Though this little barrio in Cochabamba, Bolivia doesn’t look like much with its sea of one-room brick houses and construction sites, it’s making families feel safe in the country with the highest rate of intimate partner violence and sexual violence against women in Latin America.
Since its founding in 1999, Maria Auxiliadora has worked to promote female leadership and create a community free of all forms of domestic abuse. It was founded by five women, with the roles of president and vice president continuing to be filled exclusively by women. Although a law was passed by President Morales’ administration in 2013 to deter gender-based violence with prison sentences, only a fifth of the cases actually resulted in prison sentences. Yet, a whopping 52.3 percent of women in Bolivia report experiencing physical or sexual violence by their partners.
Committing gender-based attacks is a serious offense, which is why, thanks to Maria Auxilliadora, those who commit such heinous acts are removed from the community.
Gumercindo Parraga Camacho, a man who has been living in the community for nearly 15 years, remembers the first time someone was removed from the community due to domestic violence. A woman’s husband bit off a part of her eyebrow. “Everyone went to her house and brought her husband out and had him thrown out of the community. The whole community went. It was community work,” he said.
Reprimanding violence when it arises is as important as preventing violence before it happens. If couples experience relationship problems, they can seek counseling from the community-managed support committee. People in the community can also attend workshops to learn about how to recognize domestic violence (including psychological and financial abuse) and how to cope with what violence they have experienced. Teodocia Vallejos is one of the women who have been helped by such workshops. “I used to be shy,” she said, “My husband would scold me and all I did was cry. I used to stay quiet, but now I’ve learned. I’ve been to a lot of workshops to be the way I am today.”
Although the barrio lacks official statistics about the decrease in domestic violence, the residents and international humanitarian organizations speak to the community’s positive impact. One of Maria Auxiliadora’s founders, Rose Mary Irusta Perez, said, “Women tell me, ‘When we lived elsewhere he used to hit me, but with the rules here, he’s […] never touched me again.’”
In 2008, the community was recognized by the Building and Social Housing Foundation for its affordable housing and reduction in the domestic violence endured by the people in the community.
In recent years, the community has become less active in areas like family support due to disagreements over property ownership. Irusta Perez worries that this means domestic violence might return to the residents’ lives unnoticed, but she is convinced that it will not put an end to the safe haven, saying, “As long as I’m here, we’ll keep on going.”
For nearly 20 years, this community has changed the lives of its residents for the better, and with this kind of motivation, it will continue for years to come.
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