Domestic Violence: the Hidden Face of Chile’s Housing Crisis

A person who loves, doesn’t kill, doesn’t humiliate, doesn’t mistreat. Photo: Agencia Uno

By Natalia Espinoza (El Mostrador)

HAVANA TIMES – Sub-standard housing doesn’t only mean a drop in the quality of life, since those without a roof of their own lack the possibility of a decent day-to-day existence. It also deepens the problem of domestic violence, to the point of endangering women’s lives.

Our country is confronting one of the worst crises in decades, in terms of access to housing. We’re witnessing the economic consequences of the pandemic, including a historic jump in mortgages and in the price of rent, all of which has forced thousands of families to live crowded together, in homeless camps or in homes of family members.

A study realized by the group Deficit Cero [“Zero Deficit”] and the Catholic University’s Center for Public Policy recently put this in concrete terms. Their report was titled: “Housing Deficit: How many families need housing and in what sectors of the country?” Their conclusion was that the nation has a need for 641,421 housing units.

Within this context, a problem that was already serious in Chile has worsened: that of domestic violence. According to the official statistics for socially linked crimes, the police registered 144,832 cases related to domestic violence in 2021. There were 109,440 women victims, but only 25,552 arrests were made.

If nothing more is done, the panorama for 2022 looks similar. By May of this year, there’d already been 50,213 cases according to police data. Another statistic of concern is that 10 perpetrators that were in custody have been responsible for a total of 133 repeated complaints of DV.

According to Elizabeth Wagemann, director of the Laboratory for the City and the Territory, also a professor at the Diego Portales University, the housing crisis is a global problem. She added that there were a number of reasons that help explain the phenomenon.

On the one hand, the increase in the urban population has created a greater demand for housing in the cities. That increased demand affects the purchase price for homes, and also pushes up rents. There’s also inflation, the increasing cost of living.

“One in every ten families doesn’t have access to adequate housing (…) We know that living in reduced spaces and in poor conditions affects people in a number of ways,” she explained.

Guila Sosman, another faculty member at the Diego Portales University and a psychologist specialized in trauma, shares this view. She says that experience shows that the housing crisis represents a potent risk factor.

“When we were all confined due to the pandemic lockdowns, the problems of domestic violence increased. Clearly the dynamics of intra-family violence can become worse in these contexts, because the aggressors have much greater control of the situation. They’re more alert and aware of the movements of the people they want to exercise power over,” she indicated.

A similar situation occurs when there’s no housing, or conditions are poor, or the family is living doubled up with relatives. Here, too, the aggressor has the possibility of exercising more control, and the victim has less space and fewer possibilities of seeking help.

A roof alone isn’t enough

Another important aspect that Sosman underlines is that certain separation of space is needed. Separated spaces help prevent situations of physical violence, be it gender or sexual violence.  “Those most at risk are girls, women and elders, who are in permanent physical closeness within a family where there may be an aggressive person,” she notes.

Sosman feels that the Chilean Ministry of Women and Gender Equity has generated some advances in different areas of attention to victims. It has trained more professionals capable of offering specific attention to this type of problem. However, “a great deal is lacking, because there are situations – of emotional and economic dependence for example – that hinder the woman’s ability to end her living arrangement with those who are harming her.”

Another barrier has to do with employment, according to the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. The pandemic reversed more than a decade of advances in the level of women’s participation in the workforce all over Latin America.

According to the latest statistics from the Employment Survey conducted by Chile’s National Statistics Institute, from November 2021 to January 2022, women consistently participated less than men in the labor market: 48.3% of women were employed during that period, as opposed to 69.6% of men. In other words, there’s a gap of 21.3 percentage points in the respective labor participation of the genders.

This situation “doesn’t help women to leave their shared living situation when their partner is violent,” stressed the UDP professor. She added that the situation is still more complicated when they’re mothers, because then they not only need to move out or seek housing for themselves, but also a place for their children.

“Solutions aren’t always on hand, for the women as well as for their families.” Often the victims can’t take the needed steps to leave because they don’t want to leave their children in the aggressor’s hands. Although there’s a national children’s services center with programs to attend to such cases, the system is on the verge of collapse.

In order to combat this complex situation, Elizabeth Wagemann recommended a broad and intersectional view, since it’s not enough just to build more houses or apartments. The situation also requires the rehabilitation of homes in disrepair, rent support, controls on urban density, collective property, and transitional neighborhoods, among other tools.

“Another thing that’s very important to include is a holistic focus on housing, because it’s not only a matter of a housing unit, but also what its context is within the neighborhood and the city. This means that access should also include infrastructure, features, services, green spaces, and other things,” specified the expert.

Wagemann stated that many times the creation of housing with a social focus isn’t accompanied by access to other benefits of life in urban areas, like having schools nearby; or the constructions have been located so remote from basic services that the inhabitants are forced to travel long distances because, for example, there’s no access to means of transportation.

Read more from Chile here on Havana Times.