“As individuals, it’s our duty to break the silence. Silence and inaction only help aggressors, never victims, whether of harassment or rape. Publicly denouncing aggressors is one of the most powerful ways to stop their activities. It takes their masks off and destroys their carefully constructed double lives. When we see someone suffering harassment, I believe it’s our duty as observers to intervene. Many a times, the person suffering harassment is psychologically and emotional broken, lacking the internal resources to seek help or try to change the situation. It’s our duty to help these persons.” –
– Brisa de Angulo, CEO & Founder, A Breeze of Hope
Brisa De Angulo is the CEO and founder of A Breeze of Hope Foundation, and a survivor of sexual violence. She is 2018 CNN Hero, 2018 BBC World Outlook Winner and 2018 Gratitude Awardee. Above all, she is a woman who chose to voice her agony and fight against all odds.
Brisa was two months old when her family returned to South America, first to Ecuador then to Bolivia. They eventually settled in Chilimarca, which was one of the most impoverished communities in Bolivia at the time. The water was polluted, food was scarce. Unemployment, alcoholism, violence and high rates of maternal, infant, and child mortality were predominant, and with no schools the place lacked education opportunities too. The children went to neighboring communities to attend classes where it was normal for teachers to beat them and severely punish them. When Brisa turned seven, she insisted to her parents that she needed to start a school. She knew it wasn’t a momentary feeling. The vehemence had gravity to it and a purpose behind it. It was a dream she was determined to make a reality. Using gathered scrap woods as tables and stones as chairs, Brisa started her first school in the backyard. Everyday, she would help kids with their homework and ensured an atmosphere free from violence. At the age of ten, Brisa began an after-school program for kids, where she gave them an opportunity to think freely, explore and dream of new realities.
In 1998, Brisa set on a new quest. She started creating a school curriculum for an alternative schooling program based on values of non-violence and respect. From university professors to technical colleges, Brisa went everywhere to strengthen her understanding of Childhood Development and Education. In 1999, the Bolivian government gave her an authorization to start a school offering alternative education, and Comunidad Educativa Para La Vida (CEV) held its first classroom session. But, what still stood as an impediment on her way was infrastructure. And then…
“A couple of weeks into classes, while I was teaching at the school, my dad called out, “Brisa… there’s a surprise outside.” When I went out, there was an old rusty blue truck with a wooden cargo bed. My dad climbed into the back with a certain twinkle in his eye. He smiled and started passing me little chairs. Twenty of them! Then he handed me 4 brand new tables. I was thrilled.”
It was all perfect as she had imagined, until he came. Brisa’s 26-year-old cousin arrived from Colombia to live with them. He took keen interest in her work and immediately got involved with CEV. “My parents, who oversaw the various projects in Bolivia, requested that he support me and accompany me in the different activities I was involved with at the school and in the community.” Soon, that gave him a chance to unroot her life. He isolated her, humiliated her, distanced her not just from her family, but also her dreams. He violated her physically, terrified her and then began to repeatedly rape her.
“He often threatened me, telling me that if he didn’t rape me he would rape my sisters. My desire to protect my sisters assured him that I would remain silent. I slipped into deep depression. I cried for hours every day and cried myself to sleep every night. He repeatedly raped me for eight horrible months until I went with my parents and sisters to the United States to visit my brothers.”
Brisa’s story swamped me with a zillion questions, the most pertinent of them being, Why do women who are sexually assaulted remain silent? What keeps them from confrontation? Is it shame, or stigma, or fear of not being believed? Is it the safety of their loved ones? Is it the lack of support from the judicial system? Is it the fear of being further harassed? What is it?
“Finally, away from him I was able to tell my parents about my agony. When we returned to Bolivia, I found no place to seek help or professional support. Everywhere I went I was blamed. No one took me seriously. The persecutor did not want to take my case and, even after agreeing to take my case, the prosecutor still intimidated me constantly. My case floated from one judge to another for three years. It was like they were playing hot potato with it. The ex-family from Colombia came to Bolivia to testify against me at trial. During this time, we also received threatening phone calls and letters, including death threats. Our house was stoned a few times and set on fire twice. People tried to kidnap me and run me over with their cars.”
All the way, the push to remain silent was strong, but neither Brisa nor her parents took a step back. They fought tirelessly till the end. The end that still remains open because her perpetrator fled from Bolivia and since then, has been declared fugitive.
Soon, a realization dawned on Brisa that she wasn’t alone, her experience had uncovered dark layers of sexual violence in Bolivia. The statistics were alarming, 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 5 boys suffered and continue to suffer some form of sexual violence before age 18, and that the overwhelming majority of victims (80% to 90%) are sexually assaulted by a family member or someone close and known to the victim. She vowed to dedicate her life to those suffering in silence, in pain and agony, in self-shame and societal stigma. This led to the creation of Centro Una Brisa de Esperanza (CUBE), the first and only center in Bolivia that specializes in the comprehensive assistance of child and adolescent victims of sexual violence.
With the success of CUBE and CEV, and a world-wide call to start similar projects and movements, Brisa and her husband Parker created an umbrella organization by the name A Breeze of Hope Foundation to direct their efforts to help children across the globe.
According to a 2017 report by CNN on Sexual harassment and how it stands around the globe, 35% of women globally have experienced physical or sexual violence, almost 750 million women and girls alive today are married before their 18th birthday, 120 million girls have experienced forced sex.
Currently in Bolivia alone, 1 in 3 girls suffer sexual violence before age 18. This statistic is based on the 2009 research conducted by A Breeze of Hope Foundation with nearly 4,000 students from Bolivia’s grade schools, and this statistics hasn’t changed over the years, especially because the anonymous questionnaires’ periodically administered in schools reflect the same statistics. When I asked Brisa, if sexual violence in Bolivia could be a result of poor Governmental policies, she said, “With regard to the magnitude of sexual violence, I think there are many factors that contribute to the phenomena of sexual violence against children. Government inaction is a factor, but only one among many. I think there are two primary drivers of sexual violence: (1) Androcentrism, a term that refers to male dominant culture–notions that masculinity means control, violence, and power–and the system of mechanisms used in society to enforce male dominance, and (2) Adultocentrism, a term that refers to adult dominant cultural tendencies, including the tendency to devalue children–especially girls–and ignore their voices. These factors, I think, are the primary causes.”
The problem is deeper than we can imagine and wider than our limited resources can counteract. We need more women to stand up and voice out, we need more men to engage in challenging the attitudes and behaviors that support violence against girls and women. As Brisa rightly puts across, we need a collective voice of many citizens to confront violence, we need society to display a profound willingness to unmask aggressors, seek justice, and take the side of the victims and we must show dramatic intolerance for male-dominant cultural norms and practices. So long as men enjoy social privilege and conditions of impunity for the crimes they commit against women and girls, there’s not much hope for progress.
(Exclusively shared with Real Life Heroes – By Manvi)