Illustration: Agata Nowicka

When Maria Micaela “Mica” Sviatschi was growing up in Argentina, it was normal in relationships for a man to scream at a woman. She saw how gender violence “could affect everything” for women, causing their physical and mental health to deteriorate and impacting their ability to work. 

Now, as an assistant professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton, Sviatschi’s research focuses on uncovering ways to prevent gender violence while improving equity and justice for women. When COVID-19 hit, she began studying the pandemic’s impact on domestic violence. Underreporting of gender-based violence and low arrest rates for crimes against women are pervasive problems, she says, especially in developing countries where police aren’t trusted because complaints are regularly ignored. “If you don’t have enforcement against these types of crimes, whether it’s [by] the police or state, it’s hard to prevent,” she says. 

Sviatschi’s Research: A Sampling 

Illustration: Mikel Casal

Justice Centers

In Peru, more than 225 women’s justice centers target gender violence by offering a solution-oriented approach. The centers help survivors file reports with a social worker, meet a psychologist, and see a doctor who can quickly collect evidence. Women are then asked if they would like to file a complaint against a perpetrator and given access to a lawyer. “It’s very different than going directly to a police station,” she says. Sviatschi and economist Iva Trako found that opening a center increased the number of women reporting gender-based violence by 40 percent and significantly increased the probability that perpetrators will be prosecuted. They also found 75 percent of women who visited a center around Lima reported that domestic violence stopped during or after the program. 

Illustration: Mikel Casal

Better Education

In 2020, Sviatschi worked with collaborators to research the impact of the pandemic on domestic violence. With a $76,000 grant from Princeton, they surveyed 8,000 women in the United States to better understand their attitudes and access to information about domestic violence. Although the study is not yet complete, they found that increasing the use of chat bots improved domestic-violence education and increased hotline calls. Showing a video of someone talking about their domestic-violence experience increased survivors’ likelihood to seek services, Sviatschi says.

Illustration: Mikel Casal

Gang Impact 

Sviatschi also studies the consequences of organized crime. El Salvador is a hotbed for two of the world’s largest gangs — MS-13 and 18th Street. A shift in U.S. immigration policy in 1996 led many gang leaders in Los Angeles to be deported to El Salvador. Helped by local guides, Sviatschi navigated gang territories and found that in locations where deported gang leaders landed in El Salvador, there was an increase in homicides, extortion, drug trafficking, and gang recruitment, especially among children. Sviatschi and her research team also found that in neighborhoods where gangs used guns to enforce permission to leave and enter an area, people earned 50 percent less income than neighbors who lived outside the gun-controlled block. In a paper published last fall, Sviatschi says, “the negative consequences are huge.”