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Pilot Project in Argentina Assists Victims in Reporting Rape

by Ivonne Jeannot Laens
Global Press Institute

The protocol for reporting rape is unique in Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital, thanks to a program that aims to provide assistance and emotional support to victims. A specially trained team of women psychologists and social workers travels around the city to assist victims in police stations, hospitals and the justice system.

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA – An Argentine woman, who declined to be named, says she was 23 when a stranger raped her in the full light of day in Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital.

It was close to 5 p.m. when she boarded a bus to return home from university. When she exited the bus and walked the four blocks to her apartment, she didn’t realize that a man was following her.

When she opened the glass door of the apartment building, he walked in behind her. They entered the same elevator, but before it reached her floor, he stopped it. He then put a knife to her forehead and covered her mouth with his other hand.

When he tried to kiss her, she says she wanted to scream, but she’s not sure the words ever left her mouth. It all happened so fast, she says. He then raped her inside the elevator.

When she arrived at her apartment, she was trembling and crying. Her mother notified the doorman after she told her what had happened. The staff locked all the doors of the building, but the man had already escaped.

Five years have passed since the rape, and she still gets goose bumps when she talks about it. But she never reported it.

She says she feels that telling her story at a police station would be like getting naked in front of them. She’s also not sure that she would be able to identify the man who raped her.

A unique protocol for reporting rape in Buenos Aires aims to make victims feel more comfortable seeking assistance and justice.

A pilot program in the capital features a mobile team of social workers and psychologists who provide support to rape victims in order to sensitize the reporting process for them. Creators of the government program say the biggest challenges have been making sure the brigade members have proper training and overcoming prejudice in the legal and judicial systems. Because the program has been successful in the capital, the government and program organizers are now working on reproducing it in the rest of the country.

The government initiated the program, called Victims Against Violence, in 2006. The program’s Mobile Brigade is specifically trained to respond to cases of rape.

Carina Rago, the brigade’s supervisor, says the team attends to four to five cases of sexual violence in the city each day. The brigade, which comprises more than 30 psychologists and social workers, works 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Rago says that 90 percent of the victims who report sexual violence are women of various ages. The male victims that make up the other 10 percent are mostly young.

The federal government summoned Dr. Eva Giberti, a psychologist with more than 30 years of experience in hospitals, to assemble the program. She is the author of numerous works about gender violence and usually serves as a panelist in conferences about this issue around the country.

Rago, a social worker, helped incorporate the program from its inception. In addition to working in the field and assisting many victims in person, as supervisor she must also read and brief herself on all the cases that her colleagues handle.

Giberti says that after a victim reports a rape, the police are obligated to immediately call the Mobile Brigade, which has special training to work with victims of sexual violence.

“The presence of the brigade has the objective of avoiding that the police come in contact with the victim in order to prevent the victim from becoming the target of prejudices and inappropriate questions,” she says.

The professionals on the Mobile Brigade move in teams of two – a psychologist and a social worker – to any place throughout the city where a victim reports a rape. They collect the victim’s initial testimony, which they then help the victim relay to the police. This prevents the victim from having to reveal intimate details to officers, who many times are of the opposite sex and have not received training on how to interview rape victims.

The psychologist and social worker also accompany the victim to the hospital and sometimes even the pharmacy to receive a medical examination and a cocktail of pills to prevent sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. They also perform a psychological follow-up, in addition to providing support to the victim’s family and friends.

Rago says that the program also aims to aid the victim in the judicial process.

“The Victims Against Violence Program works on urgency,” Rago says. “We have the monitoring team, which communicates with the judge in order to see if the judge is taking measures of protection of the victims. We contribute information to the judge or we collect information about the lawsuit in order to inform the victim because many times it is difficult for the victim to get access to the proceedings of the lawsuit.”

Giberti says that special training is crucial to prepare brigade members for their unique and important responsibilities when responding to a rape. She says that a major challenge she faced during the creation of the program was the lack of personnel qualified to work with rape victims.

“We received thousands of curriculums,” she says. “There were people prepared in the academic sphere but without experience in these subject matters in particular. For that reason, we paid for the people selected to study for the first months.”

She says that the psychologists and social workers must learn specific skills to work in the brigade.

“For example, one has to learn how to do the interviews with the victims,” Giberti says. “The victim can’t be interrogated by us. We have to listen to the victim without doing an interrogation because, when the proceedings pass into the criminal stage, this could be misinterpreted by the judges. For this reason, one had to learn how to do this type of interviews that are very particular.”

Another essential skill is the length of the interviews because victims also need medical assistance.

“The interview with the victim can’t exceed two hours because the effectiveness of the anti-viral cocktail decreases as the time passes from the moment of the rape,” Giberti says.

The initial cocktail that doctors administer to victims at the hospital comprises 12 pills. Forty-eight hours after the incident, the victim must return to the hospital so that the doctor can adjust the medication. The treatment usually lasts a month and many times causes discomfort and nausea. In the cases where the aggressor used a condom, it decreases the number of pills that the victim must take, although doctors analyze this on a case-by-case basis.

Another challenge is overcoming prejudice. From its inception, the program has confronted, and in part still confronts, the prejudices that the issue of rape generates in a predominantly male field like the police force. Rago says that before this program intervened as an intermediary, many victims encountered prejudice when they went to the police station to report a rape.

“They encountered the prejudice of the person who was on the other side of the desk, and the person asked the victim, for example, if she or he had had a previous relation with that person or if she or he was intoxicated,” she says. “So, the women never made the report.”

She says that society’s fascination with sex also sometimes leads to inappropriate questions.

“Sexuality in itself generates much intrigue, much interest,” she says. “A morbid fascination appears.”

Now that the program exists, Rago says that the victims can report rape in a more sensitive environment.

“We are present and we intervene immediately when the police ask an inappropriate question,” Rago says. “We clarify to the victim that she or he has no obligation of answering those type of questions.”

Martín Marinissen, a police officer in the capital, says that police officers try to be thorough while taking the victim’s statement and documenting the cases to forward to the prosecutor’s office. He says that sometimes in this effort, an improper question may arise.

“The official who takes the statement is going to try to extract every detail of what happened,” he says. “It’s their function.”

But he says that officers strive to be as sensitive as possible.

“In addition to being police officers, we are also human beings,” he says.

An issue not unique to police stations, stigmatization also confronts victims in the judicial system, Giberti says.

“By definition, apart from honorable exceptions, they distrust the victim – here and in all parts [of the region],” she says. “Because we’ve been around Latin America, and they distrust the victim of rape always – even when the victim is 8 years old. The victim always is under suspicion.”

In cases of incest in which adult males rape minors in their families, she says the judges tend to side with the aggressors in order to preserve families’ paternal figures.

“That constitutes clearly a defense from the perspective of gender because then the father, who should be the protector of the child and of the family, is left as incestuous,” she says. “With that, the fundamental thesis of patriarchy crumbles, which is that the paternal figure is a protective figure.”

She says this reverence for the paternal figure throughout the region makes it difficult for justice to be served.

“This is one of the reasons why the judges, until the girl is left pregnant and the incest is demonstrated by DNA, they do everything they can to demonstrate that the incest didn’t exist or that it is a lie of the girl, for example, because she was a child who watched a lot of television,” she says.

In addition to Victims Against Violence, the Prosecution Unit for the Investigation of Crimes Against Sexual Integrity and Infantile Prostitution is another initiative that aims to ensure a fair and sensitive judicial process for rape victims. Emiliano Maserati, the unit’s secretary, says chauvinism is a factor that many times emerges among the judges and police.

The unit therefore aims to intervene in sexual crime cases at the request of the prosecutors in order to instruct them on the nuances of what constitutes rape. It also aims to give the people who report the crimes better treatment, which means, for example, giving the victims more time to unburden themselves and to tell their stories without pressure.

“In the cases of sexual abuse, sometimes it’s difficult to have proof,” Maserati says. “In general, these cases have no witnesses. Because of this, we try to handle ourselves with amplitude and to consider all the proof that emerges from the testimony of the victim.”

A growing part of the national justice system, the 12-person unit began operations in Buenos Aires in 2006 alongside the Victims Against Violence program.

Giberti says that in the beginning, the federal government’s idea was to implement the Victims Against Violence program in the whole country, but she preferred to begin with a pilot in Buenos Aires.

“I am clear on how my country is,” she says. “It’s very big, and if I have to work with the police, who guarantees me the obedience of the provincial police? Each province has its idiosyncrasy. I needed an example, and the example had to be the city of Buenos Aires, which is where we are.”

She says that her team and the government have been working on reproducing the program in the rest of the country, where isolated programs currently depend on the local administrations.

“For two years, we are traveling to the provinces,” she says. “We stay three days or four days each time. This way, we are training people in order to replicate the program.”

Giberti and Rago say that one of the most significant successes they have achieved is eradicating inappropriate conduct toward rape victims by police.

“For us, it was very difficult to learn how to work with the police,” Giberti says. “After six months, we had arrived at a certain equilibrium, but it was difficult. The police didn’t like that we would take the hands of the victims, whom they used to interrogate as they wanted with inappropriate, morbid nuances. But luckily, that ended, apart from an isolated case.”

Intervening in the judicial field is more complex, Rago says.

“There, we founder,” Rago says. “Sometimes the judges listen to us and sometimes not.”

Rago emphasizes and praises the good work that the Prosecution Unit for the Investigation of Crimes Against Sexual Integrity and Infantile Prostitution does in this area.

“From this program, we promote the return of the right to the victim so he or she can lock up the aggressor,” Rago says.

Maserati says there is a growing tendency for prosecutors to ask for intervention and instruction from the unit.

“We are having more work each time,” Maserati says. “I can say that each time, more prosecutors come to us. Actually, 25 percent of prosecutors ask us for intervention, and the tendency is rising.”

Maserati says that this growing tendency will add to future success.

“For us, the success of the future lies in this,” he says. “In the present, our success lies in achieving that victims of rape have better treatment in [the justice system], are listened to and have a space in the legal field to unburden themselves.”

The story was originally published by Global Press Institute. (c) Global Press Institute 2012

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