Content note: this post contains reference to sexual abuse and violence
“I was raped and tortured repeatedly as a child. When I broke the silence, no one wanted to help me, not the judiciary and not the police. No one wanted to take my case, so I went to law school and today I am suing the government of Bolivia. Today, I also run an organisation which helps other girls where we now have a conviction rate of 95 percent in the cases we prosecute. Researchers need to speak to victims, because no one understands what it is like and no one understands how it hurts when someone touches you.” – Brisa De Angulo
There was great power in the soft yet triumphant voice which filled the room during the opening ceremony of the fifth Sexual Violence Research Initiative (SVRI) forum (18-22 September 2017). The tweet I was putting together felt irrelevant. I put my phone down as I listened with a knot in my stomach. I felt pain hearing the words but also a sense of awe and inspiration as the thirty-two year old woman in front of me told her story, which is truly one of victory.
Before SVRI, I must admit I had never heard this story, nor had I even come close to understanding the dark world so many young women and girls in Bolivia face. Brisa captured the audience with a tale I will never forget: the reality of a young girl repeatedly raped and tortured by a family member – a youth pastor who lived with her family – when she was just fourteen years old.
Brisa eventually broke her silence when she turned seventeen. She simultaneously started a centre for young girls in similar situations and courageously disrupted Bolivian legislation. Today, Brisa stands before us to let us in on her most vulnerable and tumultuous experiences. To tell us about the discrimination she faced, the lack of support from institutions meant to protect citizens, the way her case was referred to an agricultural and livestock court (which deals with animals), how her community burnt her house down to silence her.
But also to tell us how she used these experiences to change laws, to take her case to the supreme court of law, to sue the Government of Bolivia in the Inter-American System. To tell us how she has transformed and continues to transform the lives of so many other survivors.
When I went to bed that night, I could not fall asleep thinking of Brisa’s story. I reached for the conference app (yes, thank goodness for technology) and requested a meeting, to which she agreed enthusiastically. I could not believe it. I knew that this story absolutely had to be told and shared with the world to bring to light exactly what violence against women means, but also as an example of what it will take to tackle violence head on.
Sitting across from Brisa, I could not help but admire her humility, her honesty but most of all her quiet yet powerful strength. Below are excerpts of my conversation with a true activist and change-maker:
“Sometimes I find it difficult to speak about this, other times not so much. My parents took me to the United States to visit my brothers. They could see that something was wrong, but they didn’t know what. I eventually told them what had happened. They didn’t want to go back to Bolivia, but I knew that if we didn’t go back it would mean that the perpetrator wins. It was difficult, I stopped eating, I didn’t go to school, and I tried to commit suicide.
When we went back to Bolivia we had to stay in a hotel. The perpetrator continued to stay in our house. The first prosecutor I went to see was a female and she interrogated me for six hours, she asked me questions, even blamed me. I faced a lot of discrimination that continues till today, I am often seen as less because of my experiences. But my greatest source of strength is my parents. They have always supported me. I started legal proceedings, but even that was difficult. The perpetrator is now a fugitive but is still a pastor, and I wonder how many other girls he is doing this to.
I started an organisation in Cochabamba where other girls with similar experiences could come and find support. Today it is still running and makes a huge difference but funding is a problem. At the end of this year we may lose fifty percent of our funding.
Today I am a lawyer, we ensure prosecutions for over 95 percent of cases, but I still have a huge long-term aspiration: I want to eradicate sexual violence completely. The first step is for each of us to break the silence. But another issue is that we have all this data and research—I was also a researcher, so I know all the data—but I keep asking how will this data translate into impact and change the situation?”
Brisa raises critical questions many of us in the field of sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR) need to consider, but I believe her activism offers several important lessons, especially one of the transformation from victim to survivor to leader.
Learn more about Brisa’s story and her work: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mJdwxgDeay8Shakira ChoonaraDr Shakira Choonara is considered to be a young leader, researcher and activist at the forefront of public health and development both in South Africa (SA) and globally. Dr Choonara is currently employed as a regional advocacy officer at the Southern African AIDS Trust where she is responsible for driving innovative youth activism programmes in sexual and reproductive health throughout Africa countries. She recently completed her PhD in Public Health focussing on financial management in the health sector and also holds an Honours (Cum Laude) and a Masters in Demography from the University of the Witwatersrand, SA. She has also contributed substantially to multi-country research through the Resilient and Responsive Health System (RESYST) project which aims to improve healthcare across various African and Asian countries. Dr Choonara’s writings and involvement in other research such as Universal Health Coverage (UHC- Health for All), fostering leadership in the health system and malaria prevention has been widely published, engaged with internationally and feeds into improving the health system in SA and other low-and-middle income settings. Additionally, she has been the recipient of several prestigious research and leadership awards throughout her career. She was recently named 2017 Woman of the Year in Healthcare by the Woman of Stature network, SA. Received the Public Health Association of South Africa’s Emerging Practitioner Award and the National Research Foundation (SA) Next Generation Female Researcher Award in 2017. Internationally, she was selected as the European Union (EU) Development Days Young Leader for Health in 2015 and an Emerging Voice for Global Health in 2014. Dr Choonara has made a marked impact on social justice, particularly fighting corruption in Africa, advocating for the rights of persons with disabilities and non-racism.
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