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Puerto Rico's Governor Declares State Of Emergency Over Gender Violence

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The governor of Puerto Rico has declared a state of emergency. The reason - gender violence. He says violence against women has caused too much harm on the island for too long. Governor Pedro Pierluisi's declaration is a victory for feminist groups that have spent years calling for this move. And we're joined now by NPR's Adrian Florido.

Hi, Adrian.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: What does it mean exactly for the governor to declare a state of emergency over gender violence?

FLORIDO: Well, what the governor has done is given himself broad authority to implement policies across government agencies aimed at preventing and responding to violence against women. This is something that activists and feminist groups have been demanding for almost three years, ever since they noticed an increase in domestic violence and women murdered by their intimate partners in the months after Hurricane Maria. I spoke today with Amarilis Pagan from Proyecto Matria. It's a women's rights group on the island.

AMARILIS PAGAN: It's really a victory of the feminist movement in Puerto Rico. It is the first time within the past decade in which a governor admits that violence against women is different from other violence.

FLORIDO: You know, Ari, despite evidence of a growing problem in Puerto Rico, the two most recent governors, Ricardo Rossello and Wanda Vazquez, had resisted issuing this kind of declaration.

SHAPIRO: So now that the governor has done this, you say he can take all kinds of executive actions. What do feminist groups expect from him?

FLORIDO: Well, the order takes a lot of concrete steps, and among the most important are these. It forms a committee with representatives from more than a dozen agencies to figure out a government-wide strategy to combat violence against women. It also directs certain agencies to take very specific steps. The Department of Education will develop a curriculum to teach students about gender violence. The attorney general's office will have to develop new trainings for prosecutors handling cases. The island's police will update their protocols for responding to domestic violence calls and for investigating the cases of murdered women.

I also spoke today with Zoan Davila. She is the leader of the Colectiva Feminista en Construccion, a feminist group. And she said, look; Puerto Rico actually already has laws and policies aimed at gender violence.

ZOAN DAVILA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: She said the problem has always been that there's just no follow-through, no transparency, no coordinated effort, no accountability. And so the hope is that this new order will provide all of those things.

SHAPIRO: Adrian, you've reported on so many challenges in Puerto Rico over the years, from the hurricanes to the economic crisis and political instability. What do you make of the fact that the governor, who just took office this month, made this one of his first order of business?

FLORIDO: Well, you know, it's a recognition that this issue has really captured the public's attention over the last few years, in part because of the work of these activist groups. And the local press has also covered the murders of women pretty extensively. There were more than 60 last year. Nilda Alvarez, Alexa Negron, Rosimar Rodriguez - she was just 17 and was found dumped on the side of the road. These are names that almost any Puerto Rican would recognize. Because Puerto Rico is such a small place, these cases hit hard each time, and they have put mounting pressure on the government to act.

SHAPIRO: And Puerto Rico is trying to get out of bankruptcy right now. Is there a sense of how difficult it will be to tackle this effort, which obviously will cost a lot of money?

FLORIDO: It's a big question and an important one. Today the governor announced $650,000 or so for this effort. But Puerto Rico's budget is currently controlled by a federal board that's trying to get it out of debt, in part through austerity. So Amarilis Pagan of Proyecto Matria told me it'll have to approve funding, and she expects it to.

PAGAN: Because if they do not, they will be as bad as the aggressors, you know? We're speaking here about the human rights of women and other people that are victims of gender-based violence, and not approving that budget will be so bad.

FLORIDO: She said the next step is going to be figuring out exactly how much the policies in the governor's order will cost and submitting a request for funding for them.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Adrian Florido.

Thank you.

FLORIDO: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.