Vow Of Silence: How Do Hundreds Of Rapes Just "Come To Light?"S

As many as 300 women have been raped in an isolated Mennonite community. How did this happen?

There are a number of Mennonite settlements in eastern Bolivia, most of which were founded in the mid-20th century and have become thriving farming communities. In the religious colonies, traditional Plattdeutsch is spoken and the 2,000 or so Mennonites hold largely to the way of life and teachings of the sect's 16th-century Dutch Protestant founders. They are insular and handle most legal matters themselves - and it takes something really big to force them to sacrifice their much-valued privacy.

This is big. As a terrific Guardian profile details, it's come out that in the past few years as many as 300 women and girls have been raped - from children as young as five to elderly women. Details are still emerging, as it's believed that many of the women were drugged before raping and don't remember much - or only know that they woke up with their nightclothes disarranged and felt pain for days afterwards. Some women were aware of the attacks, but were too ashamed to bring the cases to light. It's thought that eight men from the community are responsible - perhaps even working in a semi-organized "ring" - although there may be more. And elders have reason to believe the rapists also attacked women in other, more conservative communities, in which victims are refusing to come forward.

The close-knit community is devastated - although one elder's remarks are chillingly revealing.
"I thought I knew them quite well, but I remember they were not hard workers...There was always talk about those things happening here; there was a woman who said so, but no one believed her." Indeed, the men were apprehended not based on any woman's accusations but because elders became suspicious when some of the men were late to the fields - an indication of moral sloth. When the scope of the problem became clear, they decided to hand the men over to Bolivian authorities. Says one elder, "This was way too big to deal with...That is why we handed these people to the Bolivian authorities. We don't want them back."

Numerous victims suffered injuries and have been examined by forensic specialists. But there are other consequences: One woman, raped while pregnant by her brother, as a result went into premature labor and the baby's health and survival are in question. And then there's the stigma: as might be expected in such a conservative society, virginity is highly valued in a wife. At least parents seem to be taking a fairly humane view. Says one father, "I hope that when they turn 18 or 20, they will get married, because it was not their fault...I hope they won't have problems in finding a husband. But I don't know."

Now the community is gripped by fear, with some families sleeping in their basements and padlocking their doors, and some husbands and fathers even questioning their commitment to non-violence. However, what struck me is that this isn't new - it's just been acknowledged. If anything, surely women are far safer now that the issue is in the open and men stand ready to protect them. It was the silence that compounded the threat. While it would be reductionist to suggest that rape is a natural consequence of this way of life - not to mention a grave insult to the many Mennonite men who'd never do such a thing - it can't be denied that in some cases there seems to be a connection between the isolation of such communities, and the shame associated with it, that, if it doesn't encourage rape, at least fosters a culture of silence that allows it to happen. The words of one of the rapists are especially terrifying: "I raped about 23 women . . . I cannot say why, but after the first time it became a habit and I used to do it twice a week."

Of course, there are sick people in every group - and the lurid shock of such stories in communities dedicated to God and simplicity always makes them more striking - but any culture that places the onus on the woman, and shames her for a lack of purity, allows a rapist to take advantage of the dynamic. In short, were this truly not tolerated, were it not ignored, it could not have happened on such a shocking scale. Periodically, there have been stories from the Amish community of systemic rapes - frequently within families. Often these lead to revelations of more abuse. Are these people more prone to rape? Surely not - but the cultures foster concealment, shame, and, it would seem, a lot of confusion about sexuality.

If there is anything encouraging about this horrible story, it's the readiness with which the community took the crimes to the police; the open discussion of the crimes - as well as things like forensic exams, surely difficult for very sheltered women - and the lack of apparent victim-shaming. One hopes it will also foster an atmosphere of intolerance for sex crimes. As one man - whose mother, wife, sister, cousins, aunt and pregnant sister-in-law have all been raped - says, "This has changed us. This has changed us for ever." The question is - how?

'The Work Of The Devil': Crime In A Remote Religious Community [Guardian]
Sexual Abuse In The Amish Community [ABC]
Rape Rampant In Amish Communites [Crime Library]