In Bolivia, rape trial pries open closed society of Mennonite 'Old Colonies'
A rape scandal inside one of the world's few remaining Mennonite 'Old Colonies' in Bolivia points to much deeper troubles for women in such reclusive sects.
(Page 2 of 2)
Mennonites – who follow the teachings of radical 16th-century Dutch Protestant reformist Menno Simons – fled persecution in Europe to create isolated communities in the US and Canada. As North America modernized, some of the most traditional Low German-speaking Mennonites fled to Central and South America, forming isolated, secretive Old Colonies.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
An Old Colony woman's place is in the home. Her schooling ends at age 12, and while many Mennonite men in Bolivia eventually learn Spanish through their inevitable contact with the outside world, few women learn to speak anything but Low German, still spoken in the Old Colonies.
Indeed, deeply entrenched patriarchy pervades this scandal. The Manitoba victims told their husbands or fathers of foggy memories and pains, but the men didn't believe them and no investigations were ordered, allowing crimes to flourish for years. The scandal did not finally blow open until June 2009, when one woman caught two of the defendants entering her house.
"It wasn't until some of the defendants started drawing exact diagrams of the bedrooms where they raped that the fathers of the victimized households believed their wives and daughters," says plaintiffs' attorney Wilfredo Mariscal.
The fact that there is a trial, though, is considered a positive step forward for the Old Colonies, which tend to deal their own swift justice when faced with conflict or crime. "We knew that if [the defendants] stayed here, there would be trouble," says Abraham Wall Enns, Manitoba's head civic leader in 2009, explaining the community's decision to hand the men over to the police. A nearby colony had already lynched one man thought to be involved in the scandal.
The accused have been held in prison since their arrest and have waived their right to testify. The men, who pleaded not guilty, face Bolivia's maximum penalty of 30 years.
For now, it is hard to say if lessons have been learned. Being thrust into the public spotlight could prevent other abuses that run rampant when such communities are shrouded in secrecy. And certainly in some households of Manitoba Colony, women have been given a new voice. "We will listen to what our wives tell us now," says plaintiff Abraham Martens Froese, whose wife was sent into premature labor after being raped, according to the indictment.
But there's one pending request from Manitoba victims that still falls on deaf ears. "I'd like to speak to someone [about the experience]," Ms. Banman says quietly, eyes on the floor of her immaculate bedroom, almost embarrassed to have her husband translate the statement. None of the Manitoba Colony victims have had the opportunity to speak to a psychologist.
The Colony's all-male leadership says it's not necessary, that closure will come when the trial ends. Says Mr. Wall Enns: "We will be at peace when there is a guilty verdict."