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Stephanie – Ecuador

A survivor who has faced guilt, shame, and the possibility of being blamed and disbelieved is now legally barred from bringing a case against her abuser because of the statute of limitations. This story was shared as part of the launch of Failure to Protect: How Discriminatory Sexual Violence Laws and Practices are Hurting Women, Girls, and Adolescents in the Americas.

When I was little, I played a lot with my girl cousins, we were mischievous and full of energy. I started doing gymnastics when I was five.

The first incident happened when I was eight or nine, in the context of the coach recommending that I start attending every day. I was supposed to do a backward jump, and he touched my butt. At first, I thought it was just a mistake, but when I did the exercise again, it happened again. When I started going every day, the assaults became more frequent and more intense; it got as far as penetration with fingers. He manipulated me emotionally with a mix of mistreatment and rewards. One minute he would be shouting at us and insulting us and hitting us, and the next there would be special treatment as if to make up for it.

At that time, I didn’t know it was sexual violence, nor that it happened to other girls too; I only
realized later. One time my aunt mentioned that one of the other girls I trained with had told her that the coach had groped her, but my aunt thought the girl was lying. I realized then that I wasn’t alone, but also that I wasn’t going to be able to tell anyone, because they wouldn’t believe me, or they would blame me.

At age 22 I started to have a lot of emotional crises – depression, attacks of rage, etc., and I didn’t know what was happening to me, so I started going to therapy, and then later I started attending a support group for survivors. It’s a whole mix of emotions: sadness, denial as a survival mechanism, rage, fear, guilt, shame, and with time, acceptance.

In 2017 I met another survivor of the same perpetrator; both our cases were blocked by the statute of limitations. The statute of limitations was struck down later through public consultation, but not retroactively. Together we decided to start the We Will Be the Last Ones campaign (Seremos las Últimas) with the objective of finding other survivors. From there, of all the survivors we found, only one case is actually going through the criminal justice process. For the others, we are going to bring constitutional cases.

If I had had the opportunity to start a legal case, I would have. But the fact of not being able to has forced me to find a different way to pick up the pieces and start living again, which has been very healing for me. I’ve been able to let go of the idea that the criminal justice system holds the kind of justice I need for me. Nevertheless, it’s still essential to have a way to hold these perpetrators accountable and show the world that girls who go through what I did are the victims, not the guilty ones. For those who are able to bring a legal case, the criminal justice process plays an important part in their healing, and I want all survivors to have that option.

I think people blame victims because sexual violence is like a mirror to society. It’s better to think that a girl is lying because if not, that means acknowledging that someone in your circle is capable of something like that and can hurt someone else. Sexual violence implicates not only the perpetrator but the whole community. Everything has to change in order for it not to be that way.

>> Explore Failure to Protect: How Discriminatory Sexual Violence Laws and Practices are Hurting Women, Girls, and Adolescents in the Americas