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Am I the exception or the rule? : Gender violence in Latin America and the world

There are memories that stick in your mind for the rest of your life ... either in that part of your mind that you very rarely decide to visit or perhaps they stay in some obscure region of your subconscious. Yet, time to time these memories decide to say “hello”, perhaps in a dream that in principle does not makes any sense?. In my case, these “ghosts” memories come to visit me when I read something in the news, or while watching a movie or when one of my friends shares her own “ghosts” with me.

One of those memories brings me back to my first year of high school, when I was 11 or 12 years old. One of my friends came up to me and told me she wanted to tell me something. That “something” made her anxious and ashamed, I could see it on her face. She told me that his cousin forced her to kiss him and sometimes touched her and that she did not want it. She was afraid to tell her parents because she thought she will bring problems to her own home. My memories become blurred, I sort of remember telling her to say this to her mom, but she did not want to do that and ask me to swear to not to tell anyone else. I do not remember if we talked about it again, I do not remember if I asked her if she talked to her mom, I do not remember what year she left school. What I do remember is that I did not tell anybody: nor my mom, neither my teacher, not even to a friend…

Why didn’t I tell anyone? Another memory takes me back to my college days when I had to go from my university to the laboratory where I did my internship. It was a bus trip that took from 1 to 1.5 hours so I was usually tired and very frequently I would fell asleep on the bus. In one of those times a man sat next to me, while falling sleep and walking up time to time in order to check I did not miss my bus stop I felt a very strong warmth between my legs. I thought for a moment if it was what I was imagining... I took a deep breath ... and raised my backpack quickly (which I had on top of my lap) to find this man’s hand between my legs. The man immediately stood up from the seat and got off the bus running. Again, here my memories are blurred, I can not remember if I cried, I do not remember how I felt or what did I do during the day ... what I do remember is that ... I did not tell anyone ...

Why didn’t I tell anyone?

More terrible than that it is when your own close friends reveal their own ghosts to you. One of them tells me that when she was 11 years old she was approached by a guy while she was coming back to buy fresh bread in her aunties neighbourhood. The guy asked her to help him to give a present to his girlfriend because his mother in law does not want to receive it. So he lead her under the stairs of a building and told her to put her pants down. “Fortunately” she was wearing a whole-body t-shirt (similar to a swim suit), he did not rape her, but he made her do other things. At the end, he told her to count to one hundred and remain quiet (otherwise he will cut her with a knife). My friend went home .... and she did not say anything to anyone about that until she was 25 years old. She always had fear and shame, on top of that, she told me that her dad always put her self esteem down and perhaps that is why she did not told anyone about it.

Why didn’t she say anything?

My other friend was returning from a party, got into her building and just before opening the door of hes house a man grabs her by the neck and tells her to put her pants down and remain quiet. In the middle of the panic my friend begins to do exactly the opposite and screamed and pulled away and sought help. The guy ran away immediately. One of the first things she asked herself after the incident was "is it my fault?" ... ..

Why did she think it was her fault ? Another friend .... with tears on her eyes told me that her private teacher touched her inappropriately … at home! during her after-school classes. Moreover, three years ago, another friend of mine was raped while she was leaving a party in the country that I thought was the safest place in the world (Finland). She and her friend were attacked by two men, her friend escaped and tried to look for help, which she could not find on time.

Is this also common in other parts of the world?

This are five friends (six with me) that have been subjected to varying degrees of sexual assault and gender violence, which makes me wonder ....

... are we are the only ones? ... are we part of the exception or the rule?

The second thing I wonder is why I did not tell my mom/dad about my friend's cousin? Why did my friend did not denounce the man who took her to a dark place saying lies to her? why the teacher who abused my friend is not in jail? Why are dads/moms are the last to know?

This issue is eerily serious . As a society we are completely failing at various levels: starting from why children and teenagers do not “feel” like reporting or denouncing these type of events, to realizing that our governments do not have severe penalties for sex offenders. Why do we have to wait for the raping to occur in order to penalized and give a sentence to these sex offenders? Beside the obvious need for a restructuration of the legal system we also need a re-form of sex education (if any) at homes and schools. Sexual education goes beyond knowing the use of contraception, we have to teach children and teenagers :

- To be aware and denounce any type of sex abuse - To not feel ashamed or afraid - To help abused friends because if they are not helped they will have terrible sequelae in their future adult life. - To know that their families, school and community will support them and protect them.

As one of my friends said, perpetrators (sex offenders) will soon start looking for new things to satisfy their cravings, every time we let one go they will take a step further later. This has to stop and we all must be vigilant and alert so no one will have to go through such traumatic experiences. Experiences that then will affect their love life, their work, their professional decisions, their personality and ultimately their contribution to society.

I think about this problem and I wonder again … how many of my friends, relatives, colleagues, acquaintances have suffered similar experiences? Are they part of the exception or the rule? It's time we, as a global society, do something. Perhaps we can start by sharing our stories and raise awareness among young women, girls and men. Lets motivate them to denounce these facts and let them know that we should not be ashamed or afraid because they are not alone, we are there to support them.

Special thanks to Karina Huertas Castañeda for the drawing in this article

Girl Power
Gender-based Violence
Human Rights
Latin America and the Caribbean
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