Rebekah Nimtz is an MCC Service Worker in the cross-roads, bread-basket city of Cochabamba, Bolivia.
*This article deals with a difficult subject matter and contains examples of violence. *
I noticed while writing this article that my auto-correct dictionary contains other types of “-cides” but not femicide. Femicide is defined as, “The killing of a woman or girl, in particular by a man and on account of her gender.” In Bolivia, the word is everywhere. The pleasure of enjoying a three course home-made lunch in a pension off the street for $1.50 is somewhat abated when everyone’s eyes are glued to a TV blasting the latest news on yet another femicide. Family members are shown wailing and saying they told the victim she should have left her partner while her step-mother, who also experienced violence, always told her that beatings are just what she should expect.
In a 2013 study of 12 Latin American countries by the Panamerican Health Organization, ”Bolivia came first in physical and sexualized violence against women, perpetrated by their partner or ex-partner with 53% of all Bolivian women being affected. According to Bolivia’s Vice-Ministry of Equal Opportunities (VIO) nine out of ten women in Bolivia fall victim to some kind of violence and 87% percent suffer that violence in the family. Every three days a woman is murdered.” Mistreatment of children is also sky-high: 34% of those who suffer violence are under 18.
The result is a social health epidemic.
Outside of just watching the horrendousness in the news, these statistics shouldn’t continue to surprise me, as I’ve observed a number of incidences first-hand, despite being an outsider. I noted inappropriate behavior by the male head of the house toward the young Quechua maid in my host family’s home during language school, and her tearful confessions to me of mistreatment when we were together alone. I’ve observed marked shifts in behavior and temperament of youngsters, like those at my old work in mining communities in Potosi, which I’ve since learned are strong indications of abuse. I heard what sounded like a woman being raped in Cochabamba over a taxi radio at 8pm. From my balcony I observed a drunk neighbor strike his wife and threaten murder with a putty knife and another incident of a woman appearing to be thrown outside and then violently sequestered into a vehicle in the vicinity of what neighbors told me was a police run brothel. One takes note of civil protests, not just for women, but also for babies killed after being violated. At my work, we have discovered more than one tiny girl who was being abused by a male relative.
The complexity of the problem is exacerbated when the public institutions that open investigations more often than not fail to bring them to completion, meanwhile forcing the victim to relive the trauma in a system that makes women and children recount (and “prove”) over and over again their situation, often unnecessarily to those not in authority. The legal system frequently blames the victim and judges in favor of the perpetrator, as male perpetrators usually have more clout or money to pay someone off. Cases are passed from one desk to another without any real investigation, which also sends the victim needlessly running from one office to another. People are forced to deal with a public services system that passes a few laws but does not fully equip public offices and officials to implement those laws. Staff work in short-term, high turn-over positions with little training and in contexts interwoven with bribery and corruption. Taking into account the risk of retaliation and further threat to the victim by the perpetrator, it’s no wonder that of the 16 or so cases of of sexual abuse against minors every day here only 5 are denounced (1).
Two-thirds of those incarcerated in Bolivia’s prisons are serving time for sexual crimes against women and children. The problem appears all the more pandemic when one considers the high levels of impunity. In many cases aggressors are actually those one expects to most be protecting and helping: family members, public officials on all levels including cases of abuse that take place within offices against human trafficking or by police, medical and religious workers, and teachers.
There are so many factors at play regarding this issue that it’s hard to keep track of the possible causes and complexities. For example, alcohol often plays a role in a vast number of situations of beatings and violence. It is not, however, the primary factor in a problem that covers all classes of society, nor is alcohol consumption higher in Bolivia than in other Latin American countries, contrary to popular belief. According to Marina Rosenthal, “Media influences, like movies, television, music and pornography, constantly shape and reinforce our beliefs about sexual violence.”
A young person once commented to me, “That’ll happen to you if you get married,” after I tried to get him to change a music video featuring a woman being beaten by her partner. “Why, do you see a lot of that first-hand?” I asked. “It’s just everywhere, in videos like this, etc,” he responded. Studies have shown that after watching similarly violent videos, “research participants felt less empathy for a victim in a hypothetical sexual assault scenario.”
Despite all the questions and possibilities, the majority of factors and possible contributing causes are related to the societal shaping of expectations around male privilege and power. There is an undue amount of teasing or reprimanding of boys in school situations or in the home for acting ‘like girls’, crying, and needing to be tough. There is a focus on little girls being ‘pretty’, a continued cultural underdevelopment of healthy expressions of male anger, and an emphasis on male and female societal roles of domination and submission. I once observed a small girl in the street, crying for being pestered by her brothers, be whipped by her mom as a result while the boys looked on. According to reports:
The dramatic situation in Bolivia results from a society that considers women the property of men…basically the reasons are the same as anywhere in the world—structurally unequal power relations…the patriarchal system. (1)
The aptly named Breeze of Hope Center in Cochabamba (CUBE) is an MCC partner that consists of psychologists, lawyers and sociologists. Each staff member needs to be able to function in all three professions. All work tirelessly toward a different outcome for victims and Bolivian society as a whole. Close to all their cases reach sentencing, a huge achievement given the rampant impunity with the legal system. They are among the few similar organizations that the Bolivian Ombudsman comes to for country statistics related to the issue. CUBE walks alongside the victim in all phases, including the healing stages years after a case is closed. Along with other organizations, CUBE also works with youth in education around the subject of machismo in society. The young people are responsive, because they have no desire to grow up under these tendencies and expectations. Youth also tend to lead the way in raising awareness of the problem, through the arts and other forms of expression.
Our last MCC team retreat featured two days of meetings with wonderful speakers from CUBE. They shared that injustices such as femicides are usually surrounded by strong societal myths which, if left unaddressed, mean the situation will never change. Those myths include ideas such as:
- In my day these things just didn’t happen /Those are rare cases.
- Violators are violent and evil strangers (most are individuals who are trusted in the home/society).
- Kids/teens/women lie.
- This is a rural/lower class problem (all classes are affected—often higher class cases are engulfed in more silence to keep up appearances).
- Only little girls are abused, not little boys (statistics are not actually that different).
- These are private matters/family problems
- Perpetrators are always crazy or drunk.
These myths remind us how much our beliefs about situations shape and enable realities. The myths that surround rape culture in my own country also re-victimize victims and serve to enable avoidance of the reality that 20% of college women in the U.S. are sexually assaulted. A number of the myths are identical:
Women lie about rape (the majority don’t even report, and for every false report 400 real cases are fighting to be believed); she didn’t fight back so she must have wanted it; she was wearing sexy clothes, so she asked for it; she willingly had a drink with him; she had sex with him before, so she must have wanted to again.
May we all take responsibility to take note of myths we’ve believed and speak up, in particular those who are passionate about the family as a foundation of society or who consider ourselves Christ followers.
On August 9th, I was privileged to participate in a large march against sexual violence organized by CUBE of young people, men, women and children. We poured through the streets as though washing them with mercy and justice, assertively declaring the truth and denouncing lies around violence, as well as hopefully reminding those watching who may be trapped in silence themselves that they are not alone. Despite the alarming statistics and examples of violence, there are many people in Bolivia, both women and men, who are working for change.
A song we sang together to open our MCC sessions on the topic came to my mind as I watched young people boldly declaring with their voices and banners to the passing cars and onlookers that violence was unacceptable and that they would not be silent:
Because He entered the world and history
Because He broke the silence and the agony
Because He filled the earth with his glory
Because He was the light in our cold night
Because He lived sowing love and life
Because He split open hardened hearts
And lifted up the crushed in spirit
For this reason today we have hope
For this reason today we fight resolutely
For this reason today we look for with confidence
His coming on this our earth.
-Tenemos Esperanza, Federico Jose Pagura
- CERES con el apoyo de Solidar. Violencia Contra La Mujer, Experiencias en Cochabamba. 2015. (16, 60-61, 90)