When it comes to ending violence against women, Puerto Rico has taken a giant step backward. To be sure, the islands have had a comprehensive law to protect women and girls against domestic violence since 1989. But the Puerto Rican Supreme Court has blocked a lot of women from its protection.
In a decision handed down in March, the Court upheld a lower court's ruling that a victim of intimate partner violence was not protected by Puerto Rico’s domestic violence law because she was not married to the man who attacked her. The woman, who was separated but not yet divorced from her husband, was battered by her new partner.
The Supreme Court held that the historical background of the law indicated that the Puerto Rican legislature’s intent was to protect the integrity of the family and its members. So, it held, the law did not apply to extramarital affairs. The court did make clear that the assault violated other criminal law provisions.
The ruling has, understandably, outraged many people, as far away as New York, where city and state elected officials voiced their objections. For starters, Puerto Rico’s domestic violence law explicitly applies broadly to interpersonal relationships. It covers violence by someone with whom the victim lives or has lived or has had a consensual relationship and does not require a marital bond between the victim and the abuser. In other words, the ruling imposes a perverse interpretation on a commonsense and literal reading of the law, based on far reaching assumptions about the intent of the legislature.
But more important, through this ruling the Puerto Rican Supreme Court is sending the message that some women may not deserve equal protection from the state. This is the wrong message to put forward in a society where interpersonal violence is a serious problem.
According to official sources, on average, 20,000 domestic violence incidents are reported every year in Puerto Rico, along with about 3,000 incidents of sexual violence. Official sources estimate that, in the case of sexual violence, only about 15 percent of rapes are reported. If the proportion is the same for domestic violence, approximately 130,000 women and girls are subjected to domestic violence every year, and 18,000 are raped, in a place with only 4 million people. Whatever the actual figures, violence at the hands of their partners and families is a serious problem for Puerto Rican women and girls.
Paradoxically, Puerto Rican women are far from disempowered. Women on the islands achieved the right to vote in 1935, before almost any nation in Latin America and the Caribbean (outdone only by Ecuador, where women have been able to vote since 1929). And Puerto Rico’s women and girls have long outdone their male counterparts when it comes to education: a century ago, nearly three quarters of the graduates from the University of Puerto Rico were women. Today approximately 160 women are graduating from Puerto Rico’s higher education programs for every 100 men.
So the reason for the high rate of interpersonal violence has to be found elsewhere. Emerging evidence from across the world suggests that it’s not enough for women to be financially independent and educated for the incidence of domestic violence to drop — though those are necessary conditions.
But because violence against women often is fuelled by deeply held notions of male dominance and entitlement, it doesn’t stop just because women, objectively, are as educated and employable as men. Rather, successful anti-violence initiatives must engage men and boys as well as women and girls to do away with prejudices about what families “must” look like, and what women and men “should” do.
The Puerto Rican Supreme Court’s ruling is particularly problematic because it does just the opposite. By suggesting that “integrity of the family and its members” trumps the right of certain women in certain relationships to equal protection against violence, the court undermines the many valid initiatives to stop violence against women in Puerto Rico. And that’s indeed something to be outraged about.