Uruguay, the small Latin American state with an outsized international reputation for being a progressive country, is boasting these days about its successful response to COVID-19. Since the pandemic began, it has recorded just over 800 coronavirus infections and 23 deaths.
But in this same country, women are being routinely beaten and killed. Uruguay’s record on what has been called a ‘shadow pandemic’ – of widespread, gender-based violence that has been exacerbated by the coronavirus lockdown – leaves nothing to be proud of.
The last weekend of May, two women were killed and another two were injured in separate incidents involving male partners and relatives, while two children were murdered by their father (who also committed suicide) after their mother reported him to the police for violent behaviour.
It was a particularly bloody weekend. Three marines were also killed, while on duty, apparently by a perpetrator who wanted to steal their weapons. The official response to these killings came swiftly.
The president declared two days of national mourning, sent condolences to the marines’ families and attended their funerals. The ministers of interior and defence visited the crime scene, and press briefings were held about actions to bring justice and prevent future crimes like this.
Neither the president nor his ministers said a word about the women and the children murdered; there were no condolences to their broken families; no promises to prevent further femicides and infanticides.
Meanwhile, powerful men including professors, a former judge, businessmen and some politicians were implicated in a scandal about a sexual exploitation ring targeting teenage girls that led to the death of a 17-year old in March. The male speaker of the lower house of parliament also repeatedly interrupted and attempted to silence a female legislator last week, while she was denouncing gender violence.
In the twentieth century, Uruguay was dubbed ‘the Switzerland of the Americas’, partly because of its relaxed banking laws, but also its institutional stability and relatively high levels of human development compared to other countries in the region.
This country of 3.4 million people sandwiched between two giants – Brazil and Argentina – has been praised internationally for adopting a number of progressive policies over the last fifteen years. To mention a few: the legalisation of abortion, same-sex marriage and cannabis, as well as a law to protect the human rights of trans people.
But nothing substantial has been done to tackle violence against women. According to a 2018 United Nations study, Uruguay has Latin America’s second-highest rate of killings of women by current or former partners.
A new law against gender-based violence was passed in 2017 but it has been poorly implemented, and not matched with adequate resources that could prevent this violence or support survivors.
A new government took office this March and promised to mobilise all necessary resources to change this. And then the COVID-19 pandemic trapped people at home – which for too many women in Uruguay, and around the world, is a very dangerous place to be.
In recent weeks, Uruguay again hit international headlines for its response to coronavirus, apparently succeeding where bigger and better resourced countries have failed. Neighbouring Brazil has an outbreak that is still out of control, with almost 700,000 cases as of early June.
"Gender-based violence is the second-most reported crime in Uruguay"
Much of this international news about Uruguay praised the government’s “voluntary quarantine”, its strong and universal healthcare system and the leading role given to top scientists in the policymaking process.
According to the authorities, police reports of violence against women decreased 8% in the first 45 days of the lockdown, compared to the same period last year. However, calls to a gender-based violence hotline increased dramatically in the lockdown's first two months – by 80%.
Since January, at least eleven femicides and thirteen attempted femicides have been recorded in the most comprehensive database of these crimes in Uruguay, compiled by feminist groups. But the wider human toll of gender-based violence in the country is enormous.
Gender-based violence is the second-most reported crime in the country, after theft. In 2019 alone, there were 40,000 reports.
A government survey conducted in 2019, and released in April this year, is also appalling: almost 80% of women reported that they had personally experienced gender-based violence, and almost 50% said they had experienced violence from current or former partners.
This ‘shadow pandemic’ is massive – and nothing to be proud of.
- This article was amended on 14 June 2020. Statistics from the government's 2019 survey were previously quoted incorrectly.