Justice for Sexually Assaulted Indigenous Girls in Peru

Dormitory of indigenous girls of the Awajún people, in shelters where they live and receive intercultural bilingual education, in the province of Condorcanqui, state of Amazonas, in northeastern Peru. Credit: Courtesy of Rosemary Pioc

By Mariela Jara (IPS)  

HAVANA TIMES – The main fear facing women leaders who have denounced the systematic rape of girls from the Awajún indigenous people announced by the authorities, it will all come to nothing.

“Our reports started in 2010 and the government has not acted to eradicate rapes against girls. We fear that once again there will be impunity, and the government is very strategic in this,” said Rosemary Pioc, president of the Awajún/Wampis Umukai Yawi (Comuawuy) Women’s Council, from the municipality of Condorcanqui, to IPS.

In June, women leaders from Comuawuy reported the rape of 532 girls between 2010 and 2024 in schools of Condorcanqui, one of the seven provinces of the department of Amazonas. These schools provide bilingual education to children and teenagers between the ages of five and 17.

Girls as young as five years old have died in these schools and shelters, infected with HIV/AIDS by their aggressors.

This is aggravated sexual violence against indigenous girls living in poverty and vulnerability, while sexual aggression against minors is on the rise in this South American country of 33 million inhabitants.

“I’ve picked up abused, bloodied girls, and I’ve listened to their despair when their parents paid no heed when told of the rapes”: Rosemary Pioc.

According to the Ministry of Women and Vulnerable Populations, Peru registered 30,000 reports of sexual violence against children under 17 years of age in 2023.

However, many cases do not reach the public authorities due to various economic, social and administrative barriers, especially when rural populations or indigenous communities are involved.

Peru has 55 indigenous peoples, with a population of four million, living in the national territory since time immemorial, according to the Ministry of Culture database.

Four of these indigenous peoples live in Andean areas and 51 in Amazonian territories, including the Awajún people, who live in the departments of Amazonas, San Martín, Loreto, Ucayali and Cajamarca. However, 96.4% of the indigenous population are Andean peoples, mainly Quechua, and only 3.6% are Amazonian peoples.

Although national and international law guarantee their rights and identities, in practice this is not so for indigenous girls, while poverty and inequalities in access to education, health and food persist.

According to official 2024 figures, 30% of the national population lives in poverty. When differentiated by ethnic self-identification, this rises to 35% among those who learned a native language in childhood.

Extreme poverty reached 5.7%, a national average that rises to 10.5% in Amazonas, a department with more than 433,000 inhabitants, where indigenous families live mainly from agriculture, hunting, fishing and gathering wild fruits.

Rosemary Pioc, president of the Awajún/Wampis Umukai Yawi Council of Women. Credit: Courtesy of Rosemary Pioc

“I’ve picked up bloodied girls”.

Bilingual intercultural education is a state policy in Peru.

Thus, student residences were created to enhance access to education for indigenous children and teenagers living in remote communities, in the case of the province of Condorcanqui, on the banks of the Cenepa, Nieva and Santiago rivers.

The province hosts 18 residences, where the girls live throughout the year, receive meals and attend school.

“Since they cannot return home every day because they are hours or days away by river, the teacher or facilitator takes advantage of this situation and abuses them instead of guaranteeing their care,” said Pioc, herself a member of the Awajún people.

More than 500 rapes have been documented in the last 14 years in this scenario.

The leader explained that these shelters are licensed by the Ministry of Education, although they survive in very poor conditions and are left to their own devices.

Pioc has been denouncing sexual violence against her pupils for years, but the Local Educational Management Unit (Ugel), the Amazonas regional government’s decentralized body for education, has not addressed them in order to prosecute and dismiss the aggressor teachers.

Another dormitory in one of the bilingual intercultural schools where parents of the Awajún people, who live in remote areas along the banks of Peru’s Amazonian rivers, send their daughters between the ages of five and 17. Credit: Courtesy of Rosemary Pioc

“We are in the country of the upside down, because in 2017 a colleague and I were reported for denouncing and defending girls,” she said.

Pioc, as a native of Condorcanqui, knows her reality well. When she was a primary school teacher, she experienced terrible things. “I’ve picked up abused, bloodied girls, and I’ve listened to their despair when their parents paid no heed when told of the rapes”, she said.

She has left teaching to dedicate herself completely to Comuawuy, continue with the reports and prevent impunity.

“A headmaster touched two pupils. Their parents, with great effort, reported him to the Ugel, but nothing happened. He carried on with his contract and then raped his five-year-old niece. ‘Report me if you want. Nothing will happen to me’, he warned me. And so it was. I was the one prosecuted”, she complains.

A month ago, the indigenous women’s reports were widely heard when the Minister of Education, Morgan Quero, and the head of Women’s Affairs, Teresa Hernández, justified the events by attributing them to indigenous cultural practices.

The statements were roundly rejected by various sectors, deeming them racist and evasive of the government’s responsibility to sanction and prevent sexual violence.

Pioc decried the ministers’ statements and expressed her disbelief at the announcements of sanctions and other measures ordered by the Education Office. “They are setting up technical roundtables, but only when the rapists are in prison and the girls’ health has been taken care of will we say they have complied,” she said.

The two ministers later apologised and said they had been misunderstood, but they remain in their posts, despite many calls for their dismissal.

Genoveva Gómez, head of the Amazonas Ombudsman’s Office. Credit: Amazonas Ombudsman Office

Victims hurt for life

Genoveva Gómez, lawyer heading the Amazonas Ombudsman’s Office, says her sector reported in 2017, 2018 and 2019 the deprivation of student residences and flaws in the investigation of sexual violence cases at the administrative level and in the prosecutor’s office.

In order to correct this situation, her office has recommended “increasing the budget, strengthening the Permanent Commission for Administrative Proceedings, which is responsible for investigating teachers, and that cases that are time-barred at the administrative level should be referred to the Public Prosecutor’s Office because rape is a crime that has no statute of limitations,” she explained.

Gómez spoke to IPS as she travelled from Chachapoyas, also in the department of Amazonas and the headquarters of her organisation, to Condorcanqui, to take part in a meeting of the Coordination Body for the Prevention, Attention and Punishment of Cases of Violence Against Women and Family Members, convened by the mayor of that municipality.

The lawyer argued that the Awajún girls who have been sexually assaulted will be hurt for life and that it is urgent to implement mechanisms that guarantee justice, and emotional support for them and their families.

“As a society we must be clear that these acts violate fundamental rights and should not go unnoticed,” she stressed.

Gómez said that by August at the latest Condorcanqui will have a Gesell Chamber, a key means for the prosecutorial investigation in cases of sexual violence against minors to avoid re-victimisation through a single interview. The nearest one was in the city of Bagua Grande, a seven-hour car ride.

The chamber consists of two rooms separated by a one-way viewing glass. In one room, children and teenagers who are victims of rape and other sexual assaults talk about this violence with psychologists and provide information relevant to the case. In the other, family members, lawyers and prosecutors observe without being seen by the victim.

Afterwards, the psychologist in charge asks them about aspects requested by the observers. Everything is recorded and serves as valid evidence for the trial, and the victim does not have to testify in court.

Gómez also stated that access to justice has many barriers and it is up to the government to remove them so as not to send a message of impunity to the population, in particular to the Awajún girls.

She also welcomed the presence of representatives of the education sector in the area, but considered that this should not be a reactive work for a determined period of time, but rather a sustained and planned one that includes prevention.

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