Brisa De Angulo provides hope – and services – for survivors of sexual abuse

Brisa sits in a circle with a group of children in Bolivia.

As a child, Brisa De Angulo had big dreams. Her life revolved around doing what she could for her community – but when she was sexually abused at age 15, everything changed. After months of rape, sexual abuse and emotional trauma, De Angulo thought her life was coming to an end. Luckily for the children of Bolivia, however, she received the support she needed to overcome her challenges, and today, she runs Bolivia’s first-ever centre for child survivors of sexual abuse.

De Angulo opened the doors of A Breeze of Hope when she was just 17, and ever since, has helped more than 2,000 children access free legal, social and psychological support after experiencing sexual abuse, along with 8,000 of their non-offending family members. A Breeze of Hope has also changed the country’s response to prosecuting aggressors of child sexual abuse, securing a 95 per cent conviction rate with the clients they bring to court. In a country where 34 per cent of girls have been sexually abused before age 18, this work is immeasurably important.

As our latest End Violence Champion, De Angulo shares her experiences with sexual abuse, strength and survival, and urges others to join her in the fight against child abuse across the world.

Your commitment to helping children who have experienced sexual abuse comes from a very personal place. Can you tell us about that experience and how it shaped your life?

I grew up in Bolivia. From a very young age, my life was centred around doing whatever I could to help people, and I was very involved in the community around me. Like my parents, I was motivated by social impact – and because I was home-schooled, I had the flexibility to work hard at it. I loved music, played the piano, and even competed on the national swim team. I was a lively child with big dreams. But when I was 15 years old, an adult cousin came to stay with my family. Everything changed.

Almost immediately, my cousin, who was nearly twice my age, targeted me as his prey. He raped me almost daily – hundreds of times – and threatened and manipulated me so I would never say a word. It was such a mind-bending experience, and something I’ve seen repeated over and over again with other cases. He would tell me that if my parents found out what was happening, they would be devastated by it; he would tell me that if I didn’t let him rape me, he would go after my little sisters. He spun a web around me so I felt like I was responsible for the abuse, and as part of that process, he separated me from everyone I loved. I stopped talking to my parents, my siblings…I disengaged from everyone around me because I wanted to protect them from the pain they would suffer if they knew what was happening.

He spun a web around me so I felt like I was responsible for the abuse, and as part of that process, he separated me from everyone I loved.

Eventually, it got to a point where I’d been silent for so long that I felt like I was to blame for it. At that point, I didn’t even realize what I was experiencing was rape – to me, that seemed like something that would be perpetrated by a stranger, who would grab me on the streets and force me into sex. I hated it. But in my mind, I was to blame. The only power I had was my secret, and I needed to stay in contact with him so he wouldn’t tell anyone else. I felt like I needed to keep the sanity of everyone around me, and that burden was overwhelming.

The abuse transformed my personality. I stopped talking, stopped engaging. I was basically just a dead person floating through life without being present. I dropped out of school, left the swim team, stopped my community service. Everything I had done before came to an end. I ended up developing anorexia, bulimia and extreme depression. I passed my days crying, and I couldn’t recognize who I was anymore. To my parents, it seemed like my only friend was my aggressor, so they tried asking him if he could figure out what was going on with me. He was a youth pastor and was very respected and beloved in our community, so when he told them he’d get to the bottom of it, they believed him.

After about eight months, I thought that the only way out of the abuse was to take my own life. I tried to commit suicide twice. The second time I tried to kill myself I was visiting my brothers in the United States. Luckily, I was taken to a specialized centre for victims of sexual violence, where they understood that my behaviour was the normal behaviour of a rape victim. They knew how to handle a case like mine and support me through the healing process. If it wasn’t for that suicide attempt – and that centre – I don’t think I ever would have broken the silence.

My parents were shocked; they couldn’t believe something like this had happened in our own home. Thankfully though, my parents believed me and embraced me with their unfailing love. They told me we were going to get through it as a family – and I am eternally grateful for their support. Going back to Bolivia, however, started the second round of victimization, this time by the justice system. I was one of the first adolescents to take a case of rape to court, and it showed.

When we visited a prosecutor, she told me I should be quiet. She assured me that this is what girls were for and that I was being insensitive. She insisted that by speaking up, I could ruin the life of my aggressor. When we spoke to the police, they blamed my parents. “What were you doing?” they asked. “Why weren’t you taking care of her?” We tried to get independent attorneys to take my case, but they refused to touch it. They didn’t want to be affiliated with a rape victim. They said my case was a lost cause.

My case ended up shuffling from court to court for years, eventually landing in Bolivia’s Agricultural Court, which deals with matters of livestock and land. Nineteen years later, my case is still open, and my abuser is living free, still as a youth pastor.

When we visited a prosecutor, she told me I should be quiet. She assured me that this is what girls were for and that I was being insensitive.

Dealing with the legal system was horrific. But that process changed my life in other ways, too. My parents told me we could move and start over somewhere new, but I couldn’t. I realized that if I left Bolivia – if I left my case – I would betray all the women and girls that came before me and all those who would come after me. I committed to fighting as hard as I could to continue pushing forward, and to convince the legal system that rape was not acceptable.

At the age of 17, you began A Breeze of Hope. Tell me about that journey.

I could not let another girl go through what I went through; I could not bear the thought of another girl being told – like I was – that being raped was her fault. When I was 17, I opened A Breeze of Hope to help other girls and their families. As soon as we opened the doors, children started coming.

I went back to school, eventually earning a master’s in neuropsychology and a doctorate in law. I used my education to strengthen our programmes, eventually developing A Breeze of Hope into the first – and most specialized – centre for children who have been sexually abused in Bolivia.

As soon as we opened the doors, children started coming.

We work on two main levels: prevention, where we work toward changing culture and societies to protect children; and restoration, where we help children heal and feel alive again.

To date, we’ve been able to accomplish amazing things. We have provided free legal, social and psychological support to over 2,000 children and nearly 8,000 of their supportive, non-offending family members. We’ve trained over 137,000 people on early child development and how to prevent (and respond) to sexual violence. And importantly, for the sexual abuse and rape cases we have taken to court, we have a 95 per cent conviction rate for abusers. Over 500 aggressors have gone to jail because of these cases, and many of them are still pending trial.

We have a team of 23 Bolivian staff, 70 per cent of whom are survivors of childhood sexual violence, and two of whom went through our programme themselves. Because of my experiences and those of our staff, we know that each person’s experience —and subsequent healing journey — is unique.

Young brisa.
A young Brisa speaks at Bolivia's first national walk against sexual violence. 

We incorporate dance, exercise, music, cooking classes, yoga and art into our programming, all because we have found that everyone heals in a different way, and everyone needs to find their own spark to create the possibility of joy. Finding that spark is what helps us make children believe that a new reality is possible and that there is life after abuse. The most powerful tool for those recovering from sexual violence is to see and understand that there is an alternate reality in which they aren’t ruled by the abuse they experienced.

We start small – for example, we’ll ask survivors to tell us about a dream that they have, or an item that they want. If all they can tell us is that they want a new shirt, we run with that. Any goal, even a small one, can help them see a new way of life – and a new future without pain.

We also know that engaging only the child in the healing process, and not their supportive family, does not solve the whole problem. I know that in my experience – and in the experiences of the hundreds of girls I’ve worked with – the hardest thing is seeing your family suffer. Because of that, we take a holistic approach that works not only with the child, but also with the systems that surround the child. We work with the non-offending family to make sure that a significant part of the broader family system is there to support the child’s healing. We also work with the larger community structures to change the way our society hides, facilitates and normalizes this type of violence.

When you walk through our programme, you’ll hear children who have experienced the most horrible things laughing at the top of their lungs. It’s shocking, and amazing, that children who have been through so much are able to find joy here.

There is so much complexity to dealing with a case of sexual violence, one of which you touched on with your own experience: the fact that, if not for the second suicide attempt, never would have spoken up about the abuse. Why do you think so many children deal with situations like these?

From the moment a child is born, they see and understand the world through their parents’ eyes. They determine whether things are good or bad based on their parents’ example. And sexual violence the majority of the time, is done in the home by someone a child trusts. They’re told that this interaction is normal, that this interaction is what love means. As a child, there’s no possibility of challenging that because what they are told is, in their eyes, the truth.

We did research with 4,000 students in Bolivia and found that 30 per cent of those children were being sexually abused. Of those, 80 per cent had no idea that this abuse was a crime – and no idea that they were allowed to ask for help. They told us they didn’t like it, but they thought this was all normal. I’ve found this to be one of the biggest bottlenecks for why children aren’t breaking the silence. Like me, many children think rape is something that’s happening out there – in the streets – and perpetrated by a stranger.

Of [the children who had been sexually abused], 80 per cent had no idea that this abuse was a crime – and no idea that they were allowed to ask for help.

Sexual violence does not occur in a vacuum. It occurs within a broader system that allows sexual violence to occur. There are relationships of dominance and submission where men have authority over women and adults have authority over children. Where you, as a child, your feelings, and your ideas are not important. Culturally, there are so many things we just accept, and all of these things create the perfect terrain to breed sexual violence. That needs to change, and we need to work with whole societies to ensure we can promote safe, violence-free environments for children.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced working to end sexual violence in Bolivia?

Of course, the most pressing challenge is always funding. It’s difficult to have to worry about the little things, like how to afford our pencils or toilet paper, and the big things, like deciding which staff we need to let go even if they are excellent. But this is something we have to do, because we want our services to remain free for the children that need them.

Another challenge we experience are the threats from families, aggressors, and people who disagree with the way we work. Sexual abuse is already a difficult problem to tackle, but on top of that, we are often confronted by people who don’t want to talk about these issues because it makes them uncomfortable. As the first organization in Bolivia to tackle this challenge, this experience has intensified. We get frequent death threats, false accusations, public defamations, and people threatening to silence us if we bring a case forward.

A Breeze of Hope grew – rapidly – while you were still grappling with your own experiences of abuse. What has the healing process been like for you?

The impact of trauma on the brain affects every aspect of your life; in fact, the Centres for Disease Control shows that children who have been through traumatic experiences are more likely to die from the 10 leading causes of death, and more likely to die 20 years younger than those who haven’t experienced childhood trauma. Trauma affects the way you learn, sleep, digest food, relate to others, and relate to yourself. It affects every aspect of your life. Part of the healing process is understanding the impact that trauma has had on you.

Because of that, healing is a lifelong journey. It’s not something that’s finished from one day to another. To this day, I’m still living with the effects of the abuse I experienced. My body is almost always on hyperalert. I’m always thinking about how I can protect myself, and often interpreting the world as if I am going to be attacked. It’s a mess. But I am extremely blessed that my husband is someone who understands trauma — he has his own experiences of abuse and is on his healing journey, too — and we are constantly talking about trauma, how it’s triggered, how our bodies respond, and how we are reading one another.

We don’t ignore our trauma responses, which is something we often do as a society. Instead, we work together to sit with our trauma, understand it, hold it, and let it go. A big part of this process is learning to be uncomfortable and accepting the fact that everyone heals differently. That’s something we hope to instil into A Breeze of Hope programming, too.

Brisa with children.

You mentioned that your own case of abuse is still open – nearly 20 years later. Why do you think it’s important to keep pushing for justice?

Through my case, I have been able to shine light on what is happening to thousands of children. With my case, I hope to change laws and create public policies to protect children.

A few weeks ago, my husband and I were helping prepare the draft of my case for the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. I had to listen to the old recordings of judges, including how they threatened to kick me out of my trial because I cried, and hear how they treated my parents, telling my dad that if he cried, he couldn’t testify.

Emotionally, I was not myself, and my kids perceived it. I was brought back to when I was a teenager and my parents were struggling to push my case forward in court. When my parents were drafting memos and documents for my own case, they weren’t doing well, and my siblings and I sensed that. Just a few weeks ago, some 20 years later, my husband and I were doing the same, and it was affecting my own children. That shows how these issues do not just happen and go away. They are generational.

Where is the outrage? The money? The movement? The investment? Why are we not doing more to help children that are literally killing themselves over this?

Abuse is a horrible, horrible cancer of humanity, but we minimize the amount of impact it has on every aspect of society. We shush survivors. We don’t discuss abuse. We don’t talk about it in forums where its most important, such police training, college and high-school orientation days, pre-schools, kindergarten classes, parent-teacher conferences etc. We don’t talk about it adequately anywhere — that’s the point — and the truth is, these discussions matter everywhere. Thirty per cent of our children are being raped, but where is the outrage? The money? The movement? The investments? Why are we not doing more to help children that are literally killing themselves over this? Why are we not doing more to help children that are literally killing themselves over this?

With my case, we are requesting changes that would affect North, Central and South America and hopefully, create positive changes for victims of sexual violence for good.

What do you think is the key to ending sexual violence against children for good?

I shouldn’t be alive today. I tried to commit suicide not once, but twice. But because I’m here, A Breeze of Hope exists. There are so many organizations talking on a macrolevel about policy changes, structural overhauls, strategic partnerships, and other things. While all of that is important and necessary, very few organizations want to focus on the children themselves. Very few people want to talk about how we change the life of this child. But someone did that for me, so my goal is to do that for other children.

I want to invest in children because of their immeasurable potential for improving the world. In Bolivia, we have a national network of children and adolescents against sexual violence, which is composed only of child survivors. Last year – during the height of Bolivia’s COVID-19 lockdowns – they gathered 64,000 people for a live virtual discussion about sexual violence, and it’s because we trusted them to do so.

We need people who have a stake in this. And who better than people who have lived it?

We need people who have a stake in this. And who better than people who have lived in it? If we invest our funds and resources on helping survivors find their voices, they are going to find it way more creatively than those who are just advocating because of a job. They also think outside the box, and bring much more passion to their work, because they understand what children are dealing with and can emphasize with their pain. These are the people who make a difference. And if they want to tell their story, we cannot take their voice away.

Now, we have over 2,000 of these kids who are growing up believing that they can make a change. Let’s be honest: I might not see a big change in my generation. But I know that I’ve planted enough seeds in people who can make a huge transformation. That’s what I keep wanting to do.