Gender-Based Violence in Puerto RicoGender-based violence (GBV) in Puerto Rico is endemic. In fact, in 2021, public officials responded to swelling rates of GBV during the pandemic by declaring a “state of emergency.” Governor Pedro Pierluisi condemned the long-standing machismo and discrimination behind this “social evil” and the “lack of action” in addressing it.

The declaration came after the Puerto Rico Gender Equality Observatory reported, in 2020, that the rate of femicide had increased 62% from the previous year. Alarmingly, more than 25% of those murders were classified as intimate partner violence.

While a nuanced issue, there is a clear correlation between domestic and gender-based violence and the experience of poverty. For example, the recent spike in femicides in Puerto Rico follows shocks like 2017’s Hurricane Maria and COVID-19, which have had a devastating impact on Puerto Ricans’ income and access to basic resources. As of 2018, 44% of the U.S. territory’s population was living in poverty — an inordinate percentage compared to the national poverty rate of about 12%. Poverty exacerbates domestic tensions as well as the circumstances that make it difficult for women to leave abusive homes, heightening financial insecurity and increasing the risk of continued exposure to violence.

Law 54

In 1989, Puerto Rico introduced the “Domestic Abuse Prevention and Intervention Act” to address intimate partner and gender-based violence. Commonly known as Law 54, the legislation designates domestic violence as a felony. Furthermore, it requires law enforcement to complete a comprehensive report on any domestic violence case, even when charges are not filed, in order to improve accuracy in recording domestic violence incident rates.

While Law 54 recognizes the seriousness of the problem, many cases of domestic and gender-based violence in Puerto Rico remain undocumented. For example, in most of the U.S., police departments report rape at “four times the rate of homicide,” according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Yet, in 2010, the Puerto Rico Police Department reported more than 1,000 homicides and just 39 rapes. The ACLU estimated that only about 1% of rape cases in Puerto Rico were reported that year, with the actual number being some 100 times higher.

The anomaly raised questions about the accuracy of reporting claims of domestic violence, adequacy of investigation and effectiveness in providing legal and social protection to survivors. In a 2012 investigation, the ACLU concluded that there was “dramatic under-enforcement of violations of protection orders” and “inadequate staffing of both specialized domestic violence PRPD units and specialized domestic violence prosecution units.” These and other challenges, such as a lack of coordination between investigators and prosecutors, have hindered progress in preventing domestic violence and protecting victims.

How GuardDV Empowers Survivors

Zayira Jordan developed GuardDV in 2018. A survivor of domestic violence, she wanted to use technology to serve other survivors and help ensure their physical and emotional security. The mobile application allows survivors to access “real-time information about the safety of their surroundings,” alerts them to potential protection order violations and provides a “panic button” for use in threatening situations. GuardDV uses three different kinds of technology. Active GPS and International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) together make it possible to accurately identify the locations of survivors and offenders. Facial recognition ensures that an offender is always carrying the phone linked to their court-registered IMEI code, requiring offenders to visually log in to the app for random check-ins throughout the day.

How the App Works

  1. After approval of a protection order, both the offender and survivor must install GuardDV on their phones.
  2. Three parameters are set to activate automatic notifications if an offender violates the protection order. Trusted friends and family can join the survivor’s “Guardian Angel” support network and receive simultaneous notifications.
  3. With GuardDV active, survivors can use the live map feature to avoid potential threats. If the offender violates the safety zone, the app immediately notifies both the survivor and their Guardian Angels.
  4. If the offender crosses the first two boundaries within the safety zone, GuardDV alerts 911 and provides real-time location information to the survivor, helping them to avoid a high-risk situation. If the offender persists and breaches the final boundary, the app notifies the authorities to apprehend them.

Implementing smart monitoring through apps like GuardDV has proved to be critical for empowering survivors of gender-based violence in Puerto Rico. The app demonstrates how technology can help bring comfort and security to survivors, and accountability to offenders. Additionally, it offers hope for how technology can help prevent instances of gender-based violence for victims and survivors who remain in abusive environments, increase reporting and ensure efficient physical, emotional and legal protection for those who most urgently need support.

– Lucy Gebbie
Photo: Wikimedia Commons