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Bolivia: Home to Latin America’s Highest Rates of Sexual Violence

Bolivia has the highest rates of sexual violence in Latin America with one in every three women experiencing some kind of sexual abuse before the age of 18. One activist is trying to change that by challenging stereotypes and overturning laws.

Written by Emily Wright Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
In Bolivia, girls are at high risk of being sexually assaulted, most often within their own family. AFP/Aizar Raldes

When she was 16, Brisa de Ángulo was raped repeatedly by an adult member of her own family, in the central Andean city of Cochabamba. “When I finally got the courage to report it, I faced intimidation and blame from my community, extended family and the authorities,” she said.

Describing the legal system as “horrific” she set up A Breeze of Hope, a charity center, in 2004, to support sexually abused children in Bolivia. The charity works to raise awareness about sexual abuse and incest, as well as providing legal support to victims.

Gender violence is endemic in Bolivia. Government statistics show that 90 percent of women will be on the receiving end of some form of violence, with 87 percent experiencing it within the family. Bolivia has the highest rate of violence carried out by partners against women in Latin America.

Shelby Quast, director of the Americas Program at the NGO Equality Now, told News Deeply there are several root causes for the persistence of such violence: the pervasive culture of machismo, inadequate legislation, lack of enforcement of existing laws, the judicial system and societal attitudes.

The Tyranny of Silence

Karina, who asked that her surname be omitted, was sexually molested for the first time in first grade. When she got older, her aggressor started raping her.

“I lived with this sick feeling in my stomach that made it hard to eat and impossible to play,” she said. “I felt dirty and different from all the other kids at school.”

“The day I first came to De Angulo’s center, I realized that what I feared the most was not my aggressor, but the silence,” she said.

The weight of silence also affected De Angulo. “There was tremendous intimidation and pressure from my extended family to remain silent,” she said. While her immediate family supported her when she went to court, many members of her extended family testified against her.

“My life was threatened several times during the trial,” De Angulo said. The threats came from within her local community. “My house was stoned and set on fire twice,” she said. She does not know by whom.

 Challenging Stereotypes

De Angulo says the biggest problem is that designated official bodies are not trained to deal with the sensitivities at hand when it comes to trials of sexual violence.

They ask victims to repeat their stories several times and question the veracity of their complaints. “There is a huge amount of misinformation that is perpetuated by judges, prosecutors and forensic doctors that are not qualified,” she said.

During her trial, one of the judges implied De Angulo could not have been raped because she had a “strong personality” and did not scream. A prosecutor threatened to jail her if any inconsistencies in her story came to light.

“There are forensic doctors who say that it is anatomically impossible to rape a child under six, and we know from studies and evidence that lots of children under the age of six are raped,” she said.

De Angulo has now taken her rape case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. She is calling for the repeal of a legal provision in Bolivia known as “estupro,” which imposes lesser penalties for perpetrators who rape children between 14 and 18 years old than those for younger children. Punishment for estupro ranges from three to six years’ imprisonment.

It is estimated that 20 percent of teenage pregnancies in Bolivia are the result of “estupro.”

De Angulo’s attacker was convicted under the estupro charge, rather than rape, and this decision was later overturned on appeal. A third trial was ordered, but the defendant fled the country.

Often, teenage girls are said to be commonly portrayed as treacherously seductive and deceitful, preying on helpless adult men. Widespread stereotypes about women and their sexual behavior influence legislators, law enforcement personnel, medical staff and the general public.

Legal Loopholes

Punishment for rape in Bolivia is between 15 and 20 years but requires proof of physical or psychological violence, or intimidation.

Quast suggests that the focus needs to shift to consent. “A victim should not have to prove there was violence to prove that there was rape.” She believes laws that fail to recognize consent is impossible in situations of dependency.

“It is important to bring Bolivia’s law in line with international standards,” Quast said. U.N. Women guidelines call for mandated training for law enforcement, judicial, medical and social service professionals, which is essential in ensuring that stereotypes are discarded and proper standards are upheld.

Last year, a law was introduced requiring anyone seeking public office to demonstrate they have no criminal record of gender violence. In 2013, De Angulo successfully pushed for the repeal of a marital rape exemption in Bolivia’s Penal Code.

Although these measures could make Bolivia an example to follow for other countries in the region, Quast worries that gender violence still isn’t enough of a priority for the government, or internationally.

“There is this pervasive idea attached to patriarchy that women simply don’t have value,” she said. “We’re seeing this acutely in Bolivia and the rest of Latin America, but in the U.S., too. Around the world there are threats to women’s rights, there is backsliding.”

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