Peru is failing in its care of Venezuelan women who survive gender-based violence

Harassment in the workplace and on the streets; sexual blackmail or economic pressure to keep their home or job; fear of being deported because of their migration status; physical and psychological abuse by partners; and stigmatization by state officials – these are the most common manifestations of violence against Venezuelan girls and women, according to interviews carried out by Amnesty International with a dozen victims and experts for this research.

“When did the incident take place and at what time?” the official asked Mariana* at a police station in Lima, Peru.

She didn’t know how to answer. “They put obstacles in your way at every turn. What day and what time did he attack me? I don’t know what day and what time. It was 16 years of physical and psychological violence. It’s really hard for women who have been the victims of intimate partner violence to make the decision to file a complaint,” explains Mariana. Her voice conveys assurance, although her gestures suggest exasperation.

These difficulties and fear when reporting cases of violence are very common among women who survive gender-based violence in Peru, but Mariana is also one of the 1.3 million Venezuelan asylum seekers who chose Peru as a host country, according to UN data.

After years of physical and psychological abuse, Mariana finds it impossible to remember when her nightmare began. When she tried to make a formal complaint, her only thought was that if she had not fled with her two children, all three would have died.

Making a complaint is not a minor detail when it comes to refugees. “In order for the Peruvian state to grant migrant victims of gender-based violence migration status due to vulnerability (a was of legalizing their stay in the country) under the National Superintendence of Migrations, the first thing they must have is a complaint,” explains Guadalupe Yépez, coordinator for Vulnerable Populations at the organization Veneactiva, an NGO that helps migrants.

“In addition to going to the police station, the case must be taken to the Prosecutor’s Office to obtain a protection order for the woman. Then, the protection order must be sent to Migrations so that they can directly grant migration status on grounds of the victim’s vulnerability. This is an obstacle, because most migrant women do not file a report, or they report but do not pursue the process with the prosecutor, so they do not get any protection from their attacker or benefit from migration status,” Yépez says.

In Mariana’s case, the official at the police station insisted that without the date and time of the incident, she could not proceed with the complaint.

The attitude and prejudices of officials who deal with victims can be the first obstacle, an inhibiting factor and the first episode of revictimization that refugee and migrant women encounter when they try to seek protection and justice from the Peruvian state.

Andrea Pardo from Movimiento Manuela Ramos, a civil society organization that has been defending and promoting women’s rights in Peru for 40 years, explains that the difficulties faced by Peruvian women in filing a complaint are compounded by other obstacles faced by women who are foreign nationals: “If the state does not work for nationals, it is even more difficult for foreigners. Added to this is the revictimization of women and the xenophobic component in some those responsible for the administration of justice. The system needs to change.”

A recent study by the Peruvian Ombudsperson’s Office confirmed that officials frequently use stereotypical comments to blame and undermine women who try to file a complaint, especially Venezuelan women, making comments such as: “Veneca [a pejorative term for a Venezuelan woman], go and complain in your own country,” or “it’s because you dress like that”.

This may explain why only two of the seven Venezuelan women interviewed for this research reported the gender-based violence they experienced in Peru.

The data on foreign victims of gender-based violence received by the Ombudsperson’s Office from state institutions reflects discrepancies in the volume of cases handled by each body, which is linked to the fear of reporting. During the period 2019-2020, the Women’s Ministry dealt with 3,027 cases, the Health Ministry 545, the Interior Ministry 418 and the Migration Office only 21.

“Refugees feel safer going to the Women’s Emergency Centres (CEM) because they don’t pose a risk for their migration status. On the other hand, they may feel that there are more risks going to police stations, the Interior Ministry and even more so Migrations. There they ask for documents and there is always a police presence,” explains Patricia Samanie, Commissioner for the Defence of Women at the Ombudsperson’s Office.

That’s why migration status is an important factor that Venezuelan women weigh up when deciding whether to approach state institutions. “They don’t often report, because most of them are in an irregular migration situation. In some cases, they ask them for identity documents because they know they are Venezuelan,” explains Karina Dianderas, one of the project coordinators of the NGO Capital Humano y Social Alternativo, who clarified that in Peru “ID is not required to file a complaint”.

The experience of the Venezuelan criminologist Maholy Sánchez, who has worked with the Peruvian Ministry of Justice’s National Observatory on Criminal Policy and international organizations, and is based in Peru with her family, as a refugee, highlights other reasons that deter people from filing complaints and the state’s failures in providing protection. 

Sánchez was the victim of harassment on three occasions. She describes how on the bus in Lima, a man “began to brush his private parts against my legs, to the point where he had an erection.” When she arrived at the station to get on another bus, her attacker followed her, Sánchez says: “I was so scared that when I got off I had to call my husband and tell him to wait for me at the bus stop.”

Maholy Sánchez has worked with the Peruvian Ministry of Justice’s National Observatory on Criminal Policy and international organizations, and is based in Peru with her family, as a refugee (Photo: Amnesty International Peru)

Despite the seriousness of the incident, Sánchez did not report it. “Lack of time, lack of a work permit and fear that this would affect the regularization of my migration status”, are the reasons that she gave. “In addition, my working hours were from 10am to 10pm, with 15 minutes for lunch and six days a week,” the criminologist adds.“If I, who am a professional, did not report it, what chance for the others.”

Lack of training for state officials and of inter-institutional coordination

Women’s Emergency Centres provided support to 1,332 Venezuelan women survivors of gender-based violence between January and September 2021, as part of the National Programme for the Prevention and Eradication of Violence against Women and Family Group Members (AURORA). This represents 82.4% of the total number of foreign nationals assisted, according to programme data.

However, many women are unable to access these services because they do not know about them, because the system has collapsed, or because they fear being deported due to their status as refugees or migrants without a document proving their legal right to remain in the country.

“The reality for these women is that they are living in a state of total helplessness, without family, without their partner and without support networks. They are very vulnerable and completely without support,” says Ailín Navas, a Venezuelan psychologist who lives in Peru and belongs to Veneactiva.

Mariana, for example, received support from some Venezuelan friends and Peruvian neighbours who gave her shelter and refuge.

Venezuelan women do not see the 20 refuges created by the state for women survivors of violence as an alternative. “Most of these migrant women do not choose to go to these centres, because they need to work, not only to support their family in Peru, but also to support those left in Venezuela,” says Patricia Garrido, coordinator of the AURORA programme, who clarified that while they are there they cannot work and there is no flexibility on this rule.

Although Mariana managed to complete her complaint and initiate a judicial process for the custody of her children, she regrets not having received support. “Life here is crazy, you can’t stop. I know I need therapy and so does my son. But I spend all day working, and I don’t have the money either,” she says.

A representative from the Ombudsperson’s Office explains that Peru has free community Mental Health Centres throughout the country, which assist survivors of gender-based violence, but there is no information about their existence or what services they offer, they were closed during the Covid-19 pandemic and they do not have enough trained personnel. “You need specific kinds of professionals to provide this support, and there aren’t any in Peru,” Samanie says.

Based on the information provided by the institutions themselves, an Ombudsperson’s Office study revealed other flaws in the state provision affecting foreign survivors of gender-based violence. Migrations, the Interior Ministry, the Women’s Ministry, the National Police and the Ombudsperson’s Office itself do not have specific protocols on specialized care for refugee and migrant women survivors of violence or a plan for inter-institutional collaboration with other state entities to develop support programmes for them and their officials lack information and training in this particular area.

Officials from the AURORA programme and the Ombudsperson’s Office confirmed to Amnesty International that there is a lack of training and coordination between institutions.

“There is no Interinstitutional Coordination Plan approved among all the SNEJ [National Specialized Justice System for the protection and punishment of violence against women and members of the family] institutions that specifically addresses the issue of care for migrants or refugees who are victims of gender-based violence,” according to the Interior Ministry report included in the Ombudsperson’s Office publication.

Exposed and unprotected wherever they are

The street, the workplace and even schools are often dangerous places for Venezuelan women and girls. “The public space is very threatening for migrant women,” says Karina Dianderas. “This is because of the objectification of Venezuelan women’s bodies. They are looked at and watched all the time, they cease to be people.”

This is the product of cultural differences that are expressed in violence “based on the hypersexualization of Venezuelan women,” explains the criminologist Maholy Sánchez.

Luisana*, a 29-year-old Venezuelan model, was raped by a gastroenterologist during a private consultation. “He sedated her to do an endoscopy. He asked me to go buy a drink to get me out of the office and sent his assistant to buy food. That’s when he took advantage,” says Luisa*, the victim’s mother, who heads a Venezuelan family of three women and a girl who sought refuge in Peru in 2018.

Although Luisana woke up when the doctor was still fondling her, she thought she was confused as a result of the sedation. His case was reported to the Interior Ministry, but almost a year later there has been no progress in the case.

This is not an isolated incident. “I have colleagues who have been victims of attempted rape, some have returned [to Venezuela] because they have been raped,” Sánchez said.

The response of the state in most cases is late or non-existent.

Athough Venezuelan women are exposed to risks in the street, the workplace is perhaps one of the most dangerous places. Their migration status and economic need make them more vulnerable to potential employers. According to the study Migrant Women against Violence in the World of Work: Venezuelans Living and Working in Lima, Peru, “13 of the 15 participants [in the study] reported situations of sexual harassment and harassment in at least one of the jobs they have had in Peru and all referred to other Venezuelan migrant women with similar experiences.”

Statements gathered during this research reveal that harassment at work is persistent. “Look, we like your profile, but if you want to join the company, you have to do something for me.” That was the condition that Francia* was faced with by the young man who interviewed her for a sales assistant position in a company in Lima.

It was the 27-year-old Venezuelan’s second bad experience. “Making sexual propositions is very common to get a job here. It’s extremely unfortunate to feel at a disadvantage because you are a woman, and even worse, because of your nationality,” says Francia, who did not report the incident because she did not know the law or how to go about reporting.

Violence against Venezuelan refugee and migrant women can even lead to situations in which some are forced to have sexual relations with their employers or with their landlords in order not to lose their jobs and the home where they live with their children, a practice called “survival sex”.

Nereida Arrieta, a nurse, describes how two months after arriving in Peru she was employed by a doctor to clean and carry out other tasks in a clinic in Arequipa. “They accepted me with my daughter, they gave me housing and food. The first three months everything turned out really nice. He helped me settle in, made sure that I was OK with all the things that a home involves… And I think that confused him,” she says.

Nereida describes how her employer kissed her without her consent. Although he later apologized, he repeated the assault. “He told me that since he was giving me everything, I had to be his wife. And if I didn’t agree, I was no use to him”, she explains.

With that, Nereida was left jobless and homeless. She fled Arequipa, after the doctor threatened her. Although she told the authorities about her experience, the response was a caution or restraining order for both of them. She was revictimized by being put on an equal footing with the perpetrator.

Recommendations and obligations of the Peruvian state

Mariana, Maholy, Luisana, Nereida and all women in Peru have a right to a life free of violence, regardless of their migration status. They should be able to report the violence they experience daily and receive support without being revictimized or discriminated against by those who have a duty to protect them. However, the organizations and women interviewed agree that this does not happen in practice.

The Peruvian government must bolster the awareness and training of state officials to ensure that they stop using stereotypes based on the gender or nationality of complainants, and that they are aware of the existing legal mechanisms, such as migratory status due to vulnerability. In addition, it is essential that they disseminate extensive information on the rights of refugee and migrant women to access services and programs for survivors of gender-based violence regardless of their migration status, so that lack of documentation is never an additional barrier to receiving the support and protection they need.

In her case, after managing to separate from her abuser, Mariana is full of hope. She has work and support for the care of her children, and has resumed her career in theatre.

“Life changed for me from top to bottom, I was reborn. I have the energy to do it all. I regained confidence in myself,” she says enthusiastically. “It’s like God has given me another chance.”

* The names of the women interviewed have been changed to protect their identity. Ronna Rísquez is an independent Venezuelan journalist, who worked with Amnesty International on this research.