Jhenny is 19 years old and has 2 major worries: violence against women and teenage pregnancies in her community. She wants to promote changes in her community because of what she has been through. Soon, she will go with friends to schools in her municipality to talk to the younger girls.
“When anyone talks about domestic violence, it gets me right here,” says Jhenny pointing at her chest.
“That happened to me,” she would say when she was in workshops about male violence against women. When Jhenny was in the workshops, she wondered just how she had put up with the violence she saw and was a victim of.
Jhenny is 19 and lives in a rural community in the department of La Paz, just 90 minutes from the city of El Alto. Where she lives the houses are scattered on a vast highland plain. The wind whistles through the grass and makes it difficult to hear the undercurrent of male violence silenced by force.
Nine of every 10 women in the department of La Paz suffered some sort of physical or psychological abuse when they were children. This is one of the highest rates in the country, second only to the department of Potosí. Insults, shoving, spitting and being hit with something are the most common forms of abuse.
Now Jhenny recognises that she grew up surrounded by violence and did not know how to deal with it. She is just about to turn 20 and it was only when she was 16 or 17 that she could start standing up to the sexism and violence in her home and community.
“I still have so much to learn but at least now I can say, ‘No more violence!’ I can take the (necessary) steps to report abuse, and perhaps help other people who are being abused,” says Jhenny.
Getting over her fear
Jhenny is a leader in her community and is known by many other adolescents and young people, especially those she meets at different Plan International Bolivia projects and programmes.
Jhenny encourages people her age to stop being frightened and start working on changing the mentality of their families and communities.
But it was not always like this. Jhenny remembers when she was terrified of public speaking. When she went to meetings or gatherings, she would sit alone in a corner saying to herself, “Don’t talk to me, don’t look at me.” Jhenny, as a young person, as a woman, was scared to talk in front of an audience.
According to the National Survey on the Prevalance and Characteristics of Violence against Women (2016), 83.9% of women in La Paz were laughed at or insulted when they were children.
Nationwide, these types of abuse are more common in rural areas. “What happens if I’m being abused and I keep quiet? No one will know to help me,” she wonders.
Not only is she no longer scared, she also knows that she can help women who are being abused by men. “I can speak out for them,” she stresses.
“Nothing – absolutely nothing – justifies violence”
“We are the voice of the people suffering abuse who can’t say anything,” Jhenny says, visibly excited. This young leader feels like, “She shines a spotlight on what abuse is because some people think it’s normal,” she says sadly.
In Bolivian rural areas, over half (53.7%) of women above the age of 15 justify male violence against women. The department of La Paz is home to the highest rates of people justifying and normalising abuse of women.
“You’re just like I was,” Jhenny tells victims of violence. “Nothing – absolutely nothing – justifies violence!” she emphasises.
Jhenny states that people need to question sexist and patriarchal values, and that they also need more and better information. “That’s why it’s important for everyone, especially women, to know what their rights are. I look back at how I was and I can see that I’ve really changed,” she notes.
“It makes me really sad to see people who’ve been abused for so many years. They’ve had to put up with it because they don’t know any better and they’re scared to go to the police as their abuser may retaliate.”
Impunity and the patriarchal pact
It is an open secret. In many communities in the highland communities of Bolivia, men’s violence against women is negotiated and hushed up.
In the department of La Paz, 6 of every 10 women have borne the marks of their abuse – bruising or swelling. Nationwide the figure is the same in rural areas. Despite the visible marks of abuse, the patriarchal pact ensures that the communities are accomplices by covering up or ignoring the abuse.
“Any abuse, especially in our communities, is hushed up,” says Jhenny. “Even the families involved cover up abuse. In the communities you see abuse dealt with by things being given as compensation.”
The patriarchal pact is an implicit agreement among men that includes ensuring women’s submission, validating men’s abuse of women and reducing the number of cases reported.
“Our neighbours know what’s happening and do nothing. That’s what’s worse. They just watch and do nothing,” protests Jhenny. But she also goes on to say that many people in the community choose not to get involved because they are frightened of reprisals.
On the one hand there are the patriarchal pacts of silence and cover-up, and on the other is the legal system’s impunity and corruption. In March 2022, the feminist collective Mujeres Creando identified at least 9 forms of abuse perpetrated by the criminal justice system against female victims of abuse.
Abusers set free or placed on house arrest, evidence tampering and breaches of duty are just a few. These forms of abuse were identified after hundreds of court and police files were analysed.
Work with youth
“I would love to get the chance to talk to someone official,” says Jhenny.
She says that it is essential to get officials to tackle issues such as abuse or the lack of sexual and reproductive education for young people.
Soon Jhenny and some of her friends will visit the schools in Pucarani to do workshops on these issues.
“We’re going to open up the debate in schools!” Jhenny says smiling, convinced that education is a way of preventing abuse.
She also thinks that it is important to work on comprehensive sex education. One of Jhenny’s main concerns is how many teenage pregnancies there are in her community.
According to the National Health Information System, Pucarani registered 56 pregnancies in women under the age of 19 in the first half of 2022. One teenager gets pregnant every 3 days.
Between January and September 2021, Bolivia registered 4 to 5 teenage pregnancies an hour. For the last few years, Bolivia has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancies in the region.
“So many girls are just finishing school and they’re pregnant. Or they get pregnant while they’re in school and drop out because they’re already in a relationship,” says Jhenny shaking her head.
Plan International’s ARRIBA project works on adolescents’, young women’s and pregnant women’s sexual and reproductive rights.
ARRIBA mainly works in rural areas of Bolivia and Jhenny was involved in the project.
“I feel like I’m a leader and that’s helped me a lot. I’m really grateful to the Plan International ARRIBA project. It has given us the chance to grow as women,” says Jhenny.