In Latin America, shelter networks are a lifeline for women experiencing violence

February 16, 2022

Only 1 out of 10 women survivors of violence seek help from the police, globally. But even those that do often withdraw from the justice process due to poor responses from police or other judicial actors. Women's access to justice starts with believing survivors and taking action, every day. 

"I had been suffering for 28 years until I finally decided to separate from my partner," said Diana Salas*, from the province of Chaco, Argentina. "I wasn't afraid that he would beat me; I was convinced that he would kill me."

"At first, I hesitated to file a (police) complaint because I was afraid of how he might react, but as I learned more about the services provided by the shelter, I realized that I could get out of the violent situation I have lived in for so many years. I decided to press charges."

“I admit that it was difficult, but with the (mental health) support, legal aid and skills training, I healed a lot," she explains.

“I encourage women to seek help. At first, you think you won't be able to leave because you have children or you don't have enough to eat, but that's not true. You can do it!” - Diana Salas*, gender-based violence survivor

Today Salas is working as an administrative assistant in the municipal office of Barranqueras. "I'm different," she says. "I make my own decisions, and now I know what it feels like to be free. I no longer feel like a prisoner, cornered, or betrayed. There are so many things one goes through as a victim, including the psychological [torment] but now I know that I can accomplish whatever I set my mind to."

For Salas, essential services for survivors of domestic violence are no less than a lifeline. "I encourage women to seek help. At first, you think you won't be able to leave because you have children or you don't have enough to eat, but that's not true. You can do it! As survivors, we need to value ourselves enough to leave,” she says.

Supporting survivors during the COVID-19 pandemic

The World Health Organization estimates that 1 in 4 women aged 15 – 49 years in Latin America and the Caribbean experience physical or sexual violence perpetrated by an intimate partner in their lifetime.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, gender-based violence spiked around the world, including in Argentina. The pandemic lockdowns forced women to stay at home with their aggressors, heightening stress and insecurity. In response, local government authorities and shelters collaborated to set up a single, unified platform where survivors could report violence with just a short message or a phone call.

Between January and June 2021, Argentina's National gender-based violence prevention hotline received over 52,000 messages, averaging at 300 calls per day, of which 93 per cent reported domestic violence.

"We are living through tough times and we are facing a double pandemic that made our work more complicated.” - Margarita Guillé, Director of the Inter-American Shelter Network.

Through the EU-UN Spotlight Initiative, UN Women and the Inter-American Shelter Network developed a guide for shelters and safe houses to address the specific needs of women survivors in the region, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In Argentina, the Spotlight Initiative also provided equipment to the hotline service to meet the increasing call volume and technical assistance to better analyze the data coming in.

Salas is among 199 women survivors housed at the shelter affiliated with the Inter-American Shelter Network (RIRE), supported by UN Women through the Spotlight Initiative in Latin America. The shelter has also provided psychosocial support and legal assistance to more than 1,057 women since 2017.

"We know that we are living through tough times, and we are facing a double pandemic that made our work more complicated,” says Margarita Guillé, director of the Inter-American Shelter Network. “It forced us to reimagine the way we do things and find new purposes for our work. Our network focuses on helping survivors of gender-based violence become more resilient."

"The pandemic has become an opportunity to create a community [of service providers] in Latin America by bringing together shelters, safe houses, and specialized women’s care centres," she adds.

*Name has been changed for protection and privacy of the survivor.

Original article published on UN Women.

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