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Judgment Issued Against Bolivia for Sexual Violence Case at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights

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On January 19, 2023, more than 20 years since she was first raped by her adult cousin when she was 15, and 13  years since she first presented her case against Bolivia to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, with the judgment from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR), Brisa De Angulo finally has received a level of justice that could potentially prevent other girls and adolescents from suffering similar discrimination at the hands of the criminal justice system itself.

Improving access to justice for sexual violence requires perseverance 

It shouldn’t take so long for a survivor to be heard, but it often does (if they are heard at all). Brisa endured three trials in Bolivia without her aggressor being brought to justice, in which she was victim-blamed, discriminated against, and forced to relive her trauma over and over again. But she and her family persevered. When Equality Now joined her fight for justice in 2014, we knew it would take a long time – the wheels of international justice move slowly – but we also knew that the case was important, and that its impact would go far beyond Brisa and her family.

From the three awful trials in Bolivia, to filing her case with the Inter-American Commission in 2010, hearings with the Commission, numerous submissions on Bolivia by Equality Now and partners to regional and international bodies, to the case being referred to the Court in 202o, and Brisa and other witnesses and experts finally getting a chance to testify almost two years later in March 2022, it has been a long road. When the case reached the IACtHR, it had the support of legal experts from around the hemisphere. In addition to Brisa and Equality Now lawyer and Latin American Regional Representative, Barbara Jimenez-Santiago, co-litigants included Parker Palmer, Carmen Arispe of the Breeze of Hope Foundation, Jinky Irusta of the Oficina Jurídica para la Mujer, Beth Stephens of Rutgers University, Rosa Celorio, Shelby Quast, and Hughes Hubbard lawyers Elizabeth Solander, Diego Duran, Alyssa Johnson, Shayda Vance, and Alexander Bedrosyan. Experts from regional and international bodies testified during the hearing, and following the hearing, several organizations submitted amicus briefs on behalf of Brisa. Now, at last, there is clarity, and a way forward for real change in Bolivia and the region.

What Bolivia must do now 

What action did we demand from the Government of Bolivia to end sexual violence?

At the Inter-American Court hearing in March 2022, together with Brisa and the rest of her legal team, we asked the Court to demand that the government act to end sexual violence, including through:

Law and procedure reform

  • Eliminating the Statute of Limitations with respect to crimes of sexual assault against girls, boys, and adolescents.
  • Basing the definition of rape on free and voluntary consent (rather than on intimidation, physical violence, and psychological violence) and recognizing a broad range of coercive circumstances which would negate consent, such as where there has been an abuse of an individual’s position of authority (e.g. in a correctional facility or school setting) or abuse of power by an individual in certain professional relationships to the survivor (e.g. doctor-patient relationship), as well as intimidation, fraud or coercive control in a domestic relationship, where consent cannot be free and voluntary and where the victim is incapable of giving consent.  
  • Together with the comprehensive revision of the rape prohibition, eliminating the discriminatory crime of estupro.  
  • Ensuring incestuous sexual violence is identified as a crime in the legal code when perpetrated by an adult against a child under 18.
  • Amending the law to create incentives for an abbreviated criminal process in cases of sexual violence against minors and adolescents provided this does not result in disproportionately low sentences for the crimes and thus encourage effective impunity.

Operationalization of justice 

  • Implementing child-sensitive procedures including the establishment of special prosecutors of sexual violence against children; protocols to end re-victimization in the justice system and to implement correctly the sexual violence law; and mechanisms to ensure the efficiency of the trial and appeals. 
  • Creating effective arrest policies and procedures to apprehend perpetrators, thus avoiding the risk of perpetrators evading justice and/or fleeing the country.
  • Compiling and reporting reliable disaggregated statistics on: the prevalence of sexual violence against adolescents and its effects, from an intersectional perspective; whether the sexual violence was linked to other forms of violence against women and girls, including but not limited to femicide, disappearance, forced pregnancy and the like; on reports of sexual violence registered with the police, as well as rates of prosecutions, convictions, and penalties in such cases.

Development of up-to-date and high-quality professionals and services 

  • Training and accreditation of criminal justice actors in:
    • Comprehensive management of sexual violence crimes against children and adolescents
    • The international standards and best practices of forensic interviewing and forensic medical examination.
    • How to challenge stereotypes and change attitudes that perpetuate gender-based inequality and normalize violence against girls and women
  • Establishing specialized criminal justice protection systems for children and adolescents victims of sexual violence
  • Providing specialized support services to children and adolescents victims of sexual violence and their families (security, protection, therapy) even after trial. 
  • Making annual budget allocations sufficient to fund the necessary interventions to ensure that laws and policies are effective and reach the lives of the people they are intended to protect.  
  • Creating, with a high degree of transparency, a justice observatory or monitoring mechanism for cases of sexual violence against children and adolescents to ensure that the State is providing access to justice. 

Prevention 

  • Instituting mandatory training programs in educational centers and standardizing public education and awareness programs on sexual violence that cover:
    • children’s and adolescents´ rights
    • the dynamics of sexual violence
    • social norms that contribute to sexual predation
    • how to get help for suspected or confirmed sexual violence

What the Inter-American Court has ruled Bolivia must do

At Equality Now, we know that ending sexual violence requires better laws and better implementation, and that both of these must be approached in a way that accounts for survivors’ different intersecting identities. We were pleased to see that the Court’s decision is progressive and intersectional in its analysis, and orders Bolivia to make changes in both laws and implementation through three specific protocols. In addition to requiring a public acknowledgement that the State of Bolivia violated Brisa’s rights and subjected her to cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment from the judicial personnel, the Court has ordered the State of Bolivia to, among other measures:

Enact specific legal changes so that:

  • The Statute of Limitations for sexual violence crimes against girls, boys, and adolescents be eliminated. 
  • The Penal Code specifically acknowledge incestuous sexual violence  as a separate offense.
  • The crime of estupro, which the Court finds to be incompatible with the American Convention, instead of standing as a separate category of sexual offense against adolescents aged 14-18, be simply defined as rape.
  • Lack of consent becomes the central pillar and defining factor for sexual violence crimes. 

Improve implementation and prevention through new or adapted protocols and training, including:

  • A protocol for proper investigation and procedures during the criminal process for cases of child and adolescent victims of sexual violence, 
  • A protocol on a comprehensive approach and medical legal evaluation for cases of child and adolescent victims of sexual violence,
  • A protocol on comprehensive care for child and adolescent victims of sexual violence
  • Training for justice system personnel, including forensic medical examiners
  • An awareness-raising and sensitization campaign aimed at the general population of Bolivia in general, aimed at confronting the sociocultural patterns that normalize or trivialize incest and give tools to minors for identifying and reporting any sexual crime.

Why does this case matter? 

Strategic litigation: the far-reaching impact of a single case

Because cases at the Inter-American Court and other regional legal bodies are brought against governments rather than individuals, the rulings in these cases impact not just the individual survivor, but have application in the country as a whole. And because the rulings establish standards at a regional level, advocates in other countries in the jurisdiction can use the legal principles and arguments in the ruling to push their own governments to make needed changes in laws and practices.

Bolivia has the highest rates of sexual violence in Latin America, with 70% of women reporting that they have experienced physical or sexual abuse in their lifetime. And, as our Failure to Protect report shows, Bolivia is not alone in the Americas region in failing to adequately prevent or address sexual violence. Bárbara Jiménez-Santiago said “This is the first case in which the Court established measures for a country to implement and advance access to justice for girls and adolescents, and for children in general.”

In addition to drawing on jurisprudence in the Americas region, the sentence makes reference to past cases in Europe and Asia as well. Thanks to this international legal lens, we expect that advocates in other parts of the world will use the principles and arguments in this case to achieve similar needed changes. Equality Now’s Regional Representative for Eurasia, Tamar Dekanosidze, said “I’m excited for a very strong judgment and feminist analysis, which we can advocate with the European Court of Human Rights to adopt.”

Being heard can be healing

We know from seeing survivors testify in other cases, and in hearings before the Inter-American Commission, the experience of sharing their stories in a space where they are truly heard, and know that what they are sharing will have an impact, can be extremely powerful and empowering for survivors. Brisa has been a force for change for years already: she became a lawyer and started an organization to support child and adolescent survivors of sexual violence.

She says “I have dedicated my life to advocating for survivors of sexual violence and reforming the legal system so that it holds perpetrators accountable rather than revictimizing survivors.” Now that this ruling has been issued, she and activist survivors like her, as well as all their allies, have two powerful tools to aid them in their work: the legal impact of the ruling itself, and the strength and hope that come with knowing they have been truly heard.

Learn more about sexual violence in Bolivia and across the Americas in our report, Failure to Protect

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