Content Warning: the following post contains extensive discussion of harassment and abuse, specifically sexual abuse.
A ten-year-old girl at Casita once told me that she wanted to get sterilized because even if she never had sex, someone could still grab her and rape her and then she would end up pregnant. She really wanted to study, she said, and getting pregnant would ruin that.
April is sexual assault awareness month, a time when we can talk about what no one likes to talk about, but happens every day. I sat down with Daysi, our Program Director who recently completed her master’s degree in Gender-Based Violence, to find out more about how sexual assault affects young people in Copán Ruinas.
1. So, what are the rates of sexual violence in Copán Ruinas?
The lack of statistics regarding sexual violence is one of the many issues we have in our country, and of course, in our small town. According to the Ministerio Público (Office of the Attorney General), in 2020 there was a total of 2,129 charges filed for sexual crimes in the country.
Honestly, I think this doesn’t even come close to our reality, in which most women don’t say anything, even to the people close to them, much less file a police report.
A few years ago, when I first came to Copán and had my private psychology practice, I noticed that 95% of the women that came to see me were survivors of sexual violence, so when I started teaching at the local university, my students and I did a survey about this very subject. The results were so shocking that we even did a public presentation at the park so people would acknowledge what was happening in Copan; the results showed that more that 90% of the women surveyed said they had suffered from sexual violence in their life.
Ever since, I have taken it as a personal mission to ask every woman I know about this subject, and it saddens me to report that every single one of them has answered that they have suffered from it… that we have suffered from it. So, in my personal and professional opinion, I would dare to say that almost 100% of the women in Copan Ruinas have gone through this awful situation.
2. Is there anything different about Copán Ruinas or Honduras that makes sexual assault so rampant?
Maybe? This is a very hard question, because to answer it, we would have to go back to the actual causes of sexual and gender-based violence, which are strict gender roles and the unequal distribution of power among men and women. And, can you actually name a place in the world where this is different or doesn’t exist? In my country and town, I can describe innumerable examples of these two causes, alongside some other factors that contribute to the problem, such as: poverty, corruption, impunity when it comes to justice, easy access to drugs and alcohol, international drug trafficking, intransigent religious beliefs, a basically nonexistent health system and a very poor education system, to name a few.
So, what might be different in Honduras or any other “third world” country, is that alongside the two main causes, we have no support system whatsoever, but instead, an incredibly long list of contributing factors.
3. Who is generally the perpetrator?
Someone close to the victim. Almost always. There are of course exceptions: random people on the street or at a party; but generally, it is someone the victim knows: a family member, a friend, a classmate, a workmate, or an acquaintance. In my experience, every testimony I’ve heard, the perpetrator was someone they knew: a dad, a granddad, a cousin, an uncle, a friend, a boyfriend, a boss, etc.
According to the Centro de Derechos de Mujeres (Women’s Right’s Center) in Honduras, the segment of the population that has the highest rate of sexual violence is ages 10-19 (55%), followed by ages 0-9 (12%). So, let’s think about it for a minute… who are the people around a 10-year-old that can harm them? The people that come to mind are generally the perpetrators.
4.What services exist for a victim if she/he is sexually assaulted in Copán Ruinas?
Very few, or none at all. Sexual violence is considered a health emergency, which means that the first thing the victim needs is medical assistance with vaccines, STD tests, PEP, pregnancy test (to find out if she was already pregnant), and medical treatment for any physical injuries the victim may have. Afterwards, the victim needs psychological help (if she/he wants it) and then later to file a police report (again, if she/he wants to do it).
Unfortunately, in our small town, most health-care workers and police officers are not trained to correctly treat a sexual violence victim, usually causing more harm than relief or support.
5. What do most victims do if they are sexually assaulted?
The statistics show that most victims freeze or don’t do anything, a survival instinct we may call it. If the victim were to fight or try to flight, then they could undergo more damage. But also, it’s important to note that many victims (more than we’d like to acknowledge) do not know that they have been violated.
There are many reasons for this, such as when the perpetrator does it with such “care” and in such a slow manner that the victim doesn’t really know what is happening at first (especially with the younger victims, where the violence is often disguised as games).
When it comes to teenagers or older victims, even if they know that what happened to them was wrong, they often still can’t recognize the real damage, because they blame themselves for it. It is very common to blame the victim when it comes to sexual violence: why was she dressed that way, why was she alone with the cousin/dad/grandpa at the house, why was she out drinking with her friend, etc.
6. Is there anything that can be done?
Of course! One of the first things to be done is talk. Talk about the un-talkable subjects, those hushed situations that everyone knows are happening, talk about all the “secret” and “prohibited” subjects.
Because when we don’t talk (especially to kids and teenagers) using the appropriate terms and scientific information, it doesn’t mean that they will stop asking or want to know anymore, it only means that they will go look for the information elsewhere (it’s known that many people have “learned” about “sexual education” through porn, for example).
And the other big thing we have to do is to not be afraid. We have to let go of our beliefs and prejudices, and that needs bravery. We have to know that the world has changed, and that that is actually a great thing! If we think otherwise, then maybe it means we’re so set up in our old ways, that we refuse anything new, anything different. Let’s not be afraid to learn, and to respect the new things, even if we don’t agree with them.
7. Tell me about the classes you’re teaching to the kids at Casita.
Since my goal is to work on sexual and gender-based violence prevention, I have decided to start teaching sexual Education classes, from the very basics where we learn the right names for genitals. I then plan to talk about other subjects such as machismo, gender roles, and feminism.
8. Are these classes for both girls and boys?
Yes, if we are to work on prevention of sexual violence, we have to teach both girls, boys and moms.
9. Most of the kids at Casita are still in primary school. Why are you teaching this now?
Because my goal is to prevent violence, and though at this young age there’s many kids who have already suffered from it, they have a right to know it wasn’t ok and that we have to fight so it doesn’t happen again. I know these subjects I talk to them about are considered in many ways not appropriate, but when I explained to the moms the reason why I was going to be talking about it to them, they not only understood, but gave me their support.
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