Survivors is a new series focusing on people who have lived through extremely difficult circumstances and come out the other side stronger and more determined than ever to help bring about change. These people are an inspiration, and exemplify just how strong the human spirit can be.
Brisa de Angulo is the CEO and founder of Breeze of Hope, a Bolivia-based nonprofit that works with children who have experienced sexual violence and incest. The organization has provided legal services, social assistance, therapy, and other services to more than 1,500 children in Bolivia since its foundation in 2004.
Bolivia has the highest rate of gender violence in Latin America, Huffington Post reports — and according to government statistics, 87% of women experience sexual violence from a family member. De Angulo herself experienced this form of abuse by a relative when she was a teenager.
This is her story.
[When I was 15], a family member, who was also a youth pastor, came to live in my house and he started to sexually abuse me. Then he started raping me.
There was a lot of intimidation and threats to keep silent.
So, I continued to be silent for many months — for eight months — where he would repeatedly rape me almost daily, several times a day. He would threaten that if I didn’t allow him to rape me, he would rape my little siblings.
In that process, he also threatened that if someone found out what was happening, everything would collapse. [My parents] worked with children, human rights, women’s rights, and so he would use that as a threat, saying, ‘How would your parents feel that they’re trying to protect other people out there but in their own home I’m raping their own child?’
I knew that would have been devastating for my parents, and he used that to keep my silence.
I went into a very deep depression. I dropped out from school. I developed bulimia, and then I developed anorexia. I tried to commit suicide twice. My life was just going downhill. My parents had no idea what was happening, but it was devastating for them. They knew something was wrong, but they didn’t know what.
In one of those suicide attempts, they found out what was happening and that’s when we decided to take my case to the judicial system. That’s when the second wave of our victimization started because everyone wanted to silence me. My house was set on fire twice. It was stoned. I was nearly kidnapped and run over several times. There was a lot of intimidation from my extended family and the community, because I was one of the first adolescents to take my case for rape to trial.
[The prosecutor] threatened to put me in jail if I continued to talk about what happened to me. The judges did not want to take my case. It jumped from one court to another — and they ended up sending my case to the agriculture court, where they deal with cases of animals and plants. I wasn’t even considered a human being.
I had to take my case several times to the constitutional court and I had to go through three trials because of all the mistakes that they made in the process, and on the third trial my aggressor escaped. And so he is a fugitive of justice and he’s being searched for by Interpol.
But in that process, I realized that I wasn’t alone — that there were a lot of girls who were going through what I was going through. There were a lot of children who were silently suffering in their own homes, the majority by family members or someone they know, and with no place to go. I had the support of my mom and dad and brothers and sisters, but most of these girls didn’t have anyone. I didn’t want them to go through what I went through.
So, I decided that I would use the rest of my life to try to make the process a little bit easier and safer for children. At age 17, I started the only program for children who have been sexually abused in the entire country of Bolivia. That was in 2004, and so far we have been able to provide free legal, social, and psychological services to over 1,500 children.
When we started, the conviction rate for sexual crimes was 0.2%, and from the hundreds of cases that we’ve taken we have a 95% conviction rate. So it’s totally gone the other way. And in the last three years, we’ve had a 100% conviction rate in child rape cases.
We have lawyers take their cases all the way from the beginning to any appeals or anything that has to happen, and then we have a social worker that works with the families. We know that most of the children have a family that will intimidate them or try to keep them silent, so we work very hard with the social worker to make sure that the family has the knowledge and can provide the support that the [child] needs to continue the process of healing.
Then we also provide therapy, but our therapy process is very broad. We provide different types of therapy — art therapy, music therapy, yoga, meditation, play therapy, cognitive therapy — so that every child can find their own way of healing.
So it’s very child-centered. We’re a team dedicated to be there for the children and our advisory board is comprised only of children. They’re pretty much telling us what we’re doing right, what we’re doing wrong, what they want to change. It’s a center where it’s pretty much driven by survivors.
When I started speaking up, 14 or 15 years ago, I was the only one speaking and it was very lonely. It’s very exciting to see other women to gain the control and shatter the silence and the conspiracy of silence and say, “Hey, we are here and we matter and this is what happened to us.”
I feel that most sexual abuse has been thrown under the rug, so even though a lot of us know that it’s happening, it’s not visible. We need to continue uniting voices and show that this is a big problem and put the shame where it belongs, not on the victim, but on the aggressor.
This battle has been happening for a very long time, and the changes are positive, yet incremental. Today, there is much more awareness of and willingness to address these issues than when I first broke the silence. However, there is still a long way to go. And though governing a developing country with many political and economic challenges pulls state resources in myriad directions, I would like the governments to intensify their focus on these issues because doing so would, I think, bolster their efforts to strengthen entire nations.
Until we change [and start] seeing them as human beings and respecting them and acknowledging them as subjects of human rights, the world is not going to change. We may change some laws and we may change some things, but when push comes to shove we’re going to fall into our old habits.
For me, to see that because of my efforts a child can get justice is extremely healing. There is nothing more rewarding and exciting than to see one of these children, who have been so broken, to have dreams again and smile again. I always tell people that if someone offered me a $10 million job, there’s no way I would take it, or even consider it, because there’s nothing in this world that can provide me with the joy and satisfaction of children smiling again and dreaming again.
We’ve created a society of wounded healers where it is our wounds that heal each other.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.