Tip of the Iceberg: Sexual Violence in Mexico

On November 4th, a young woman from Mexico named Renata Sandoval posted a disturbing story on Facebook.

She wrote about being drugged by a classmate from the Universidad Autónoma de Guadalajara (UAG) in a local bar. The story has gone viral and has helped other victims of sexual violence and assault to talk about their experiences. Here’s a translation of what Renata wrote:

“After a long time, I’ve finally decided to talk about a terrible experience I had. I’ve decided to speak to avoid things like this happening in the future, so we can be wary, and to remind us that nobody is exempt from experiences like this.

It was a Friday and me and some classmates decided to go to a bar and have some drinks. Just a regular casual night with my school friends.

The night started. Everything seemed normal. One of the girls (Mónica Coral Zamudio Astorga) wanted to take some pictures in the restroom mirror and asked us to go with her. No problem, we do this all the time. Aarón Fabián (potential rapist) and another male friend waited for us at our table. Aarón was one of the most benevolent guys I’d ever met. He wouldn’t hurt a fly. He was the best student of our medicine class. I never felt anything but trust towards him.

The thing is that Aarón had previously talked with Mónica and plotted to distract me so he could pour a drug in my drink. Meanwhile, in the restroom, we took some pictures, chatted for a while and went back.

Mónica insisted on putting a straw in my drink to ‘avoid confusion’. She knew about the drug and didn’t want to accidentally drink from my glass. Aarón started to act very weirdly, urging me to drink and putting my glass in my face.

Within minutes I started to feel extremely hot like never before. My hair felt like fire when it touched my back. I wanted to tear my clothes off. My mind was so numb I could barely tie my hair to ease the heat. I was in despair, so I asked my guardian angel Carolina to call an Uber and escort me home.

As Carolina told the rest of the group we were leaving, Aarón immediately insisted on taking me home but Carolina told him the Uber was on its way. As soon as I stepped out of the bar I was so disoriented. I could barely stand and I wanted to puke.

When the Uber arrived, Aarón stepped into the vehicle insisting he wanted to make sure I would be ok. During the trip, Aarón tried to get close to me and asked Carolina to go to his home instead, as it was closer, but she told him that my parents would be waiting for me. And as we got to my home, he insisted on carry me upstairs to my room, but Carolina dismissed him, took my shoes off and led me to my room.

We thought it was someone working on the bar who had put something my drink, as we never thought one of our classmates would do that to any of us.

Some days later, a friend called me. He said he wanted to tell me something, and that he just found out something very important. He told me about how Aarón and Mónica had plotted to drug me so he could rape me.

I was shocked. It was impossible. Aarón – who I considered my friend – wanted to rape me. I asked my friend to call Aarón and trick him into talking about his plans again so I could hear it. He didn’t sound regretful at all. I also asked my friend to call Mónica and she confessed her part without knowing I was listening.

I was baffled. Disappointed. How on earth could my own friends would do something like that? What would have happened if I was allergic to the drug? What if he overdosed me? What would have happened if Carolina hadn’t been there to help me?

When I finally gathered strength to confront Aarón, he was so casual about it. “It was just a little push, Renata.” He made it clear that he thought there was something between us and the only thing missing was a little spark to light up “our thing”.

Fortunately, I’m safe. He couldn’t abuse me. But things like this happen everyday, and sadly not every victim is as lucky as I am. We always think a rapist is some random dude in a dark alley, not a close person, not a friend.

Lastly, think about this: Aarón will be a doctor someday. What if you take your daughter for a checkup with him? What if someday he is a powerful man? He now walks free, as if nothing happened. #MeToo”

One Twitter user, who has been following the story since the beginning, has been urging other victims to tell their stories and to demand answers. By now, several national media outlets have already covered Renata’s story and tried to contact a representative of the university, but they have remained adamantly silent about it.

All sort of stories have emerged. Teachers blackmailing their female students, systemic harassment towards openly gay students, silencing ‘progressive’ conferences and topics, constant misogynistic ‘hall chat’ with no consequences, and discrimination and silencing of non-catholic students, just to name a few.

It’s been almost a month now, and the university has not only gone completely silent regarding any of the accusations, but they have also locked their social media accounts and blocked anyone who mentions the topic on those platforms.

Students have tried asking for answers personally, but the UAG’s stance has been to protect Aarón – he is one of their most brilliant students. As time passes, up to 150 accusations from different women have been gathered.

Some people have pointed out that misogyny has been present in the UAG since its foundation. This school was founded by Antonio Leaño Alvarez del Castillo in 1935, as the result of religious and political differences within the government’s stance to make all public education socialist and non-religious.

As a renowned ultra-catholic businessman, Álvarez was a prominent figure in Mexico’s politics. It was during Vicente Fox’s presidency when Álvarez’s power and influence skyrocketed. Vicente Fox was a member of Partido Acción Nacional, a right-wing party in Mexico, and during Fox’s presidency Álvarez funded the rebirth of El Yunque (The Anvil) – an extreme right-wing  group that praises Nazi and Cristero ideologies alike.

In 2016, a new branch of El Yunque called National Front for the Family was created to lobby, rally and vote against policies like abortion, reproductive rights, same sex marriage and sexual education in public elementary schools. I believe this is extremely relevant to Renata’s story, as UAG directives share the same repressive ideology as these groups.

Take a look at these examples from the UAG Internal Conduct Code:

  • The use of provocative clothing (transparent or worn-out garments, short skirts or visible or absent underwear) is strictly forbidden, as it goes against moral and good customs and may provoke other students.
  • Male students are forbidden from wearing earrings and/or any effeminate garment, as it goes against the ideal realization of manliness (Article 14 – Appendix 1)

Renata’s story is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to sexual violence in Mexico.

The fact that the UAG has opted to remain silent while they wait for people to forget about this issue makes it clear that they aren’t willing to act against the aggressors.

In a country like Mexico, where more than two women are murdered daily, remaining passive against sexual violence can only mean complicity at best. Women are killed and raped because there are no consequences, and because men can get away with actions like Aarón’s – safe in the knowledge that institutions care more about their grades than their abhorrent behavior.

To learn more, you can check out this Change.org petition and #AbusoEnLaUAG.

Health Care Workers Matter for Gender Based Violence

It was 10:30 pm on a Monday night.

After a long day at work, I was preparing to go to bed. I usually read before I go to sleep and I’d been trying to finish one book for ages but other things kept coming up. I hoped and prayed tonight would be the night, but the universe had other plans – as always.

My cell phone beeped: “Doctor, it’s an emergency.’’ 

I flung myself out of the bed and tried to reach the hospital as quickly as I could. The patient was a married 27-year-old woman who had sustained major injuries after accidentally burning herself while cooking.

“60 percentage burn,” I deduced, after taking the patient’s history and a physical assessment. But somewhere inside, I knew this wasn’t an accident and I felt sure there was more to the story.

I started with the patient’s family members. Unsurprisingly, upon enquiry they maintained their stance and kept trying to convince me that their daughter-in-law burned herself while preparing the meal for the family. I decided to talk in confidence with the victim, but she was hesitant to break her silence too.

One day, over the course of providing her with routine care, the woman broke down into tears and alleged that her in-laws had set her on fire for dowry.

In a country like Nepal, speaking out about gender-based violence (GBV) is exceptionally difficult because of the shame, stigma and pressure from families and communities preventing victims from reporting abuse and seeking appropriate services.

Victims are often afraid of disclosing or reporting violence because of the consequences they fear will follow.

In turn, silence can aggravate the situation for survivors, leaving them with prolonged mental and physical suffering.

Nepal has a very high incidence of gender-based violence. And while everyone – regardless of gender – can be affected, women remain the main victims. It is difficult to understand the gravity of GBV in Nepal as many of these cases go unreported due to the silence maintained by victims and perpetrators.

GBV remains one of the most rigorous challenges to women’s health and well-being. It can take many different forms, like physical, sexual, emotional or psychological. The causes of gender based violence are multi-dimensional, and include social, political, economic, cultural and religious factors.

Dealing with survivors of GBV can be a very challenging and sensitive task; starting from acknowledging and identifying the violence to asking relevant questions, without being too intrusive or judgmental at all.

Like me, a wide range of health professionals are likely to come into contact with individuals who have experienced GBV. Health workers are in a unique position to help and heal the survivors of GBV, provided they have the knowledge to recognize the signs. Most of the time, health professionals are likely to be the first point of contact for GBV victims.

But are we, as health workers, equipped with the necessary skills to deal with GBV?

While staff and facilities play a key role in health delivery systems for GBV victims, their efforts will have limited impact unless there are specific policies on the issue of GBV to guide the integration of the response to GBV into health care.

One important approach is to specify the role of health care professionals, and to provide guidance and tools. For instance, the World Health Organization has developed guidelines for in-service training of health care providers on intimate partner and sexual violence against women, specifically. The guidelines are based on systematic reviews of evidence, and cover:

• identification and clinical care for intimate partner violence
• clinical care for sexual assault
• training relating to intimate partner violence and sexual assault against women
• policy and programmatic approaches to delivering services
• mandatory reporting of intimate partner violence

The guidelines aim to raise awareness of violence against women among health-care providers and policy-makers, so that they better understand the need for an appropriate health-sector response. They provide standards that can form the basis for national guidelines, and for integrating these issues into health-care provider education.

Sensitizing staff and building their skills on how to recognize and respond to GBV is crucial. Ensuring that services follow human rights-based and gender specific approaches, and are guided at all times by the preferences, rights and dignity of the victim, is important.

Providing adequate infrastructure to ensure the patient’s privacy, safety and confidentiality is also essential. This can be done by providing a private room for consultations, requiring that consultations are held without presence of a partner, putting in place a system for keeping records confidential or giving instructions to staff on explaining legal limits of confidentiality, if any.

Not only are health workers the ones to fix a fracture or heal a burn injury, they can also play the role of advocate by speaking up against injustice in the course of providing routine care.

Health professionals can also assist victims by making them aware of the counselling and legal services available, which is often a part of the recovery process. Gaining the trust of victims is important in this scenario. Community health care workers and midwives, who are often the most trusted members of societies, can use their power to reach women and vulnerable groups to encourage them to break their silence, and to make informed decisions about their bodies and lives.

The role of health professionals goes beyond simply treating and healing a survivor of gender bases violence – we can empower them, too.

To Prevent Abuse, Young People Must Know their Rights

Content note – this post refers to sexual violence and suicide.

Recently, a Twitter user named @twadi_doll shared her story fearlessly and curtly online – giving many people a reality check and leaving them feeling shaken.

Twadi narrated in her thread that at 13 years – orphaned and young – she found herself living with a pastor and his wife.

A respected…no, scratch that…a revered member of society, the man of God raped Twadi her on a regular basis. On other occasions, he would call his friends and they took turns exploiting her body. As if that wasn’t enough, the pastor would ask her constantly to seek forgiveness from God, for making him commit a sin.  

Since she had nowhere to go and was being blackmailed by the pastor for receiving food and shelter from him for 3 years, Twadi couldn’t escape the reach of the preacher’s hand. Even when she spoke out in church, she was called a liar and a demon who had been sent to tempt and disorganise the pastor in his job of shepherding the Lord’s people.

As a result of the continued sexual abuse, Twadi became pregnant and 6 months later, her teachers learnt of her story and offered her immediate support. They opened a case against the pastor, who in shame committed suicide. An abortion was arranged for Twadi and painful as it was, she took the option because she had long decided that either the baby dies or she commits suicide herself.

Twadi’s story calls upon us all to play our part in improving SRHR information and service access to young people.

This lack of access spirals into multiple other challenges, and sadly, it is the young person who suffers. Their untapped potential is heavily undermined.

For starters, we should always be able to come out and condemn what is wrong, no matter the position or reputation of the person in question. The pastor’s wife, years later after her husband’s death, wrote Twadi a letter saying she knew about the abuse the whole time, but found it better than her man going out to cheat. In Twadi’s own words, “she used me as a glue to hold her marriage together.” The pastor’s wife betrayed and failed Twadi, and her suffering falls as equally on her shoulders as it does on the pastor’s.

We need to pay special attention to young people’s voices on their reproductive health concerns with as open a mind as possible.

Sometimes we can’t understand young people by assuming we know who they are and what they want, especially if we aren’t young people ourselves. The pastor’s congregation was way off course in this case, defending the pastor simply because of his position and ignoring the truth Twadi was telling.

If even one of them had taken time to hear her out, it could have changed her fortune. We should seek virtual spaces where young people are free to talk about their challenges with no fear of judgement, and where they are sure they will be believed and helped.

It is critical that we provide young people with information on their rights so that they can know when to say no, how to say it and how to defend themselves against manipulation and abuse.

The more we starve young people of such information, the more we make them vulnerable to attacks and abuse and the multiple challenges that ripple from those.

Finally, we need to work with stakeholders who can put policies in place to ease the combatting of these challenges. In Uganda, for example, we have been advocating for an operational School Health Policy where we can provide sexual and reproductive health and rights information to young people that fits the context we live in.

Such a document is key, because then we can arm young people with knowledge, and we will have the backing of the law. It is something that policy makers and governments should consider, lest we see more young people come out with stories similar to Twadi’s.

This selfless story should be an eye opener.

Many young people are undergoing such horrific challenges, and the veils of religion and culture, which otherwise should be guiding us to a sane and loving society, are being used as defences and barriers against SRHR access. Such incidents are indeed present in our society and the best we can do is speak out against them, bring the perpetrators to justice and provide young people with information and services so that they can make informed decisions and protect themselves.

PS: Twadi has moved on and is strong now. However, is that what we want, for all young people to become strong like her and move on? Or is it better to stamp abuse out once and for all? Something must change in our communities, right here and right now.

The Shocking Case of Imelda Cortez: #EyesOnElSalvador

Content note – this post refers to sexual violence.

You might not have heard the name Imelda Cortez. In fact, you probably haven’t. But Imelda, a 20-year-old young woman from El Salvador, is currently facing the nightmare of her life.

From the ages of 12 through 18, she was repeatedly raped by her now 70 year-old-stepfather. These continuous, atrocious acts of sexual violence resulted in an unwanted pregnancy. In June last year – unaware that she was pregnant –  Imelda found herself experiencing unusual and severe abdominal pain. Her mother found her unconscious in their family home and and brought her to the nearest hospital.

After examining Imelda, doctors ruled the incident as an abortion. Even though a newborn baby was soon found alive and healthy in her home, Imelda was charged with aggravated homicide. You are probably asking yourself, how could that possibly have happened?

El Salvador has some of the strictest and most radical abortion legislations in the world.

It is one of only 26 countries in the world where abortion is banned entirely. It is also the only country known to prosecute and imprison women on a regular basis for for a ‘crime’ of this nature. The country has no exceptions to abortions, whether the pregnancy is the result of an act of rape, if the foetus suffers a deformity, or even when the mother’s life at risk from the pregnancy. There is also no differentiation made between obstetric emergency and illegal abortion.

In contrast to this legislation, the health ministry states there were 19,290 illegal abortions between 2005 and 2008 in the El Salvador. Statistics from the government show that three out of every eight maternal deaths in the country are a result of suicide among pregnant girls under the age of nineteen.

This is not the first time something like this has reached the public eye. In 2012, Maria Teresa Rivera, now assailed in Sweden, was accused of aggravated homicide following a miscarriage, making her the first abortion refugee in the world.

Several global organizations – and advocates and campaigners across Latin America and the rest of the world – are speaking up and demanding justice for Imelda. But as far as I can see, Imelda’s Cortez’s case isn’t receiving anywhere close to the the global media attention it deserves and needs.

We need to raise our voices and stand up for Imelda, and we need to do it now.

What’s happening to Imelda and other women in El Salvador is representative of a misogynist justice system, a poor health care system, unfair social representation, and regulations that are not only unreasonable but cruel, too.

On 12 November, Imelda will face a hearing. There’s a chance she could be sent to prison. El Salvador needs to know that the world is watching. Every single person’s voice counts – we simply can’t stand by and watch as women who have suffered from sexual violence or obstetric emergency are criminalized in this way.

We can all help to determine how this story ends.

There are many things you can do: speak out about Imelda’s case, talk about it – ask the men and women in your lives if they’ve heard about what’s happening in El Salvador. Raise your voice on social media with the hashtags #EyesOnElSalvador, #SalvemosAImelda, and #BelieveWomen. Send tweets to El Salvador’s attorney general, Douglas Meléndez Ruíz, using @DouglasM_R and @FGR_SVSign the online petition. Whatever you do, don’t stay silent.

Imelda is each and every women who has ever been victimized, judged or prosecuted for a maternity related matter.

The world is watching. We need all eyes on El Salvador.