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Newly-sworn in Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi has declared a state of emergency on the island in response to several high-profile killings targeting women and transgender individuals in recent years.
Pierluisi signed an executive order declaring the emergency for gender-based violence, which will remain in effect until June 30, 2022.
“Gender violence is a social evil, based on ignorance and attitudes that cannot have space or tolerance in the Puerto Rico that we aspire to,” Pierluisi said in a statement, according to CNN. “For too long vulnerable victims have suffered the consequences of systematic machismo, inequity, discrimination, lack of education, lack of guidance and above all lack of action.”
LGBTQ and women’s activists have begged the government to take action to curb instances of domestic and gender-based violence, which they claim have gotten worse after Hurricane Maria struck the island in 2017.
The epidemic of violence has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has left many victims isolated with their abusers and without significant support systems or outside contacts who could alert law enforcement about suspected abuse.
Puerto Rican police report that at least 5,517 women were victims of domestic violence in 2020, and the Gender Equality Observatory noted in two separate reports that while the number of overall murders was lower in 2020 compared to 2019, the number of women killed in acts of violence has increased by nearly 62%.
Those reports say there were 60 cases of direct or indirect femicide, at least six transgender homicides, and 26 cases of suspected gender-based violence where information is lacking.
LGBTQ advocates have been critical of past governors for failing to dedicate government action to stopping violence against members of the island’s LGBTQ community, which has resulted in at least 12 confirmed deaths over the past two years, with potentially more incidents going unreported due to misgendering the victim or where a victim of a violent attack survived but did not report the incident to law enforcement.
Pierluisi’s order establishes various programs meant to address gender-based violence, including a mobile app where victims of domestic or gender-based violence can report crimes without fear of being outed or placing themselves in danger.
The order also creates a 17-member committee — which will include three representatives from organizations fighting gender-based violence — that will investigate instances of violence, causes, motivations of offenders, and whether law enforcement adequately responded.
The committee, chaired by the island’s Secretary of the Family, Carmen González, will issue a report within its first 45 days, followed by subsequent reports every 30 days until the emergency order expires.
Pedro Julio Serrano, a spokesperson for the LGBTQ group Puerto Rico Para Tod@s, called the governor’s order a “first step in the right direction” in a joint statement issued in conjunction with the Human Rights Campaign.
“We applaud all the women’s rights activists and organizations whose hard work has led to this important moment. We must recognize there’s a wave of misogynist violence in Puerto Rico and use all the resources necessary to curb it,” the statement reads.
“However, we can’t stop there. There’s another crisis, very much related, in an unprecedented epidemic of homophobic and transphobic violence…. We need to act swiftly and forcefully to expand this declaration of state of emergency to cover hate crimes against LGBTQ+ people. Puerto Rico must be a place where the lives of women, trans people and LGBTQ+ people are fully protected.”
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