What we want to do for the Mennonite women of Bolivia

Back in November, I wrote, here, about a file I’d opened while I was at the MB Herald but ran out of time to complete, on the sexual assault of numerous women in one of the conservative Mennonite colonies of Bolivia. I’m glad to report  that the story got written, nevertheless — a fine overview by assistant editor Karla Braun which appeared in the January issue. It picks up on what had seemed to Abe Warkentin, founder of Die Mennonitische Post and long-time advocate for the needs of Low German Mennonites, a “deafening” silence in the face of the situation, and his plea that it be more actively addressed.

It’s also evident from the article that there are divergent views about — and approaches to — conservative Mennonite groups by the various people who relate to them. These differences have their own long history, theological underpinnings, and ways of speaking, even “bad blood” between the parties at times, which the article doesn’t get into in any detail. I don’t intend to now either, except to say that these differences have clearly complicated Mennonite response to the story and perhaps accounted for much of the silence around it.

Recently, however, an inter-Mennonite committee formed here in Winnipeg to do one thing. We want to hold a service of prayer and lament for our Mennonite sisters in Bolivia who have been sexually assaulted. We recognize that any response one makes carries a bias and, regardless of diverse views on Old Colony life, this is ours: we want to express our love and compassion for, and solidarity with, these women, and to pray for healing and justice and hope in this situation.

I invite my readers in Manitoba to participate in this event, on February 7, and to let others know about it. Please see the Events page for more details, or the press release that follows from Abe Warkentin. We’re continuing to gather as much information as we can, although, as the release states, new information is difficult to confirm. Continue reading

Bolivian Mennonite rape victims

One of the articles I’d hoped to pull together before leaving the MB Herald was that of the horrifying and bizarre situation in some of the Mennonite colonies of Bolivia. The news flashed around the world this summer (one example here, from The Guardian), about the eight men jailed arrested after being charged with drugging (via spray) entire households at night, then breaking in to rape the women while they slept.

We carried a short MCC release about it in the MB Herald, here. And that was all we did with it.

I’d been pushed into opening a file on it, at least, by some rounds of email correspondence with a man who worked with Low German/conservative Mennonite concerns in various ways for many years, who was greatly burdened following the news (which has continued to build, with some 12 or 13 men now in jail, reports of bribes and death threats, and many rumors as well), and who is finding the silence of the Mennonite press “deafening.”

“I expected an outpouring of concern from Mennonites everywhere,” he wrote, “but it didn’t happen.” He has been trying to rally interest, and hoping Mennonite Central Committee (which already has connections with Bolivian Mennonites) might be pressed to do more as our point agency there.

I won’t have time to do the piece and am turning the file of materials over to assistant editor K., who is willing to sort through what we’ve gathered and also make calls to some people who visited Bolivia recently. Today I finished going through 9 pages of excerpts from the Kurze Nachrichten, a German paper published in Mexico, which my “prod” above says is one of the better sources of information, and translating the salient points for K.

I feel I need more information, understanding, perspective. How far away these women seem, how foreign somehow, even though we share the name Mennonite. I agree that we need to be speaking up. But what do we say? And to whom do we say it?

[March 27, 2010: see update on this story, here.]