When Bad Bunny dropped his critically acclaimed album Un Verano Sin Ti, fans flocked to the dream-pop track “Andrea,” which features the Puerto Rican indie duo Buscabulla. Immediately, many listeners thought of Andrea Ruiz Costas, a Puerto Rican woman who was murdered by her partner in 2021. Though Bad Bunny later said that the song isn’t directly about Ruiz, “Andrea” has become an anthem that speaks to the rampant gender violence and growing femicide rates plaguing his home.
It is perhaps the most poignant moment on the album, one that brings up the deep-rooted history of violence against Puerto Rican women, which includes a forced sterilization program the U.S. ran in the 1950s and coincides with the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade, likely to impact access to safe and legal abortion in the U.S. territory. In 2021, Puerto Rico’s governor declared a state-of-emergency on the island after growing violence against women, something many grassroots organizations and on-the-groud groups are working to address.
“Puerto Rican women, and women in Latin America overall, will continue to suffer behind white patriarchal ideology,” says domestic violence lawyer and professor at Universidad de Puerto Rico – Recinto de Río Piedras, Mariana Iriarte. She suggests a history of toxic masculinity behind media and culture is a major reason why there continues to be violent behavior toward women in the Caribbean and Latin America.
Although better data on gender-based violence is needed now more than ever, we know the COVID pandemic heightened femicides and attempted femicides, especially in Latin America, where many countries have been grappling with a deep-seated history of unequal gender dynamics. According to emerging evidence from the World Bank Group, Latin America saw increases in gender-based violence that can be linked to stricter social distancing measures: In Colombia, there was a boost in domestic violence calls by 91 percent, while in Brazil, the probability of femicides more than doubled during intense periods of isolation. Databases like the Gender Equality Observatory for Latin America and the Caribbean aim to annually consolidate and update statistics on women’s violent and gender-based deaths, based on the reported incidents provided by governments, which leaves room for egregious and incomplete documentation.
The Caribbean continues to have some of the highest rates of violence as well. The Dominican Republic had the second-highest rate of femicides reported in 2020, according to the United Nations. Just one motoconcho ride away from the Dominican Republic, the Haitian feminist organization Nègès Mawon hosted a campaign against femicides earlier this year, utilizing street art by local artists like V!cky Onélien. They simultaneously raised awareness about Haiti’s environmental issues, which they see as a direct correlation with how society treats Haitian women. The organization Alas Tensas Gender Observatory (OGAT) in Cuba, as well as the #YoSiTeCreo platform in Cuba, verified 18 femicides on the island this year alone, leading groups such as Red Femenina de Cuba to urge the Cuban government declare a state of emergency for gender violence.
“Despite today’s widened visibility and social criticism, femicide continues to rise throughout the Caribbean, with women from Black and poorer regions being disportionately affected,” Iriarte explains. She helps victims of domestic violence in Puerto Rico obtain protection orders and works intimately with groups such as Taller Salud, a community-based feminist organization dedicated to improving acess to health care, to reducing violence, and encourage economic growth through education and activism for women. An essential part of the work needed is to examine issues of gender-based violence in an intersectional way that addresses the specific challenges and oppression Black and trans women face.
“We have to look at this from an intersectional lens; a white cishetero woman is not in the same position as a Black lesbian woman,” she says. “These intersectionalities are fundamental; we cannot talk about femicide without talking about the femicide rates involving trans women, let alone Black trans women.”
One constant obstacle is a lacking support infrastructure and a police system that often works against the interests of Black women in particular. “We’ve customarily made the association of safety with law enforcement, and the reality is when you look at the stats, the police do not serve us,” Iriarte says. “They do not serve our most vulnerable. For Black and trans women in particular, police are quite frankly not an option.” She continues, “If you are a Black or trans woman in Puerto Rico and you seek help from the cops, you yourself risk going to jail, being physically assaulted, or worse, assassinated under their watch.”
She urges the redistribution of wealth in the abolition of police. “We’ve adopted political strategies from the Black feminist political movements of the United States. Police abolition isn’t just a matter of deconstructing police, but of redistributing the funds and resources robbed of the communities they’ve sworn to protect and serve… That’s money taken away from the communities that need it most.”
“What is happening is alarming and more so in a scenario of economic and political crisis. We ask for help and support from all projects, organizations, and conscious and sensitive citizens, in seeking solutions to this problem,” reads an excerpt from a statement of emergency that Cuba’s Alas Tensas earlier this year, expressing a similar distrust of police from their neighboring activists in Puerto Rico. “The PNR [Policía Nacional Revolucionaria] does not do its job, use social networks and make it viral. If you have information about events of this type, write to us, and we will carefully investigate the sources. We need a citizen alliance for the end of feminicides.”
In the Dominican Republic, feminist organizations have also been tackling similar issues. The lack of protections women and girls face in the country has also played out in music and popular culture: On April 22, ahead of Bad Bunny’s summer soundtrack, dembow rapper Rochy RD was arrested in Santo Domingo for allegedly sexually assaulting a minor and participating in child sex trafficking. According to a lawsuit filed against him and the artist La Demente 1212, the couple recruited and paid low-income girls between the ages of 16 and younger to engage in sexual activities with the rapper. While the recording artist awaited trial inside La Victoria prison, followers and colleagues across social media protested his innocence while blaming victims under the guise of respectability politics.
Aquelarre RD is one such collective that has been raising awareness of what women and girls are up against since 2019. They formed in response to not just the lack of state protection around Black and queer women in the Dominican Republic, but a lack of solidarity and recognition among other so-called feminist movements on the island.
“We realized that the Dominican feminist movement, apart from the fact that it is largely concentrated in the capital of Santo Domingo, is not interested in connecting with all bases of feminism, which is to say that this is a movement made up of women who are privileged and from middle-to-upper class society,” says Aquelarre RD founder, Esther Giron. “They are not interested in connecting with the many different issues that uniquely impact Black women living in barrios, in populous provinces, in campos, where many are fighting over basic needs, like healthcare, access to healthy food, employment, and education.”
Currently, Aquelarre RD consists of 13 members from throughout the Monseñor Nouel province in the central city of Bonao. They have dedicated their efforts to creating spaces focused on safety and education for Black and LGBTQ women from neglected environments while championing women’s rights and legal protection through “popular education” (or education in the language of the people), community workshops, and political activism and protest.
In the case of Rochy RD, the violation of various articles of the Dominican Penal Code, including the Code for the Protection of Children and Adolescents were cited, yet local activists understood why justice would likely not be served. “There is no social framework for those laws to ever actually be put into action,” Dominican cultural critic and educator Zahira Kelly said in a recent interview. “The police do not care; they’re the first ones to blame the victim. The laws in this case become useless, because not only does the state not care to enforce those laws, the social norms here say that they should not be enforced either.”
In September of last year, many young feminist leaders from various national groups met in Loma de Blanco, Bonao, Dominican Republic to reflect, share, and reimagine the challenges of the women’s and feminist movement of the Dominican Republic, hoping to update the nation’s sex, gender and racial discourse while outlining the deeply fragmented and obscured history of violence against Black and brown bodies.
As a result of that gathering, the National Pre-Encounter of Young Women (PNMJ) issued a political declaration to the state, with a thorough account of demands that include “the construction of an anti-racist, plural and popular feminist movement that connects with the demands of Black women of the popular sectors and peripheries,” and criticzes the feminism that prevails in the Dominican Republic, which “has lost its social base and responds to Eurocentric currents of thought and universalizes the category of women, ignoring the oppressions that go beyond the essentialism of the sex-gender category; such as class and race.”
While the fight for women’s right frequently focuses on access to abortion, Giron notes that countries in the Carribbean need muli-prong solutions that capture the nuances of the struggles for gender equality. “It seems like the Dominican feminist movement stops at abortion, which is super important, but that is simply one struggle,” Giron says. “We cannot speak about the right to bodily autonomy if we are not considering what that looks like for our most vulnerable women and girls.”