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Sexual Violence Against Adolescent Girls In Bolivia and its Consequences

Overwhelmingly committed by men against women, sexual violence can take many forms, including rape, domestic violence, harassment, and objectification. The violence occurs in public and private and affects both a woman and her community.

Sexual Violence in Bolivia 

Bolivia has the highest rate of sexual violence in Latin America. The country also has some of the region’s lowest reporting rates for these crimes.  Those who do make the choice to come forward often face tremendous barriers to accessing justice.

  • 70 percent of Bolivian women are survivors of sexual or physical violence
  • 1 in 3 girls experience sexual violence before age 18.
  • In the first six months of 2015, 94 percent of sexual violence cases against minors involved a victim who was a girl under 18.

In Bolivian culture, adolescent girls are commonly portrayed as treacherous, seductive, and manipulative, preying on helpless adult men.

Why Does Sexual Violence Occur? 

Sexual violence is a crime rooted in control and, most often, patriarchy. Bolivian culture highly values machismo, or the concept of  “manliness,” and these cultural attitudes combine with a lack of legislation and poor enforcement of existing laws to create a prevailing culture of shame and silence that will continue its cycle unless it is interrupted by forces for change. 

What is the Impact of Sexual Violence? 

Sexual violence survivors who choose to report their case face many obstacles to obtaining justice in Bolivia. Consent is not defined in the Bolivian penal code and survivors must prove  “intimidation, physical violence, or psychological violence.” These barriers discourage the vast majority of the survivors who seek justice to abandon their case before it has even left the initial investigatory stages. Moreover, judges have discretion over applying the law of estupro, frequently inserting a major loophole into a system that already grants perpetrators an unfair advantage. 

Bolivia has among the highest adolescent pregnancy rates in Latin America, and securing an abortion poses a practical challenge for many young girls. In 2016, over 13,000 girls under the age of 15 across Bolivia were seen for pregnancy-related care. Although  Bolivian law permits abortion for pregnancies that are the result of rape, incest, or estupro, or which pose a danger to the life of the mother, lack of knowledge surrounding these laws and abortion access, coupled with cultural beliefs and a lack of comprehensive sex education forces young girls to go through the physical toll of carrying a pregnancy and giving birth and then to become a mother, compounding the trauma of sexual violence. 

Estupro: Sexual Violence Against Adolescent Girls 

In Bolivia, there is a crime of “having carnal access” to a person by means of seduction or deceit. When the survivor is between 14 and 18 years of age this crime is known as estupro— and is frequently is used to let rapists evade justice. 

In contrast to the rape of an adult or a younger child, punishment for estupro ranges from only three to six years’ imprisonment.   

Equality Now’s partner, A Breeze of Hope, reports that judges are using their own discretion to reduce charges from rape to the lesser charge of estupro when cases of sexual violence involving adolescent girls come before their courts, even if the evidence points to rape. 

What Does International Law Say? 

Under international human rights law, the victim’s lack of consent should be the central element of the crime of rape, and reforms are needed to bring existing rape legislation in Bolivia in line with these standards. 

United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 5 calls for Gender Equality and enumerates several targets, including: 

  • Eliminating “ all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including sexual [violence]”
  • Ensuring “universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights”
  • The adoption and strengthening of “sound policies and enforceable legislation for the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls at all levels.”

What Is Equality Now Doing About This? 

Equality Now is working to repeal Bolivia’s estupro law, which imposes lesser penalties for perpetrators who rape 14- to 18-year-old adolescents than for those who rape a child or an adult woman.

We are also seeking broader legal reforms to: prevent sexual assaults against girls and adolescents, establish a definition of sexual consent, remove the requirement to show physical or psychological violence or intimidation to prove rape and ensure victims of sexual violence are able to access justice and services.

Our work in the region, including numerous appearances before the Inter-American Human Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), sees us working to set bold precedents that will secure the right of women and girls to be safe from sexual violence, in Bolivia and across Latin America. 

What Can You Do? 

>>>Take action today by calling on Bolivian officials to ensure survivors of childhood sexual violence can access justice in Bolivia.

>>>Read about Brisa’s fight for justice

To learn more, you can also visit:

A Breeze of Hope Foundation

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

Hearing at the IACHR on Sexual Violence in Bolivia