‘I’ll Not Carry the Guilt that Belongs to the Aggressor’ What a Landmark Ruling on Sexual Violence Means for Latin America
Sian Norris speaks to campaigners about a 20-year fight for justice for rape victims in Bolivia
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Brisa Liliana de Angulo Losada’s decades-long fight for justice began in 2002, when she was just a teenager.
Like most 15-year-olds in her home town in Bolivia, de Angulo enjoyed school and spending time with her friends. She was a “social kid”, her mother said, but almost overnight her behaviour changed. She started “staying in her room all the time, stopped socialising, slammed doors, wouldn’t eat, and we knew something was wrong”.
That ‘something wrong’ was the repeated rapes committed against de Angulo by an adult cousin. The man psychologically controlled the teenager, guaranteeing her silence by saying she would “lose the love” of her parents if she spoke out. When she tried to resist the violence, he threatened to start abusing her sisters.
Desperate to protect her siblings, de Angulo kept quiet. The multiple rapes she endured amounted to torture.
Somehow, de Angulo found the colossal strength to report what had happened to her. But rather than hold her abuser to account, the people who were supposed to protect her instead denied this brave young woman access to justice. The process of reporting the rapes led to the teenager being “re-victimised ”.
This time, the threats and silencing came from the state, not the abuser. Remarkably, the prosecutor who took de Angulo’s complaint told her she could end up in jail, and that she should have kept quiet. She was made to feel like a criminal, while her serial rapist walked free.
“Not one person in the judicial system treated me with sensitivity and respect,” said de Angulo. “They treated me as if I was to blame for the sexual violence, but I was just a girl”.
The emotional toll of the rapes and being disbelieved were huge. But De Angulo knew that if she was a victim of this injustice, so were thousands of other innocent children. She was determined to end a culture of impunity that allowed her rapist to abuse without fear of consquences.
Her journey has taken her from a teenage girl denied justice, to law school, and finally to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) where she argued that Bolivia had infringed her human rights. The court, which represents 25 nations across the Americas, agreed. Its decision was clear: Bolivia must be sanctioned for not adequately investigating and punishing de Angulo’s allegations of rape.
Joel Hernández, IACHR’s Rapporteur for Bolivia, stated: “The IACHR highlights the importance of this case and calls the State of Bolivia to adopt measures to combat violence against women, in order to prevent such severe acts from being repeated”. Its decisions are legally binding.
“It’s been hard, doing this case has taken 13 years of Brisa’s life,” Barbara Jimenez-Santiago, the Latin America and the Caribbean Regional Representative for Equality Now, told Byline Times. The NGO provided legal support to de Angulo. “But she kept on pushing. The fight for justice has helped with her healing. She really wanted to see change, and see that this doesn’t happen to anyone else”.
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A Wider Battle
For de Angulo, the fight for justice was both personal and global. Her long legal battle was rooted in her conviction that this case was not about her as an individual. It was a fight for change for the millions of victims of sexual violence in Bolivia and around the world.
The ruling will force Bolivia to make systemic changes in how it approaches sexual violence, including when it comes to incest violence. Incest, such as that which de Angulo endured, had been treated as an aggravating factor of other illegal behaviour, rather than its own offence.
“The case has given an opportunity to talk about issues of sexual violence, especially incest,” explained Jimenez-Santiago. “It’s a chance to talk about power dynamics within families, and can help families take actions internally to stop this abuse. It gives them the tools to talk about bodies, about not forcing kids to do certain things”.
Bolivia has the highest rate of sexual violence in the region: 12 children and adolescents are raped every day and one in three girls and one in four boys experience sexual violence before the age of 18. This is higher than the global average – between one in five to one in 10 girls and one in five to one in 15 boys experience some form of sexual violence while still children.
For Jimenez-Santiago, the high rates of violence are attributable to a range of factors, from gender stereotypes and machismo, to the legacies of imperialist violence, poverty, and political instability. She points to how the hangovers of colonial laws can block justice for victims of sexual violence. “In many countries, the culture of rape and rape of children is very naturalised,” she said.
The court’s ruling has been described as “historic” by feminist activists, not least for how it will lead to systemic changes that recognise rape as a crime defined by a lack of consent.
Miguel Cillero Bruñol, a legal expert summoned by the Inter-American Court, explained how “the crime of rape was classified in such a way that the main thing is to prove how that resistance was overcome. But not focusing on the fact that the absence of consent is what makes it a crime”. De Angulo’s fight meant recognising that rape can happen in many scenarios – that is is about the lack of consent, and an abuse of power.
“This is something huge for the region and for the whole world,” Jimenez-Santiago told Byline Times. “It means Bolivia has to comply with the judgement, as well as implement prevention measures, improve education, even improve the way it collects data on sexual violence”.
“I think the court was very bold and brave,” she added.
As for de Angulo, her decades-long fight for justice may have ended with this landmark ruling, but her work with victims and survivors continues through her Breeze of Hope Foundation. After her abuser and the Bolivian justice system tried to silence her, she is determined to keep speaking out against men’s violence against women and children.
“I will not hide my name,” de Angulo told the court. “I’ll not carry the guilt that belongs to the aggressor. May your names and faces be the ones who decided to be bold. Please remember that my case is not just my case”.