and reproductive rights (SRRs) violations, with widespread rape and sexual abuse occurring during the internal conflict during the 1980s and 1990s, and mass forced sterilizations of (overwhelmingly indigenous) women during the 1990s Fujimori regime.

Feminist perspectives-Mural contra violencia de genero - Ayacucho - Saskia Blog Post Picture

Mural calling for an end to gender-based violence in Ayacucho, Peru

Today, Peru is considered to have some of the worst levels of sexual violence in South America, with children and adolescent girls representing a high proportion of the victims. In 2017, 1,825 girls aged 14 and under gave birth in Peru1, each case the victim of child sexual assault. During the pandemic the bodies of women and girls have been subjected to institutionalised violence, both at home and by the state. However, this violence is not a new phenomenon, but part of a continuum of institutionalised violence against women and girls in Peru, both in domestic settings and state institutions, during peacetime and at war2. What then is unique about the case of SRRs violations during the pandemic?

What researchers have long known, and what the pandemic has emphasised, is that aggressors lie mostly within the home. Early during the coronavirus state of emergency, the Ministry of Women and Vulnerable Populations confirmed a 50% increase in reported domestic violence to the specialist domestic abuse hotline. Cases such as the father from Chontalí, arrested for torturing and attempting to rape his 13-year-old daughter, were almost quotidian news. Dubbed ‘the Monster of Chontalí’ he was subsequently released from prison; he later attempted to burn his daughter alive. Vice-Minister Cecilia Aldave, clarified that ‘the most part of sexual violence occurs in the home, the enemy lives at home… many girls are in quarantine with their aggressors.3’ By 4th July, 900 cases of rape had been reported during three months of the state of emergency, with underage girls representing over two-thirds of the victims. Quarantined with their aggressors due to the pandemic, women and girls have found their coping strategies reduced and exposure to harm augmented.

The Peruvian state is not only complicit in maintaining legal and judicial systems that help to perpetuate SRRs abuses, but is also responsible for perpetrating violence itself, especially against minors. In May, a 14-year-old girl was admitted to hospital after she was raped by two police officers; the hospital confirmed that the girl had been drugged before being attacked. Other adolescents have similarly reported sexual harassment at the hands of the Peruvian police; in May, a 15-year-old girl from Cajamarca videoed herself being sexually harassed by a member of the police force. During the state of emergency, the disparities in power between the policed and those doing the policing has increased. To enforce the strict quarantine measures, the armed forces were a ubiquitous presence on the streets of Peru. With extra incentives to control the free movement of people, there has been ample opportunity for aggressors within the forces to abuse their authority and commit sexual abuse or harassment. Such transgressions are already low risk for perpetrators who have long enjoyed staggering impunity.

Furthermore, the state is also responsible for re-violating victims through the denial of adequate healthcare. During a presidential address in May, neither Aldave nor President Vizcarra could guarantee victims’ access to the KIT de emergencia, a health package containing emergency contraception, antiretrovirals and STI tests, a legal right of victims. Furthermore, during the pandemic, a child rape victim in Chiclayo was denied the morning-after pill included in the KIT at Las Mercedes hospital. The denial of emergency contraception and the inadequate measures taken to guarantee the KIT de emergencia violates victims’ rights to health, who may be subsequently exposed to infection. Given that abortion is illegal, (with the exception of therapeutic abortion which, although legal, is frequently denied), the withholding of emergency contraception is akin to exposing young girls to forced pregnancy. This is also a gross re-violation of their reproductive rights; as early pregnancy is linked with increased maternal mortality4, young girls’ rights to life and health are yet again jeopardised. Further still, Amnesty International considers that obliging child victims of rape to undergo forced pregnancy is comparative to torture5.

Adult women’s SRRs have similarly been compromised by the pandemic, especially in terms of maternal health. Across Peru, there have been multiple cases of pregnant women denied medical attention, such as a woman in labour in Piura, who was turned away from hospital despite bleeding heavily. Similar cases were reported in Lima and in Trujillo, where a woman who had been denied medical attention was left for five days with her deceased child in her womb, a threat to both her physical and mental health. Such maternal health violations have occurred despite guarantees from the Ministry of Health that births would be attended by medical professionals at all hours across Peru. With resources channelled into fighting the Coronavirus pandemic, maternal health appears to be a secondary priority for the Peruvian state. Consequently, women’s lives are being put at risk; regional obstetric colleges have reported increases in maternal mortality during the quarantine, partly due to women facing difficulties obtaining prenatal checks. Poor access to maternal healthcare not only endangers women6, but can also endanger the health of their child7.

In summary, far from being a ‘great equalizer’ the pandemic has amplified inequalities across race, gender, class and other intersectional lines, in Peru and beyond. In this sense, the pandemic may provide a unique opportunity for unmasking and challenging unequal power structures that underlie such violations. Nonetheless, the crisis may also be a chance for conservative forces to curtail women’s rights, already occurring in countries such as Poland. Indeed, investigative news agency Wayka noted how conservative religious groups in Peru have used the pandemic as an opportunity to garner influence amongst politicians to advance anti-rights agendas. A strong, timely and multi-sectoral response must protect, guarantee, and reinforce women and girls’ SRRs, if a conservative backlash is to be avoided in the aftermath of the pandemic.

 

  1. Instituto Nacional de Estadísticas e Informática, 2018
  2. See Boesten, (2009), ‘Wartime Rape and Peacetime Inequalities in Peru,’ in Kelvin (ed), Feminism and the Body.
  3. Wayka, 25th May 2020 https://wayka.pe/ministra-de-la-mujer-pide-a-minsa-reportar-entrega-de-kit-de-emergencia-a-ninas/?fbclid=IwAR1nEU6ee64AtAER9Uy2RT64--CjaE6RRiZX6J9CJUnljIRsiVoOc-e2wEw
  4. Nove et al. (2014), ‘Maternal mortality in adolescents compared with women of other ages: evidence from 144 countries,’ The Lancet Global Health, 2, pp. e155-e164
  5. Amnesty International, 2014 “On the brink of death: Violence Against Women and the Abortion Ban in El Salvador,” Index Number AMR 29/003/2014, Amnesty International Ltd, London, UK
  6. Lokot and Avakyan, (2020), ‘Intersectionality as a lens to the COVID-19 pandemic: implications for sexual and reproductive health in developmental and humanitarian contexts,’ Sexual and Reproductive Health Matters, 28 (1) pp 1-4
  7. Kablinsky et al (2016), ‘Quality maternity care for every woman, everywhere: a call to action,’ Lancet, 388, pp. 2307-2320.

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