LA PAZ, BOLIVIA – Central Plaza is always a hub of activity. Food vendors and street performers vie for the attention of Bolivian families and tourists alike. But the crowd that gathered by candlelight on a Tuesday night in November was different: More than 300 people descended on the plaza holding signs and peacefully calling for an end to the plague of sexual violence in their country.
About half of the crowd was made up of police officers currently in training. But they weren't there to break up or even monitor the protest—they were there as participants calling out for change in Bolivia.
According to a recent UN study, Bolivia has the second-highest level of sexual abuse in all Latin American countries. By some estimates, less than one percent of child sexual assault cases actually end with a sentence.
For a Culture of Peace
IJM is one of nearly two dozen organizations in a group called La Paz Network Against Child Sexual Assault. The group planned the vigil on November 19, 2013, to commemorate World Day for Prevention of Abuse and Violence against Children.
One police officer held up a sign that simply read: For a culture of peace. On another officer's sign: For me, for you, for everyone: We want a better life. IJM staff carried signs with handwritten, sobering facts: Every day in Bolivia, 16 boys and girls are victims of sexual violence.
Over the past year, IJM Bolivia has been challenging churches to get more involved in changing the culture of silence and in standing up for the countless victims of sexual violence. Several local churches have formed "Justice Teams;" IJM hosts regular workshops for these groups on preventing and identifying sexual abuse and raising awareness in their communities.
The men and women, including about 150 police officers, walked throughout part of the city and chanted, "Mother, Father, take care of your children." The march ended in Central Plaza, where the crowd gathered in a circle to learn more about sexual violence against children—and what can be done to prevent it.
Change Will Come
IJM Bolivia Field Office Director Greg Tarrant said that the most "breathtaking" part of the night was seeing so many police officers spread out among the crowd, equally passionate about ending this culture of impunity that has allowed sex offenders to get away with crimes with little to no consequence. "These officials will be the first responders and enforcers of the law. So seeing them standing in the square, holding signs and demanding change, gives me hope that change is bound to happen in Bolivia," he said.
"Every day at IJM we work hard to put an end to the injustices that so many children have suffered," said one of the IJM Community Relations staff members, adding, "This event was an encouragement showing us that we are not alone in this fight, that people care, and that change will come."