Fighting to end Bolivia's rape culture, where 1 in 3 girls are sexually abused before age 18

Brisa De Angulo, far right, sexual assault survivor and activist

Bolivia has one of the highest rates of sexual violence against women and children in Latin America — one out of three girls are sexually abused before they turn 18. It also has one of the lowest reporting rates due to the many barriers survivors face when it comes to accessing justice.

Since 2014, international women’s rights organization Equality Now has been working with Brisa De Angulo, a survivor of sexual abuse, and her organization, A Breeze of Hope, to address the alarming rates of child sexual abuse and incest in Bolivia and to close gaps in the law so that perpetrators can be held to account.

When Brisa was 15 years old, an adult cousin came to live with her and her family. First he isolated her and then he began to rape her, all the while becoming increasingly violent in order to force her silence. He blamed her for the abuse, beat her, threatened to rape her young sisters, and tortured her pets while making her watch.

Brisa recalls, “The first time he molested me, I was petrified. I felt totally numb, I couldn’t react, I didn’t understand what was going on. He brainwashed me into not telling anyone. My parents knew that there was something wrong but they never suspected sexual violence. My mum would cry to my attacker and would ask him to help. It is really awful how he manipulated everyone.”

Brisa attempted suicide twice, developed an eating disorder, and did everything she could to push her family away in the belief that it would keep them safe. Finally, after eight months, Brisa’s family discovered the abuse and reported it to the police. But Brisa’s nightmare didn’t end there.

She was re-victimized by medical personnel during the numerous required physical exams, by the prosecutor during the investigation, and by judges who questioned her about her sexual history during the trial.

“The hardest part was that when I turned to help from the government I faced further persecution,” says Brisa. “My forensic exam was a horrific experience. I had a male doctor accompanied by five male trainee doctors. I had to strip naked and they made fun of me. I was examined in a room with open windows and people could look in.”

“I was one of the first adolescents to take a rape case to trial in Bolivia. We faced a lot of resistance because if you are a girl who has been raped it is seen as your fault and you must have done something to deserve it, no matter what the situation. When I went to court I had never had consensual sex and had been repeatedly raped by my attacker but was asked, “Why didn’t you scream, did you really like it?”

Although Brisa had originally brought a case against her cousin for rape, the judge used his discretion to apply the charge of ‘estupro’ — damaging legislation that imposes lesser penalties on perpetrators who rape a girl aged over 14 and under 18 years old.

Brisa explains: “Estupro is based on the premise that if you are a teenage girl who has sex, it is consensual. Sadly, in Bolivia there is still the belief that if the victim is an adolescent girl, it is their fault and they are to blame. She is usually assumed to be lying and faces a lot of intimidation.”

“Estupro is what my attacker was originally convicted under but the decision was later overturned on appeal. A third trial was ordered, but he went missing and now there is an international arrest warrant out for him.”

Inspired by her own experience, Brisa set up A Breeze of Hope (Fundación Una Brisa De Esperanza), a charity which supports sexually abused children in Bolivia. It was the first organization in the country to provide social workers, therapists, and lawyers, free of charge for children who are victims of sexual violence.

Sadly, cases of sexual abuse of young children continue in overwhelming numbers. According to a report presented by Bolivia’s Ombudsman, in the first half of 2015 alone, there were 569 reported cases of sexual violence against minors, of which 94% were against young or adolescent girls.

This directly contradicts Bolivia’s many international commitments to ensure women and girls are free from sexual violence.

After Brisa was unable to obtain justice in Bolivia for her case, she went to university to get a law degree and joined forces with Equality Now, the Human Rights Advocacy and Litigation Clinic at Rutgers Law School, and the law firm of Hughes Hubbard & Reed to pursue litigation. Brisa’s case has gone to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), and together we are calling for the repeal of estupro and are pushing for broader legal reform to address the problem of sexual violence against girls.

This includes asking Bolivia to remove the requirement to show physical or psychological violence or intimidation to prove rape, introduce a legal definition for sexual consent, and amend the criminal code so that the act of rape is based on sexual acts that are non-consensual. The state also needs to ensure victims of sexual violence are able to effectively access justice and services.

“There is a conspiracy of silence about sexual abuse from all sides. The Bolivian legal system has traditionally protected the aggressors and many don’t go to jail,” Brisa explains.

“Punishment for rape in Bolivia is between 15 and 20 years but requires proof of physical or psychological violence or intimidation. But how can you always show that? If there has been sexual violence but not rape it’s almost impossible to prove, and if there has been intimidation it is impossible. The focus needs to shift to consent. A victim should not have to prove there was violence to prove that there was rape.”

In March 2017, we held a thematic hearing on sexual abuse with the Government of Bolivia at the IACHR. Bolivia pledged to work with us to amend its penal code and a process was started to approve a new set of laws that would have incorporated some of our recommendations, but unfortunately, it has not been approved. The estupro article remains in place, as does the requirement for sexual assault survivors to prove intimidation or physical or psychological violence. Nor is there any definition of consent in the law.

Brisa’s case is now before the IACHR for consideration, where the Commission is considering the merits of her case and whether or not they will refer her case to the Inter- American Court of Human Rights which is responsible for making a final ruling on the facts and law relating to her case.

“This is not just about me,” says Brisa. “I want something that will help other survivors of sexual violence in Bolivia. We are trying to make changes to the law so that they are compliant with international human rights standards.”
Brisa De Angulo, second from right, with Shelby Quast, Director of Equality Now’s America’s Office, far right

In May 2019, we, along with our partners, held an impactful hearing titled “Access to Justice for Adolescent Victims of Sexual Violence in Bolivia” in front of the IACHR in order to give Bolivian survivors of sexual violence the opportunity to testify and demand their rights.

While the Bolivian authorities have once again made numerous commitments to address the issues highlighted, the legal, systemic and social barriers to justice that Brisa faced 18 years ago still exist today.

TAKE ACTION!

Right now the Bolivian government is reforming its rape and sexual abuse laws. Help us make sure that Bolivia follows through on its promises and obligations to its women and girls!

Please join our collective call on Bolivia to:

  • Define rape as based on lack of consent and including all forms of non-consensual penetration
  • Eliminate the requirement that survivors prove “intimidation, physical violence, or psychological violence”
  • Apply international and regional human rights standards on consent;
  • Repeal the estupro provision, legislation which is used to allow rapists to avoid conviction in cases where the victim is 14–17 years old; and
  • Provide clear guidelines on what acts constitute sexual abuse.

Send an email to Bolivian officials