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PRWOW News Service

Rape Victims On The Island Less Willing To Report To Police

By Melissa B. Gonzalez Valentin

March 9, 2002
Copyright © 2002
PRWOW News Service. All Rights Reserved. 

To the naked eye, rape in Puerto Rico has been in decline, according to police records that show a significant drop in the number of cases reported island-wide since 1977. However, experts in the field of women's rights warn of the risk of falling into the temptation of believing the old tale - that which cannot be seen, does not exist.

"Twenty-five years later, there are less women informing the police, not because less felonies are committed, but because there has been an abominable silencing [of the issue] that has only contributed to 'invisibilize' the problem," said Katherine Angueira, a social worker, a long-standing activist of women's rights in Puerto Rico, and a rape survivor herself, who took the opportunity to stress the need to study this phenomenon for the celebration of Women’s Week.

Police statistics of type one felonies reported in Puerto Rico since 1940 show that the peak of rape cases reported to the authorities was reached in 1977 with 792 cases. Since then, the number of rape cases reported to the police has been in decline. In 1980, some 569 cases were reported. In 1985, 415; in 1990, 426; in 1995, the number of cases went down to 324; and in 2000, only 228 cases were reported to the police.

It was precisely in 1977, the year with the highest number of reported rape cases, that the Rape Victims Aid Center (CAVV by its Spanish acronym) was created in Puerto Rico by a group of citizens who were concerned about the problem of sexual aggression against women.

According to Angueira, the 1970s was a decade of great change for the empowerment of women in the United States, also having an effect on the island.

Controversial issues during this time included the Eisenstadt v. Baird case in 1972, in which the right of an unmarried person to use contraceptives is established; the case of Roe v. Wade in 1973, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a woman's right to a legal abortion; and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in 1978, which bans job discrimination against expectant mothers. Also in 1976, the first marital rape law, that made it illegal for a husband to rape his wife, was enforced in the state of Nebraska.

In Puerto Rico, however, rape in marriage was not considered a felony until 1989, when Law 54, also known as the Domestic Violence Law, was approved.

However, to think that rape is no longer as bad a problem as it was back in 1977 would be a mistake, according to Angueira, who went even further to say that it would be an even greater misconception to believe that the rape rate has gone down as a result of all the advancement that has been achieved in terms of legal rights for women.

"What those statistics show is that the greater the moneys [for these endeavors], the lesser the advocacy," Angueira noted.

CAVV Director Dr. Rebeca Ward said about 600 to 800 new and follow-up cases of sexual aggression are treated at the center every year. However, Ward explained that this number also includes cases of sodomy, lascivious acts, and domestic violence

According to the center’s recent statistics from 1992 to 1999, rape cases alone treated at the center had gone down from 95 in 1992 to 70 in 1999.

In trying to explain the drastic decline in reported rape cases, Ward assured that the decline doesn't necessarily mean a drop in the perpetration of this type of crime against women.

"An investigation would have to be performed to see if less cases are being reported, or if in fact there has been a decline in crime rate," Ward stated.

Ward said approximately 50% of the victims at CAVV actually go to the police, and that according to statistics provided to the center by the U.S. Center for Disease Control, only about 14% of rape cases are reported to the police every year.

When asked about the possibility that the CAVV, as well as other members of the government system, may have failed in their efforts to provide rape victims with enough emotional, legal, and social support and reassurance to endure the hardships of trial and prosecution of their aggressors, Ward defended their work.

"There are several victims for whom it is not emotionally convenient to go through that process. We are about empowering women, not about telling them what to do. That would be taking away their power, just like it happens [when violent actions are perpetrated against them] and that would be counterproductive," Ward said.

She said nobody can obligate a rape survivor to go to the police, much less to endure the legal process until the end.

For her part, Women's Advocate Maria Dolores Fernos coincided with Ward's view on how hard it is for a rape victim to go public with their case by reporting it to the police.

"It is a very difficult process, very difficult, and the judicial system doesn't protect the victim enough," Fernos noted.

However, Angueira believes that more should be done to educate society in this matter so that people can see how important it is to come forward with such cases. Angueira stated that if the numbers of reported rape cases don't represent the actual frequency with which this type of crime is committed in Puerto Rico, then it means rape perpetrators are allowed to remain at-large, thus continuing to be a threat to other women who would most likely become their next victim, because the previous ones did nothing to bring these delinquents to justice.

Fernos admitted that she wasn't acquainted with the police statistics mentioned above and expressed interest in studying the matter.

Actually, the women's advocate noted that her office plans to do a study on domestic violence cases in Puerto Rico and said it could be expanded to include rape victims to help shed some light into the decline in rape cases reported to the police in the island.

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