Skip to main content

A year after launching an initiative to stop child sexual abuse in a country so wrapped in silence, the public conversation broadens, Stephanie Nolen reports

A group of demonstrators at Ecuador Dice No Mas’s first-ever march against child sexual abuse in Guayaquil, Ecuador in November, 2016. Two-hundred survivors, activists and supporters took part.

When Paola Andrade and her husband, Ricardo Velez, were preparing to launch a national campaign to stop the sexual abuse of children a year ago, they included their phone numbers on the bottom of their posters and web page. Maybe, they thought, some kind soul will call and offer funds – they were draining their savings to start Ecuador Dice No Mas (Ecuador Says No More).

Within hours of the launch, their phones began to buzz, but not with donors. There were calls from terrified children; from parents, siblings or neighbours, who knew about a child being victimized and but didn't know where to turn; from elderly people who had been molested decades before and never told a soul, until they called that number. There were calls, texts, WhatsApps, Facebook messages and e-mails, a torrent of pain that didn't stop.

"I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep, I couldn't even take time to go to the bathroom," Ms. Andrade recalls about the first months.

Ms. Andrade and Mr. Velez, who own a media production company in Guayaquil, Ecuador's largest city, are themselves survivors of child sexual abuse, the first Ecuadoreans ever to speak publicly about their experience. They hoped to start a public conversation about a crime they believe is rife but which was never discussed in this country – where churches are influential, law enforcement is weak and the idea of the primacy of the family is entrenched.

Ricardo Velez, left, and Paola Andrade, second from left, founders of Ecuador Dice No Mas, take a photo with Karla Kanora, a well-known Ecuadorean singer, and psychologist Mónica Jurado in Quito in June.

A year has passed, but the calls have barely slowed. Today, however, No Mas runs six support groups around the country and an advocacy campaign to press government for a major overhaul of how sexual abuse is handled. Ms. Andrade is permanently hoarse – and the pair suffers a constant low level of trauma, as the stories they hear churn up memories of their own experiences – but they are energized by the changes they say they can already see.

Ms. Andrade, 45, was abused by multiple men when she was a child, several of them close relatives. Mr. Velez, 43, was also abused by a family member, and by a neighbour.

Twelve years ago, Ms. Andrade confronted her family about what happened to her. Three years later, her husband did the same. That began a period of unravelling: Their families responded with anger, denial and blame. Mr. Velez was sometimes suicidal, they were both frequently paralyzed by depression and their business suffered because they alternately wept and couldn't function.

Finally, Ms. Andrade began to find advice and resources online – and saw statistics about how many children experience abuse. In Canada, a reported one in seven girls and one in 17 boys are sexually abused. In the United States, it is one in five girls and one in 20 boys; and more than 80 per cent of abusers are relatives or someone else close to the victim.

Ms. Andrade couldn't find figures for Ecuador, but began to consider that they must be similar – or perhaps even higher – than the North American numbers, that the only difference was that no one in Ecuador was open about surviving abuse. And then, she thought, "Maybe I need to be the first." She told Mr. Velez, who responded that he would be by her side: They would go public together.

A mother's fight for justice

The first-ever meeting of a support group for survivors of child sexual abuse in Guayaquil in October, 2016.

Ms. Andrade and Mr. Velez called in favours from media and cultural personalities they had worked with over the years, drafting a range of ambassadors – singers, athletes, beauty queens – who lent their voices. They made a series of slick ads that described signs parents should be alert for and warned abusers their act was a crime. They contributed plot lines to children's programs and telenovelas – the kinds of messages that appeared on Canadian television 30 years ago but were a revelation here.

There was pushback: Interviewers accused them of trying to "destroy the family," Mr. Velez said. But there was also a grateful audience. Mercedes De Luna was among the first to call them. She was reeling after a long fight for justice for her children, who were abused from the time they were toddlers by their step-grandfather. In the course of her battle, Ms. De Luna and her kids experienced what Ms. Andrade calls "every single way" Ecuador fails victims.

In 2011, Ms. De Luna's then eight-year-old son told her that he and his six-year-old sister had been being molested by their step-grandfather for several years. The man had threatened the children he would kill their parents if they told and the terrified boy had been keeping the secret until he learned his sister was also being preyed upon.

Ms. De Luna went to police immediately. Her children were made to tell their story over and over, to a succession of police officers and social workers and lawyers. At every turn, their interrogators tried to catch them out, convinced they were lying. "We got to the point that if my son heard me mention the prosecutors' office, he would go and hide under the table, like a mouse," she said.

Ms. De Luna sought support at her evangelical church (which most of their family also attended). There she was urged to "forgive" and not to bring shame on the community. Meanwhile, the pastor told other church members what had happened and counselled other parents to keep their kids away, because hers were "contaminated." Her in-laws united against them and they were evicted from the home they rented from her mother-in-law.

Police quizzed people at the children's school, where teachers spread the news of what had happened, she says. When other kids started calling the siblings "the ones who were raped," Ms. De Luna pulled them out of school. She lost her job at a sports store, because she was spending hours each day petitioning in government offices. And meanwhile, the man who had abused her children openly mocked them, confident he would face no repercussions.

Finally, after eight months, she succeeded in getting prosecutors to admit there was a possible crime. Two-and-a-half years later, the man who preyed on her children was sentenced to 15 years in prison, reduced to eight because of his age. She heard the verdict in court, went home and told her kids – and told her son his days of hiding under the furniture were finished.

"What made me keep pushing this was – if someone had done this earlier, my children wouldn't have lived through this – if someone had reported him," she said. "I know nothing is going to take away what happened to my kids – but if I didn't do this, he would go on and what will keep it from happening to others?"

'We're not freaks'

Andrade and Velez at the launch of the Ecuador Dice No Mas campaign in September, 2016.

Analysis by Unicef suggests the only unusual aspect of Ms. De Luna's case is that she succeeded in winning a conviction. "The biggest problems are the silence regarding sexual abuse, the lack of adequate attention to the victims and the poor judicial response to the reported cases," said Joaquin Gonzalez Aleman, who heads the Unicef office in Ecuador.

Unicef has taken up the issue and is working with prosecutors and other federal government departments to try to change protocols on handling abuse – so that kids have to tell their story only once, for example, and can testify in court by video – and on prevention campaigns for schools.

In a national survey by government in 2011, one in 10 Ecuadorean women said they were sexually abused as a child; there were no data on men. (The survey drew little public attention here at the time.) Only 15 per cent of those cases were ever reported to authorities and only 5 per cent of those resulted in some form of punishment for the abuser.

Ecuador has a 15-year statue of limitations on charges of child sexual abuse – just long enough, Ms. Andrade notes sardonically, for a child victim to grow up, escape, gather their courage, report the crime – and be told that nothing can be done. That is among the laws she and her "army of survivors" are pressing government to change.

Mr. Gonzalez Aleman said the government is keen to engage with the issue (a new federal administration took over in May). But the other changes the campaigners are seeking, a shift in social attitudes, may be more difficult.

"The first thing they tell you from the time you're born in this country is, 'Family is the most important thing, your family is going to protect you,'" Ms. Andrade said. "It happens again and again because everybody wants to act like it didn't happen. You're stabbing society when you talk about this. Nobody wants to believe that someone will harm a child. They can't understand it. So they'd rather pretend it didn't happen."

Resources for survivors remain scarce: No Mas runs the only support groups in Ecuador and they are only for adults at present. (Ms. De Luna said she sold off her television and all other luxury items to pay for therapy for her kids.) The sole hotline for reporting abuse remains Ms. Andrade's frenetic cellphone. When she gets a new message these days, she sends back a video that includes signs for parents to watch for, how to report and how to talk to their kids about abuse. "Everything that took us 20 years to figure out is in a 15-minute video," she said with a rueful laugh, but she knows she is sending parents to a justice system still poorly prepared to help them.

Mr. Velez, who has a quieter, hands-on presence than his wife's voluble empathy, says the year of campaigning and hearing so many people disclose brutal stories has had an emotional toll that he didn't anticipate. "But it's also positive because I'm not alone," he said. "Today I say, 'I'm a survivor' to people and look people straight in the eye. There is something good in all these stories – we're not freaks. We're not wrong. And it gives me peace, when I see the change and how much I am able to do for other people."