Puerto Rico's new governor, Pedro Pierluisi, declared a state of emergency this week over rampant violence against women in the U.S. territory.
Sworn in this month, Pierluisi and his government are taking action following much prodding from activists. Violence has surged against transgender and cisgender women, especially since 2017's Hurricane Maria and the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. During the past year, many women have been confined with their abusers and denied access to personal and professional resources.
At least 60 women were murdered in Puerto Rico last year, according to the organization Gender Equality Observatory, with six trans women killed and dozens of other cases under investigation and yet unconfirmed as murders.
Some of the trans women killed last year include 33-year-old nursing student Michele Ramos Vargas and two New Yorkers visiting the island, Serena Angelique Velázquez, 32, and Layla Pelaez, 21.
Domestic violence is also common in Puerto Rico, with at least 5,517 female victims recorded.
“All violence is reprehensible, and we have to fight it relentlessly,” Pierluisi wrote in a statement announcing the state of emergency. “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. 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. It is my duty and my commitment as governor to establish a STOP to gender violence and for these purposes I have declared a state of emergency.”
The governor's declaration is more than an announcement; it directs specific resources to tackle the violence. A new 17-member committee chaired by the state's secretary of the family will focus on providing services and fighting abuse of women. In addition, a new emergency phone number will be created to allow victims to request emergency assistance "by hiding the message sent to protect the victim from their aggressor."
A follow-up program will be instituted so law enforcement remains in regular contact with female victims of violence. Officials and police officers will also receive additional training on gender violence, and statistics on such incidents will be overhauled and "optimized." The government will also look at economic issues that contribute to violence, e.g., how some women are forced to stay with their abusers because of a lack of financial resources.