October 5, 2020

The Shadow Pandemic

 By Amy Risley

In June 2020, the World Health Organization identified Latin America as an epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sadly, the region now risks becoming an epicenter of the “Shadow Pandemic,” the global surge in gender-based violence (UN Women 2020a). In Latin America, an estimated 20 million women and girls experience sexual and physical abuse each year. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, at least 3,529 women were victims of femicide in 2018 (Fumega 2020). Available data suggest a substantial increase in physical and sexual intimate partner violence across the region during the pandemic. 

Notwithstanding this spike, the structural, institutional, and cultural forces that create a permissive environment for such violence predate the arrival of coronavirus. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Central America and Mexico, where women activists and human rights defenders are insisting that the “crisis was already here” when the pandemic hit (IM-Defensoras 2020). Communities were already reeling from simultaneous social and political crises, militarized policing, and state-sponsored repression and criminal violence targeting activists who defend the environment and the rights of women, LGBTQ, indigenous, Afro-indigenous, and other communities. Neoliberal economic policies had exacerbated inequalities and undermined public health systems. This state of affairs underscores the need for feminist, intersectional research that examines how gender, class, ethnicity, race, and sexuality have shaped individuals’ experiences during the pandemic. 

Feminist researchers often search out seemingly “private” spaces, including the home, because they recognize that power is created and wielded, and legitimized there. Seven out of ten femicides in Argentina are committed in the victim’s home; the number is a tragic reminder that home can hardly be considered as a “refuge” for women (Fumega 2020). Confinement at home can be a necessary, life-saving measure during the pandemic, yet it also exacerbates the risk factors associated with gender-based violence. Not only are survivors in close quarters with their abusers; they are potentially cut off from crucial forms of support. These can include services provided by state agencies and non-governmental organizations as well as informal support networks comprising friends and family (UN Women 2020b). Offices close, and resources are diverted from support services to immediate COVID-19 relief (UN Women 2020a). 

In addition, confinement is creating economic pressures and exacerbating underlying risk factors associated with gender-based violence, such as unemployment, underemployment, and poverty. Pandemics may fuel harassment of and violence against female healthcare workers, migrant laborers, and domestic workers and heighten the risk of xenophobic violence. Women and girls with disabilities are sometimes subjected to sexual violence at greater rates. Individuals experience multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination that make them especially vulnerable (UN Women 2020b). Consider, moreover, the gendered roles of the “dutiful” wife, mother, and/or daughter and the added responsibilities that caregivers assume within their families and community during a pandemic. As the executive director of the United Nations Population Fund observes, the crisis “is compounding the no longer subterranean disparities that affect millions of women and girls” (Ford 2020).

Latin America is not immune from these global trends. Peru’s Ministry of Women and Vulnerable Populations reported higher numbers of gender violence cases following the implementation of quarantine (LAND 2020a). In July, the Ministry informed the public that 2,457 women had gone missing in the country during the lockdown; included in that figure were 1,720 minors. The authorities hastily added that many had already returned home, and they were working with some 400 local women’s emergency centers to locate the others (LAND 2020b). In Brazil’s state of São Paulo, cases of violence against women in which police were dispatched jumped 45 percent in March compared to the previous year (Sigal et al. 2020). In El Salvador, reports of violence against women rose 70 percent between March 17 and May 22 relative to 2019 (IM-Defensoras 2020). In Colombia, the government reported a 130 percent surge in call volume to a national women’s helpline for domestic violence in the first 18 days of quarantine (Sigal et al. 2020). Similarly, in Argentina, calls to domestic violence helplines grew 40 percent after the government implemented quarantine (Fumega 2020). The Chilean government likewise observed that calls to domestic abuse helplines increased 70 percent in the first weekend of quarantine alone (Sigal et al. 2020). 

The region has experienced unbearable increases in numbers of female murder victims. According to the Mexican government, murders of women committed in the first six months of 2020 rose 9.2 percent vis-à-vis the first half of 2019 (Associated Press 2020). As of April 13, “more women had been murdered (367) than had died due to COVID-19 (100) since the country’s first confirmed coronavirus case on February 28” (Prusa, García Nice and Soledad 2020). In Venezuela, femicides increased by 65 percent in April 2020 compared to April 2019 (International Rescue Committee 2020). Similarly, femicides in six Brazilian states increased 56 percent in March relative to the same period the previous year; in Argentina, 49 femicides were committed between March 20 and May 10 (Prusa, García Nice, and Soledad 2020). A shocking 83 femicides were documented in Honduras (IM-Defensoras 2020). 

Women in Mexico and Central America have assisted survivors of gender violence, organized feminist mutual care networks at the grassroots, mobilized relief efforts to deliver food, supplies, and health care to communities, denounced human rights violations, and participated in protests (IM-Defensoras 2020). The authorities have detained politically active women for violating quarantine, prompting concerns that such measures are being used as a pretext to stifle activism. In El Salvador, for example, police detained a member of the Network of Mesoamerican Women in Resistance while she was on her way to buy medicine for her three-year-old, hospitalized son. She was held for more than 30 days in unsanitary conditions; she was not provided a mask, hand sanitizer, or medicine for her diabetes (IM-Defensoras 2020). 

In conclusion, Latin Americans were already enduring multiple and intersecting forms of gender-based violence when the coronavirus arrived. The violence has intensified since the outbreak. Is there a way out of the shadow pandemic? Most of the region’s governments have already enacted legal, policing, and relief measures designed to assist survivors of gender-based violence during COVID-19. Legal reforms have eased the prosecution of offenders (LAND 2020a). Although stepped-up responses are certainly necessary, feminist public health models extend well beyond individual-level, criminal justice interventions and short-term relief. Feminists also tackle the root causes of violence. We interrogate neoliberalism and the political economy of women’s (re)domestication and relegation to the private sphere. We continually reckon with the crushing inequalities that are literally matters of life or death, even in the absence of a pandemic. Feminist analyses, moreover, challenge militarization and authoritarianism while drawing connections between domestic and state-sponsored forms of violence. It was Chilean feminists who famously demanded “democracy in the home and in the country” in the final years of the country’s military dictatorship. Their words still resonate today. 

Amy E. Risley is a Professor of International Studies at Rhodes College


Associated Press. 2020. “In Mexico, women's murders have spiked during coronavirus pandemic.” (July 21). Accessed July 2020.

Ford, Liz. 2020. “'Calamitous': domestic violence set to soar by 20% during global lockdown.” The Guardian, April 28. Accessed July 2020.

Fumega, Silvana. 2020. “Tracking Latin America’s Other Pandemic: Violence Against Women.” Americas Quarterly, April 13. Accessed July 2020.

IM-Defensoras (Iniciativa Mesoamericana de Mujeres Defensoras de Derechos Humanos). 2020. “La Crisis Ya Estaba Aquí.: Defensoras mesoamericanas ante COVID-19.” Accessed July 2020.

International Rescue Committee. 2020. “IRC data shows an increase in reports of gender-based violence across Latin America.” (June 9). Accessed July 2020.

LAND (Latin America News Dispatch). 2020a. Today in Latin America, April 30. Accessed July 2020. https://latindispatch.com/

LAND. 2020b. Today in Latin America, July 16. Accessed July 2020. https://latindispatch.com/

Prusa, Anya, Beatriz García Nice and Olivia Soledad. 2020. “Pandemic of Violence: Protecting Women during COVID-19.” Wilson Center, May 15. Accessed July 2020. 

Sigal, Lucila et al. 2020. “Another pandemic': In Latin America, domestic abuse rises amid lockdown.” Reuters, April 27. Accessed July 2020.

UN Women. 2020a. “The Shadow Pandemic: Violence against women during COVID-19.” Accessed July 2020.

UN Women. 2020b. “Violence against women and girls: Data collection during COVID-19” (April 17). Accessed July 2020. https://www.unwomen.org/-/media/headquarters/attachments/sections/library/publications/2020/vawg-data-collection-during-covid-19-compressed.pdf?la=en&vs=2339


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