Human rights activists in Paraguay have led a wave of fierce public indignation after a series of alarming cases in which sexual violence towards young girls has culminated in murder and child pregnancy.
The highly conservative South American country has long struggled with high levels of sexual violence towards children.
On 29 June, a 12-year-old Guaraní indigenous girl was found murdered with signs of sexual abuse in the Arroyo Corá indigenous community in the Itapúa administrative department. A 26-year-old man was arrested.
Bernarda Pessoa, a leader of the Qom indigenous people and activist of the Organisation of Rural and Indigenous Women (Conamuri), said that nowhere near enough was being done to protect children, especially indigenous children.
Earlier this year, several other cases of extreme sexual violence towards indigenous girls – including another murder in Paraguay’s capital, Asunción – prompted a string of large protests demanding justice.
“The state does so little,” said Pessoa. “Only the general public debates and protests. But afterwards, it’s as if nothing at all happened. That’s how the stories of the deaths of many indigenous children end.”
Aníbal Cabrera, executive director of the Paraguayan Coordination Group for the Rights of Children and Adolescents (CDIA), described a raging “pandemic” of violence towards children. His organisation reports that an act of sexual violence towards minors is registered every two hours, and Cabrera said figures would only have intensified during Paraguay’s Covid-19 lockdown.
“We are in an extremely machista and authoritarian society that perceives a girl or boy as an object and not as a subject of rights,” he said.
Cabrera said a clear sign of this sexual violence is Paraguay’s high child pregnancy rate.
On 26 June, an 11-year-old girl gave birth by caesarean section after being rushed from her home in the north-eastern city of Pedro Juan Caballero to a hospital in the city of Itauguá.
The girl, whose pregnancy was described as “high risk”, was reported to have been sexually abused by a 14-year-old boy living at the same residence, who has been charged.
It was disclosed that authorities knew of four other girls under the age of 14 currently pregnant in the city.
A United Nations Population Fund report states that, on average, two girls aged between 10 and 14 give birth every day in Paraguay. The country has one of the highest rates of child and teen pregnancy in Latin America, a region that, as a whole, has the second-highest rates in the world.
This recent case echoes the pregnancy of another 11-year-old girl – who became known by the pseudonym of “Mainumby” when her case was widely reported in the international press in 2015, prompting intense debate about abortion in Paraguay.
Mainumby – who was sexually abused by her stepfather – was denied an abortion by the state, despite pleas from her family and international outcry.
Abortion remains illegal in Paraguay except when it is deemed that the mother’s life is at risk – an exception that is rarely granted according to Cabrera. A woman was arrested on 20 June accused of having convinced her 14-year-old daughter, who had been sexually abused, to terminate her pregnancy.
Cabrera said that, while comprehensive sexual education should be key for preventing sexual violence, it was largely absent from highly Catholic Paraguay’s education system. In 2017 the ministry of education moved to ban all materials deemed to refer to the nebulous concept of “gender ideology”.
Teresa Martínez, minister for childhood and adolescence, agrees with the need to change policy.
“Comprehensive sexual education must be strongly incorporated from the start of the education system,” she said.
She said her ministry had achieved encouraging results from a pilot sex education programme for parents. While lessons had been learned from Mainumby’s case, she said, “there’s still a long way to go”.
Cabrera said both state and society must push for change.
“It’s almost as if there’s a complicit silence. We need to form a social agreement between everyone: we need to improve as a society in our protection of children and respect for their lives.”