Expert: Gender violence won’t be stopped by working only with the victim

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @pete_r_correa

As community organizations, feminist collectives and other islanders demonstrated during Mother’s Day weekend in front of various town halls across Puerto Rico to demand that municipal administrations take immediate action against gender violence, and islanders bid farewell one last time to Keishla Rodríguez Ortiz -- a 27-year-old pregnant woman who was slain, allegedly by her longtime lover, professional boxer Félix Verdejo Sánchez, and a confessed accomplice -- activists and professionals involved with the chronic social problem of gender violence said a multidisciplinary vision that does not only focus on the victims of gender violence is required.

This is what Puerto Rico Domestic Violence Shelter Network President Vilmarie Rivera Sierra told the STAR on Sunday as she insisted that both government and communities must not only focus on developing initiatives that can provide safety for gender violence victims, but also that programs that address aggressors must be re-evaluated.

“You have to look at what is being done with these people, what the mechanism is that the state has designed to be able to ensure that [the aggressors] are really re-educated,” Rivera Sierra said. “If we do not re-educate them properly, and we do not have robust, updated models, where evidence-based practices that are functional are being established, we will continue to have aggressors on the street who took some [diversion] classes, and it all ended with a certificate claiming they are already rehabilitated.”

Rivera Sierra, who is a member of the Prevention, Support, Rescue and Education (PARE by its Spanish acronym) Committee Against Gender Violence and currently works on the PARE Service Subcommittee, said further that although the committee formed by Gov. Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia is scheduled to evaluate organizations that offer diversion programs, it would be a “big step” if the Department of Correction takes the lead on investigating the matter.

“These organizations even earn money because it is part of their services,” she said. “They do not provide this service for free; this is a service that the offending party has to pay for.”

Meanwhile, Rivera Sierra told the STAR that in order for the island to address the gender violence problem that has led to 18 direct and three indirect femicides, according to a May 2 report from the Gender Equality Observatory, it must be established that gender violence “is a countrywide problem, a health problem, a problem that is linked and tied to the poverty experienced by women.”

“Unfortunately, these tragic murders had to occur, so that people could understand that what collectives, groups, organizations were saying were not mere words, it was the reality we live every day,” she said, referring also to the case of Andrea Ruiz Costas, a 35-year-old woman who was killed recently by her former partner, Miguel Ocasio Santiago.

Ruiz Costas’ body was found partially burned a month after she had sought a protective order against Ocasio Santiago. The request was denied by Caguas Superior Court Judge Ingrid Alvarado on the basis that there was not enough evidence.

“This is what women live with every day when they have to seek help in the different government systems, in different instances, and the answers and failures they have,” Rivera Sierra said. “So while [before] people may have [wondered why] a group of women would want to come together and start to hold a demonstration, people today have the understanding and acceptance that it was, and is, necessary to have these demonstrations.”

The PARE Committee member told the STAR meanwhile that with the federal Financial Oversight and Management Board allocating the $7 million requested by the Pierluisi administration, it will be a stepping stone toward strengthening the PARE Committee’s efforts to work on future gender violence prevention programs.

“With the allocation of resources, we guarantee that women will have the alternative of being able to have a decent job, of being able to have care centers, that they are not penalized because they found a job and immediately have government aid taken away,” Rivera Sierra said, adding that the funding will also make possible the development of more low-cost housing programs so that women can own their homes, and of programs “that have to do with self-employment and economic self-sufficiency.”

“All of this is necessary, without leaving behind the fact that there is an aggressor here, in that there is [another] person here who also needs help,” she said.

Moreover, Rivera Sierra said the incorporation of the gender perspective within the government system is also “a great advancement on this path.”

“The basis of the gender perspective is the search for equality to avoid situations of marginalization, violence, and injustice,” she said. “From the gender perspective, we have the opportunity to have an analysis that there is an inequality between what is feminine and masculine, and that, unfortunately, at a social level, we are constructs and we establish roles of how a man or a woman should respond toward certain situations.”

Rivera Sierra pointed out that although results will not come to fruition immediately, long-term results will be seen “because we will be able to educate, at all levels, our children that relationships are based on respect, equality and the dignity of others.”

“We have to look for simpler words to be able to help the general community understand and know that this [movement wants to make it clear that there is inequality between men and women,” she said. “We can help people understand that we can look at everything, magnify things, and be able to identify if our actions guarantee, or not, equality among different gender identities.”

When the STAR asked about the status of the PARE Committee’s report on the public education curriculum that will incorporate a gender perspective in schools starting in August and that is to be submitted to the governor, Rivera Sierra said that only a presentation from the Education Subcommittee was left to be completed before the report is passed on to the governor and the committee chairwoman, Family Secretary-designate Carmen Ana González Magaz.

“Remember that the subcommittee must conduct a curricular-level revision, and a training plan must be worked on so that teachers can implement it,” she said. “However, we cannot do that if we can’t fulfill a commitment from the governor to elevate this project as public policy.”

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