Rape Culture in Latin America

On October 29th, the BBC reported on the case of an 11-year-old Bolivian girl who became pregnant after being raped continuously for several months by a family member. The case has unleashed a ‘fierce debate between human rights activists and the Catholic church in Bolivia’, as religious groups attempt to force the young girl to complete the pregnancy. The controversial intervention of the Catholic Church has  once again put the spotlight on women’s rights in Latin America.

According to the Guardian, the controversy was sparked after religious groups contacted the mother of the victim and persuaded her to oppose the pregnancy termination. Since 2014, terminating a pregnancy in Bolivia is legal without a court order in cases of rape. However, the child’s mother, accompanied by a woman claiming to be a lawyer for the church, took the girl from the hospital and placed her in a centre for adolescent mothers.  

According to BBC, Susana Inch, a spokesperson for the Bolivian Bishops Conference, told local media that they have an ‘ethical and legal obligation to protect the life of the baby – both lives must be protected.’ Yet, Ana García, the executive director of a Bolivian women’s rights NGO, Casa de la Mujer, has stated that ‘there is evidently manipulation by the Catholic church which has practically kidnapped the girl and silenced the mother. They are violating her human rights.’ One of the major concerns is that the girl is being obliged to continue with a pregnancy that puts her life at risk. Therefore, Bolivia’s human rights ombudswoman, Nadia Cruz, said her office would be seeking criminal proceedings against the medical staff at the hospital, the archdiocese of Santa Cruz, and the mother of the girl for breach of duty of care and human trafficking. Cruz emphasizes that as Bolivia is a secular state, ‘her office repudiate and reject that the church uses its influence and power to meddle in public policies related to sexual and reproductive rights or to take actions related to underage victims of sexual violence.’ 

Rape culture is defined by the French Institut du Genre en Géopolitique as behaviors that promote, minimize, and normalize rape while reinforcing the idea that women are men’s property. Oxfam has reported on the findings of surveys carried out in Bolivia, Cuba, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic which show that male violence against women persists in the daily lives of young people in Latin America. Notably, the survey showed that many young people consider male violence against women ‘normal’ and a part of everyday life. In fact, 56% of women and 48% of men aged between 20 and 25 know a woman in their immediate circle who has suffered physical or sexual violence in the past year. Similarly, seven of every ten people think that a woman is responsible if she is groped because she is wearing the wrong clothes, while 40% of them think that if a woman has been drinking alcohol, she is to blame if a man rapes her, even if she is unconscious. This kind of attitude fuels gender discrimination and helps enforce norms that limit women’s rights, particularly reproductive rights. 

However, following the case in Bolivia, protests all across Latin America have sparked, according to International Relations Today. Thousands of women ‘took over the streets to demand their governments to take action regarding many societal injustices, including institutional neglect in cases of abuse and harassment, the sexist educational curriculum that is imparted in most countries, and overall inequalities in all societal spheres.’ Countries in Latin America have also made attempts at creative and serious efforts to protect women. Seventeen nations have passed laws making femicide a crime separate from homicide, with long mandatory prison sentences. Guatemala even created special courts where men accused of gender violence are tried. Research has shown that these specialized courts have been important in recognizing violence against women as a serious crime, punishing it, and providing victims with much-needed legal, social and psychological support. Many countries have also created women-only police stations, improved reporting mechanisms for gendered violence, and funded more women’s shelters. Women have also been vocal about the need and desire for reducing anti-abortion laws, with Argentina now legalizing abortion up to 14 weeks. It is now plausible that activists in major neighbors such as Chile and Brazil will use this monumental moment to push for legal changes allowing broader reproductive rights in their own countries.

Yet, countries in Latin America still have some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world. Nicaragua is one of six countries in the region that does not allow abortion under any circumstances, while Guatemala only permits it if a woman’s life is in danger. Moreover, the Catholic Church remains highly influential in Latin America and has opposed every move to expand reproductive rights, even going so far as to force an eleven-year-old rape victim to give birth. In many cases, women who get pregnant, regardless if the relation was consensual or non-consensual, are deemed to be responsible for the unborn child under the traditional role of a woman. It is common for women who are raped to be portrayed as ‘irresponsible, sexually provocative, or risk-taking individuals’ by allowing themselves to be exposed to offenders, deserving of any hardship that might occur as a result. This cannot go on. More needs to be done to change attitudes, particularly in cases involving the rape of minors. Women’s rights to safety, choice, and freedom are paramount: this should be the priority of every nation in the world.

Lola Perle


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