Esther was nine years old and dreamed of being a teacher. He told his mother that he wanted to study and be a professional so she wouldn’t have to work anymore. But, in her fourth year of primary school, the coronavirus pandemic got in her way and what was supposed to be a safe place, her home, became hell for her. Last Sunday, the girl’s body was found dumped in a street in El Alto, the second largest city in Bolivia, with signs of violence.
Shortly after the discovery, the Police confirmed that the girl had died asphyxiated in a strangulation and, citing a preliminary medical report, indicated that she had signs of a sexual assault “with previous dates.” On Tuesday, while Esther’s mother buried her daughter surrounded by neighbors who demanded justice, the La Paz Prosecutor’s Office announced the arrest of a 42-year-old man as the alleged perpetrator of the infanticide, in addition to three other people who it suspects were also involved. or they were accomplices of the facts.
The death of the girl, the 33rd infanticide case in the South American country this year, has caused a strong commotion. The calls for justice to be done are being joined by voices of those who demand that the causes of an invisible problem be addressed: the violence suffered by children, which has increased during a quarantine that in Bolivia has been very strict, and that it is proving especially difficult for single and low-income mothers like Esther’s.
The Sunday they killed her, Esther had stayed home taking care of her three-year-old sister, while her mother went out to sell fruit in a market to support the two of them and a nine-month-old baby, whom she took to work. The four lived in a rented room without a bathroom in a housing complex they shared with other low-income families in El Alto, a city built mainly by poor migrants from western Bolivia who made that dormitory city of La Paz the second largest city. most populated in the country. According to version of the Prosecutor’s Office, the main suspect, a neighbor of that house, was seen on Sunday morning in the girl’s room with another man, a taxi driver where she was allegedly taken away and from where her body was dumped on a street in the area Luis Espinal from El Alto. There is a third detainee who is a CD seller who, according to a statement from the Public Ministry, “constantly approached the girl with gifts of his merchandise and who presented a suspicious attitude.”
“Esther symbolizes and represents many girls in Bolivia who live in poverty and whose mothers have to go to work,” says Jessica Echevarría, director of the Citizen Network against Infanticide and Sexual Abuse. “Seeing that little body abandoned, vexed, has made a whole country wake up because society had been very indifferent to the situation of violence and mistreatment of children.” In addition, that agency registered at least 400 cases of rape and 12,605 cases of domestic violence in which the victims were minors.
For this reason, Virginia Pérez, head of the Protection of Children and Adolescents at UNICEF in Bolivia, believes that Esther’s case is only the tip of the iceberg. “Bolivia is one of the countries in South America with the highest rates of domestic violence, against women and against children,” he says, noting that official statistics present an underreporting, according to his organization’s data, because many cases are never recorded. report or fall by the wayside.
And, as most of the situations of violence and child abuse are registered in their own homes or in close surroundings, Pérez believes that the strict quarantine that exists in Bolivia is putting children in a very complicated situation in which they find themselves locked up with their aggressors and away from their schools and support networks, at a time when child protection systems are weakened due to lack of resources. The situation, he says, has been aggravated by the pandemic, since child care programs have not been considered essential, despite the fact that “cases of violence against children and sexual violence multiply faster than coronavirus infections ”. Until June, the covid-19 has left 1,300 infected children and eight deaths.
“There is a handwash on the part of the State that declares the quarantine, then declares the relaxation of the quarantine, but does not provide any type of solution for children who are not in school or for mothers,” laments María Galindo, leader of the feminist movement Mujeres Creando. According to his calculations, in the four months of emergency due to the coronavirus, Yola Cavillo, Esther’s mother, could have received a maximum bonus of 500 bolivianos ($ 72), an aid well below the more than 2,100 bolivianos of the minimum wage vital.
The head of the Ombudsman’s Office, Nadia Cruz, also criticized that the interim government of Jeanine Áñez has not generated “an effective policy to protect children and adolescents” during the quarantine. After the case was made public, the president said that she would not tolerate “any type of violence” and her Minister of Citizen Security, Wilson Santamaría, announced that they would strengthen policies to prevent violence against women and minors, but no plan has been detailed Until now.
When presenting the main suspect to the media, the Minister of Government, Arturo Murillo, said that Áñez had asked that they seek 30 years in prison, the maximum penalty contemplated by the law for the aggressor. But in the streets, amid the outrage, the popular request goes further: from life imprisonment to chemical castration and even the death penalty. “This is the first time that the entire country has spoken out in this way against infanticide,” Echevarría warns. “We have been working on this issue since 2017 and what we want is that once and for all there is debate and that, as in Colombia, life imprisonment for rapists and murderers of children is approved.”
However, for María Galindo, the case is not outraging the country as it should. “Bolivia is periodically convulsed with infanticides, femicides. There is pain, there is a feeling of helplessness, but at the same time there is a very perverse desire not to analyze things and not to act against the causes ”, she reasons. “What society wants in some way is to see in the murderer a monster, a mental patient. Download, make a catharsis of her anger, but she is not willing to discuss the causes and the rationale that make Bolivia the country with the highest rate of feminicide, sexual and sexist violence ”. Last year, the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) placed the country at the forefront of sexist murder rates in South America.
For her, among the reasons that ended Esther’s life there are some structural ones such as the institutionalization of “parental irresponsibility” for which many fathers abandon their children, leaving their upbringing to their mothers without facing any kind of consequences. “Esther’s was a mother with three children and there is parental irresponsibility, an inability of the State to provide a solution and on the other hand a situation of extreme poverty,” he concludes.