Bolivian Mennonite women were not believed

Jean Friedman-Rudovsky’s piece on the Bolivian Mennonite rape trial was the most read and most emailed article on the site for two days after it was published, and the most emailed article again yesterday. Because of its popularity, it will appear in hardcopy in the upcoming TIME Magazine international edition. Clearly, it’s touched a nerve.

Another article by Friedman-Rudovsky on the same events recently appeared in The Christian Science Monitor: In Bolivia, rape trial pries open closed society of Mennonite ‘Old Colonies’. It’s troubling to read that it took so long for the women to be believed, and that their need to talk about what happened and receive counsel is still not being recognized the way it should be! It’s also troubling to hear, from other sources, that incidents similar to those alleged in the case are apparently still happening.

The story is by its very nature somewhat sensational, but I suspect that much of the interest in it, especially for the Mennonite community, is the ongoing and complex tragedy of what has happened to these women and girls. So I think we should view this extensive publicity as a good thing. Some Mennonites who comment on the articles worry that others will think all Mennonites are like that, etc. An understandable concern, I suppose, but really, we’ll simply have to live with that and ought to be turning our hearts and minds instead to how we might respond.

So what can we do? I’d suggest that we exert as much pressure as possible on our two broad Mennonite agencies — Mennonite Central Committee and Mennonite World Conference — to make this need a priority. MCC already has a number of programs that connect to Bolivian Mennonites (Old Colony Mennonites in other countries as well), which we might support with increased giving and prayer.

But I think more could be done. After all, this story didn’t just break open in the last weeks because of Jean Friedman-Rudovsky’s fine work, but came to the attention of both the world and Mennonites some years ago. Sometimes it feels as if those who are speaking out on its behalf are also still not being believed!

It makes sense to me that MCC might be the umbrella under which to gather a wide array of resource people with interest and knowledge and ongoing connection — their own staff, for example, those from ministries like the Low German work of Family Life Network, Mennonites in neighboring Paraguay, anyone with an ability to relate to conservative and closed communities — and to sit down and do some solid further strategizing for this situation. Perhaps I’m being naive, but I think the wider Mennonite community — and the watching world — needs to be assured that this cry of women and girls in Bolivia, and their entire community, is being treated with the utmost urgency and seriousness. It needs to know that new programs and money will be initiated if there is any possibility at all of them being received. I’m wishing to hear someone say, “We’ll be the point people on this issue, talking to them and talking to you, our Mennonites constituency. And this is what we’re doing…”

Bolivian Mennonite rape trial

Breaking into my blog vacation with a sad, important story I want to give wider circulation. (Regular readers here will recall that I’ve posted about this before.) Journalist Jean Friedman-Rudovsky has been following the trial of the Mennonite men in Manitoba Colony in Bolivia allegedly responsible for the rapes of as many as 130 women and girls; she filed the following report for TIME: “The Mennonite Rapes: In Bolivia, a Trial Tears Apart a Religious Community.”

Bolivia Mennonites in “The Walrus,” and more

A couple of people I know were contacted by The Walrus about a piece the magazine was doing on Mennonites in Bolivia. I had no idea what angle it would take, but hoped it would provide some current information on the situation that hit the headlines more than a year ago: the rape of many women in the Manitoba colony and the arrest of a group of men alleged to have perpetrated these rapes. I assumed the piece would bring professional journalistic standards to bear, and perhaps arouse concern and even indignation on a number of aspects of this situation, from the trauma of the women to the lack of trial proceedings for the men.

A comment to an earlier post alerted me that said Walrus was now out. Her assessment of the piece, a photo essay by Lisa Wiltse? “Hmm, there’s got to be more to the story than this!” Now that I’ve also had a chance to see the issue, I couldn’t agree more. There’s only four paragraphs of text. The photographs are wonderfully done, yes, capturing the lives of the children especially, their energy, shyness, and beauty. There’s a lovely family spirit, a kind of bucolic charm, in Wiltse’s photos that’s attractive, even a rebuke to our consumerist society. The text is fine as far as it goes, as well, which isn’t far enough, giving the summary facts of Mennonites, the Manitoba colony, the rapes, the limitations for women and children. Much is hidden behind a few words:  the men “wary,” the women “reluctant,” and “a tension pervaded the colony.”

Yet, the article continues, life goes on, as it has “for centuries.” That’s the tragedy of the tale, perhaps. Life goes on, as it has.

Yes. But. I see that lovely blond girl with her slate, head framed by a blackboard of numbers, and I remember myself at that age and my longing to learn, to discover, to go on reading and discovering day after day after day…. and knowing I could. This girl’s brothers will stop school after seven years and she’ll have to stop even earlier. It’s enough to break one’s heart.

Add to that attitudes about sex, and the role and purpose of women, which may take her to a life of drudgery and sexual activity that feels demeaning rather than freely participated in and joyous. That’s heartbreaking too. Continue reading