Few things in Paraguay confer status like a membership card to "El Centenario," a sprawling country club located in the heart of one of the most traditional neighborhoods of Asunción. In a city where the average daily income is $18, membership to the club costs upwards of $35,000 plus monthly dues, effectively ensuring only the wealthiest families can afford to belong to the elite institution.
But rape knows no class. Within the club's fenced walls, despite the watchful eyes of 36 security cameras, and near one of the 10 manicured tennis courts, a 15-year-old girl attending a birthday party, was drugged and raped earlier this month by her also 15-year-old classmate. According to news reports, other boys recorded the incident and threatened to post a video of it online if she told anyone about what had happened. The boy has been arraigned, and the DA has reserved the right to press charges against the other boys, noting that they are yet to be identified.
While parents are left wondering how something like this could happen in the country's "chuchiest" (classiest) club, popular feelings seem to range from disbelief to fear to outrage that the accused boys, because of their social class, will face no consequences. Anger about class differences abounds, with many wondering why laws protect the identity of minors who commit serious crimes. Others rail against the fact that the accused boy is currently serving house arrest, and wonder why he isn't being taken to the Minors Correctional Facility like any other kid of lesser means would be. Yet others question whether this - like many other cases where upper class families are involved - will end "en el opare'i" (without resolution). "The families will work something out between them," they say. "If the people involved were poor, their and their families' names would be known right away (the worst form of punishment in socially-conscious Paraguay) and the accused would be in jail by now."
Not dismissing the obvious chasm that exists between the rich and the poor here, I am deeply saddened by the fact that a young girl has likely had her life destroyed, and that most people seem to be focusing on class differences instead of searching to address the deeper questions: Why does a 15-year-old boy feel it's OK to drug and rape a girl? Why did his classmates film the incident instead of stopping him? To which extent is punishment the answer, instead of rehabilitation? Is rehabilitation even possible? Had this happened to a poor girl, would the nation be discussing the incident as we seem to be doing right now? Can social class and gender privilege be extricated from each other?
What's clear is that Paraguayans are tired of rampant injustice and the unequal treatment (for the better) of accused criminals who are wealthy. What's also clear is that as of 2008 (couldn't find a more recent report), Paraguayan women between the ages of 15 and 44 suffer verbal violence at a rate of more than one in three, physical violence at a rate of almost 20%, and sexual violence at a rate of 7,6%. Further, in 2002, the Women's UN Report Network reported that, "50 per cent of the cases of violence against girls also include sexual violence. In more than a third of cases the abuser is known to the victim."
While I don't have specific answers or immediate solutions to this overwhelming problem, a comprehensive plan must be put in place - and soon! - if we want to ensure the safety and wellbeing of girls and women here. First, laws must be changed, and infrastructure and education improved dramatically, especially in the areas of sexual and domestic violence. Second, sex, relationships, and the difference between good and bad ones need to be discussed openly both in school and within the family. Third, health services - including reproductive health and mental health - ought to be readily available to everyone regardless of ability to pay, perhaps even more so here where these health issues are still quite taboo. Finally, and perhaps more importantly, boys and men need to be involved as part of the solution and be taught to respect women and girls, to understand boundaries, and to grasp - once and for all - that No really means No and that silence does *not* mean Yes.
Take action! This post was submitted in response to Ending Gender-Based Violence 2012.