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Legal Reform is Urgent To Address Sexual Violence In Bolivia

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By Barbara Jimenez-Santiago, Regional Representative for LAC at Equality Now, Brisa de Angulo Losada, activist, survivor and founder of A Breeze of Hope, and Monica Bayá, Technical Secretary of Comunidad de Derechos Humanos

It has been more than a year since the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) issued a historic ruling in favor of sexual violence survivor Brisa De Angulo Losada against the State of Bolivia. While some progress has been made in implementing the measures ordered by the IACtHR, significant challenges remain, particularly with legal reforms needed to ensure that girls survivors of sexual violence obtain justice.

High prevalence of sexual violence amid an alarming lack of justice

Bolivia has the highest rates of sexual violence in Latin America. One in three girls experience sexual violence before the age of 18, and 70% of Bolivian married or cohabiting women report having experienced physical or sexual abuse. Despite these alarming statistics, survivors of sexual violence often encounter significant barriers when seeking justice in the country.

Brisa’s own experience reflects this reality: raped repeatedly for months by an adult relative starting when she was 16, Brisa endured three trials in Bolivia without her aggressor ever being brought to justice and punished. During this ordeal within Bolivia’s criminal justice system, Brisa was subjected to victim-blaming, gender discrimination, and further trauma.

Landmark ruling by the IACtHR

In January 2023, the IACtHR ruling in favor of Brisa finally granted her a level of justice and offered her, and many other survivors, a real hope for lasting change.

The IACtHR ordered Bolivia to adopt various measures encompassing both legislative reforms and practical implementation by establishing specific protocols and training for personnel involved in victim support services, investigation of cases, and enforcement of the law. 

Although some necessary steps have been taken, the path to full execution of the IACtHR judgment is far from complete.

We have seen some progress in implementation. Notably, the Bolivian government hosted a public event in August 2023, attended by high-ranking officials from the three branches of the State. During this event, the State formally recognized the human rights violations committed against Brisa and her family and issued an official apology.

However, this apology falls short. The State Attorney General’s Office has yet to investigate the origins of the false accusations made in the defamatory document it issued against Brisa, which was also presented to the IACtHR during her case’s proceedings. 

A sincere apology would necessitate a thorough clarification and rectification as part of reparations for the harm inflicted. Regrettably, the ongoing silence and refusal of the Attorney General’s Office to conduct an investigation continue to contribute to a significant revictimization of Brisa.

The Bolivian government has made advancements in training judges, public prosecutors, and police officers in partnership with civil society organizations. This initiative aims to ensure that criminal justice personnel apply gender-sensitive approaches when dealing with sexual violence crimes.

There is an urgent need to move forward with the legal reform

The IACtHR has established that Bolivia must reform its legal framework so that “lack of consent” becomes the central and essential criterion in defining the crime of rape, rather than emphasizing the use of force. In addition, the country must eliminate the discriminatory crime of estupro, a legal provision that can be applied when an adult rapes an adolescent girl who is above the legal age of consent but below the age of 18. Bolivia must also establish a distinct category for incestuous sexual violence in the Penal Code, defined as any sexual act between an adult relative and a minor.

The IACtHR ruling sets a significant precedent that extends to all countries in the Americas that are part of the inter-American system. As evidenced by Equality Now’s report Failure to Protect: How Discriminatory Sexual Violence Laws and Practices are Hurting Women, Girls, and Adolescents in the Americas, most criminal codes in Latin America and the Caribbean still define sexual violence crimes based on the requirement of the use of force rather than the lack of consent. This approach, along with discriminatory laws that offer reduced protections for adolescent girls, denies justice to survivors of sexual violence.

While five bills aimed at modifying the current laws on sexual violence have been introduced in the Bolivian Plurinational Legislative Assembly, none of these bills have been approved to date.

We celebrate the recent consensus reached by the Human Rights Commission of the Legislative Assembly on a legislative proposal that removes the statute of limitations for sexual violence crimes against children and adolescents, eliminates the crime of estupro, updates the definition of rape to meet the standards of the IACtHR, and establishes the crime of incestuous rape. This bill must be approved quickly and enacted into law.

The Plurinational Legislative Assembly should prioritize legal reform. Legislators are responsible for adapting Bolivian legislation to the standards established by the IACtHR in the Brisa ruling, carrying out a process of debate and consensus that responds to the needs of the population, especially girls and adolescents.

Urgent Call for State Investigation into Brisa’s Case

The IACtHR has instructed an investigation into the acts of revictimization against Brisa, identifying the officials whose actions contributed to this situation and any possible procedural irregularities that harmed her.

However, to date, the State Attorney General’s Office has not initiated investigations into the accusations in the defamatory document it issued against Brisa, which was presented to the IACtHR during the process. The lack of action by the Attorney General’s Office continues to represent a serious form of revictimization towards Brisa.

Brisa’s aggressor and others have exploited this document to defame her, initiate legal actions against her, and obstruct the extradition of the aggressor, who is currently evading Bolivian justice. Brisa has persistently called for the Bolivian State to investigate the origin and sources of this document.

The State has yet to make progress in the investigation ordered by the IACtHR and respond to Brisa’s requests. The lack of action continues to revictimize her, undermining her two-decade-long struggle for justice. It is imperative that the State promptly addresses these failures, ensuring that Brisa’s calls for justice are honored.

This article was originally published on La Razón Digital Bolivia, in Spanish.