LA PAZ, BOLIVIA – A three-year legal battle finally ended on Friday when a man was convicted and sentenced to fifteen years in prison for sexually assaulting his stepdaughter. The IJM lawyers who fought relentlessly on behalf of their client Rosmery* celebrated the just ruling because of what it means for her.
"Rosmery knows that her strength is what defines her story—not what happened to her in the past. The conviction in court brings justice and closure to Rosmery," said IJM social worker Jeshika.
Suffering in Silence
Rosmery's stepfather—the man she had grown up calling father—started abusing her when she turned 13. The violent attacks continued for years. Rosmery would later tell how her stepfather made threats to keep her quiet, and how he forced her to undergo an abortion when she became pregnant from the abuse.
After years of suffering in silence, Rosmery became dangerously depressed. As her mother pressed to find out what was going on inside of Rosmery, the truth spilled out. Her mother was devastated but took action immediately – a brave step in a culture where there are strong cultural pressures not to report abuse.
On their own, Rosmery and her mother faced a steep battle for justice. The justice system is broken and so slow-moving that a man who sexually assaults a child in Bolivia is more likely to die slipping in the shower than to go to jail for the crime.
A Slow Struggle for Justice
A public prosecutor called IJM in 2010 to see if they could provide much-needed support. Rosmery's impoverished family simply could not afford to hire private counsel that could champion her case in the over-crowded, broken system.
"Rosmery knows that her strength is what defines her story—not what happened to her in the past. The conviction in court brings justice and closure to Rosmery."
--IJM Bolivia Social Worker
IJM's team of lawyers reviewed the case and gathered more evidence to strengthen it. Social workers started meeting with Rosmery and her mother.
Even with dedicated lawyers, the trial progressed slowly. It is not uncommon for trials to last several years in Bolivia, and the reasons are many. "Citizen judges" (similar to jurors in the U.S. system) often don't show up to court—there is little infrastructure to alert citizens of this duty in the first place, and there are no legal consequences if one misses a court date. Defense counsel or witnesses can skip hearings without giving notice. Judges are often transferred mid-trial. All of this amounts to perpetually delayed hearings and a slow struggle for justice.
Finally, after more than three years, the court issued its judgment on January 10, 2014: The man was convicted for child sexual abuse and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Rosmery's mother lives a couple hours outside the city, and due to the rainy season, the roads were not safe enough to travel on the day the verdict was announced. When IJM's lawyer called her to tell her about the conviction, Rosmery's mother was elated and said she wanted to come to the office to personally thank everyone who had helped her daughter over the years.
Making Her Dream a Reality
While her IJM lawyers were preparing for every re-scheduled hearing over the course of three years, Rosmery made strides in her aftercare journey. At first she was reserved and quiet, according to her IJM social workers. But after many months of therapy, one social worker says that "Rosmery has grown into a hopeful and mature young woman."
Rosmery now lives with her grandmother, in a small home that is closer to school and more safe. Last month she graduated from high school, and the IJM staff who have grown close to Rosmery threw her a party.
Inspired by those who have helped her, especially the lawyers, Rosmery is now studying to take college entrance exams so she can become a lawyer. Her grandmother is especially supportive of Rosmery's dream and says she will do everything she can to make it a reality.