The Missing Women of Peru
By Kirthi Jayakumar
Peru went into lockdown on March 16, 2020, to contain the spread of COVID-19. In the time since then until June 30, a total of 915 girls and women were reported missing, according to the authorities. In early August, the Women’s Ministry of Peru reported that a total of 1200 women and girls had been reported missing during the pandemic. Much like in other countries, gender-based violence has increased in Peru under lockdown.
Domestic Violence in Peru
Peru has had a longstanding domestic violence problem. Women were reported missing on a daily basis. Violeta Bermudez, Professor at the Catholic University of Peru explained, “The disappearance of Peruvian women is a problem that has existed before the COVID lockdown and has continued to occur during the lockdown. On many occasions, it has been a step prior to femicide. For example, the Ombudsman’s Office stated in 2019 that, at least, 1 in 10 victims of femicide had been previously reported as disappeared to the Police. In other cases, they are exposed to become victims of crimes such as human trafficking or sexual violence or sexual exploitation. Unfortunately, there is a lack of statistics on the real magnitude of the problem and the follow-up of disappearance complaints is insufficient. There is no information on the percentage of those women found and the situation in which they were found.”
Agreeing with Professor Bermudez, Caroline Gibu, the Executive Director of Ciudadanos al Dia, a non-profit association that promotes public sector reforms with a citizen perspective highlighted the structural violence that only exacerbated during the lockdown. “The police and the public sector as a whole have structural problems that do not allow adequate attention to these cases; and that today in a pandemic situation are more evident.”
Before the pandemic reached Peru, several women – like in other Latin American countries – staged massdemonstrations and protests and called for strong governmental action to address gender-based violence. Professor Bermudez shares that the law, though robust in intent and on paper, needs to be implemented with dedication. “In 2018, Legislative Decree No. 1428 was approved. It aims to guarantee effective intervention by the Peruvian State in the face of complaints about the disappearance of women, specifically those who have been victims of violence. It establishes a comprehensive entire procedure that should be followed. However, it is necessary to improve its implementation and expand its scope.”
Caroline Gibu, referring to a report from the Ombudsman’s Office, highlighted the measures that should be taken to address the issue: “A unified registry of disappeared persons that allows the strengthening and systematization of alert notes, statistics, and publicizing the procedures should be implemented. Adequate dissemination of Line 114 is necessary so that quick information is provided to find the disappeared person, as well as so that family members can receive information on the complaint remotely and avoid contagion risks. Permanent training of police and government personnel in current regulations and application of the gender and human rights approach (with emphasis on children). This will prevent complaints or investigations of these cases from being hampered by the persistence of gender stereotypes and prejudices, and an adult-centered view of childhood and adolescence.”
Vulnerability during COVID-19
The number of women reported missing have surged to eight a day since the lockdown began. Confinement within the house during the lockdown has only increased the vulnerability of women to exacerbated violence. Even as efforts are ongoing at the governmental level to eradicate violence against women, it doesn’t seem to have reduced the extent of vulnerability on ground.
The rising numbers are often connected to cases of homicide and human trafficking. As Carolina Lizárraga, Congresswoman, explained, “Many of these missing women are connected to cases of homicide, as it was in the case of Solsiret Rodriguez Aybar. During the state of emergency 41 homicides (of women) were reported between March 16 and August 18. Estimates show that these crimes may also be related to human trafficking for sexual purposes. According to the Ombudsman’s Office, between January and July, 865 adult women and 2100 female children and adolescents were reported missing, an average of 14 cases per day. We need to understand that human trafficking changes constantly. COVID has increased the vulnerability of people, placing them in a situation in which they can be captured, mainly migrants and members of the LGBTIQ+ community.”
The larger narrative of structural violence and patriarchy presents an enabling environment for this challenging reality. In the words of Congresswoman Carolina, “The discriminatory treatment based on gender stereotypes in police investigations following reports in connection to missing women is worrisome. The police usually respond saying, ‘She’ll be back, just wait,’ or ‘She was infatuated with someone,’ among others. This situation is also affected by corruption.” During the lockdown, the inability to access the security sector has exacerbated the state of impunity. Carolina notes, “In the context of the ongoing health crisis, the order of mandatory social isolation has increased the vulnerability of women, children (male and female) and adolescents, as they have lost the social support and the protection they enjoyed before the state of emergency.”
Caroline Gibu explained that the violence increased even after the lockdowns ended. “In July, when the immobility measures were lifted, the numbers increased in most states, with a higher prevalence in children and adolescents. Similarly, the Ombudsman’s Office has warned that the number of femicides has increased in this period, evidence that the health emergency is not adequately equipped with prevention policies and adequate attention to the problem.”