8 de Mayo: No tiene que ver con el agua
This week, two brief but terrible stories about sexual violence in El Alto, Bolivia. First, “a thirteen-year-old boy has been accused of attempting to rape a seven-year-old girl” in an El Alto school building. A week later, police arrested a 24-year-old man for allegedly raping and impregnating a 15-year-old girl who he claims was his “girlfriend.” Evidently, “the mother of the minor realized that her daughter was pregnant” and reported the crime.
There is so much to unpack in these two brief notes that it is difficult to know where to begin. First, there is the disturbing prevalence of sexual violence against women in Bolivia. Reproductive rights organization IPAS reports that “four of ten Bolivian women have suffered some form of sexual violence.” Often, women suffer sexual violence at the hands of their lovers and husbands, upon whom they and their children may be financially dependent, and so do not report the crimes. Other women who are raped by strangers or acquaintances also may fail to report the attacks due to fears that police or family members may blame them, rather than their aggressors. This means that actual rates of sexual violence may be much higher. IPAS director Eliana Del Pozo also notes that few rape cases that women do report actually make it to the courts, much less result in convictions.
Why do so many men sexually assault women in Bolivia? The guarantee of impunity alone cannot explain it. In Bolivia–where until recently a married woman had to obtain the signature of her husband in order to undergo a tubal ligation–machismo dictates that women’s bodies belong to men. Sexism permeates much home life in Bolivia, so that young boys learn from an early age that they enjoy privileges that their sisters and mothers do not. Although we do not know much about the background of the thirteen-year-old who nearly raped a child in an El Alto school, the culture of machismo alone in Bolivian (and Latin American) society makes these incidents more common here than in many other countries.
In the case of the 15-year-old rape survivor, fear also seem to have played a role in delaying the aggressor’s arrest. As the article notes, the girl’s attacker threatened her family with violence if she ever revealed the rape. Only six months later (most likely when she was no longer able to hide her pregnancy) did the girl’s mother discover that her daughter was pregnant and file the report for the crime.
Even in cases where an attacker does not threaten his victim’s family, young women in Bolivia often fear to tell their parents that they have been raped since so many are blamed for provoking men’s advances. If an adolescent girl becomes pregnant in Bolivia, whether through rape or consensual sex, her parents often hold her accountable for the pregnancy and excuse the man involved. Many women I have spoken with who became pregnant at an early age report that they waited months before telling their parents, since parents are often very concerned with the que dirán de la gente, or, of what people will say.
Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with several members of the community police force in Bolivia, a special division of the police that engages with average folks through personal interventions and community orientations on a variety of topics. According to these six men, rising rape rates in the busy, La Paz market district of Max Paredes are due to an increase in adolescent drinking. Although alcohol abuse doubtless exacerbates many social problems, I find adolescent drinking a poor explanation for the high prevalence of rape in Bolivia. The truth is, if a man would not rape a women sober, he would not rape a woman drunk. If when sober, a man does not believe that a woman owes him something, or that her body is his property, he is unlikely to develop these beliefs after five or six cervezas. Let’s face it–the propensity to rape is not something that’s in the water, or in any other beverage. It’s something that’s in the machismo.