Photo of the week: Bolivia’s vulnerable children

In Bolivia last week, I met Gabriela, 13, who is being counselled in a therapeutic care centre (CEPAT) Centro Especializado de Prevención y Atención Terapéutica, in the city of Potosí. We have changed her name, as is our custom at UNICEF, because of the stigma associated with rape and sexual violence which is prevalent in many societies, not only in Bolivia. Gabriela was sexually molested several times beginning around age 11, and gave birth to a son, Juan, whose name we have also changed, 18 months ago, as a result of rape by a 50-year-old neighbor.

All stories of child violence are tragic, but this case was particularly heart-wrenching because I was there in person to bear witness to her story. Gabriela’s biological mother abandoned her at the age of 3, and went to Argentina and began a new life without her daughter – therapists speculate her mother may also have been a victim of rape. Left in the care of her grandmother, Gabriela never attended school and was frequently left alone at home, vulnerable to strangers without what we consider normal child protections – a loving family, education, school-age friends, and the understanding that certain actions cross boundaries – fundamental life strategies which were never imparted to her.

The photograph, which we have selected for our Photo of the Week is meaningful for me as a photographer on many levels, not the least of which is that I was present to hear Gabriela tell part of her story. I often see photographs that depict sexual violence, and we read about or write captions to illustrate that which other photographers have borne witness to in similar instances. But there’s a certain distance inherent in the editing process.

Gabriela gave birth to her son at home alone, with no one else present to the tragedy but also the beauty of her newborn. She was then hospitalized and the slow-moving judicial system began its cumbersome process of identifying and pursuing the man who raped her. Unfortunately, he has still not been charged in the case.

And yet, after 18 months of psychosocial assistance, seeing Gabriela in the centre with her delightful toddler son jumping into the loving arms of his mom, when I put down my cameras for a few moments, I noticed that when Gabriela held him, she held him gently, lovingly, firmly, closely. What we couldn’t show photographically were their faces, but I caught a glimpse of the joy of motherhood in Gabriela’s eyes when she held him. I know that her story must be told. Her determination, her resolve, and the love of her son.

Gabriela and her son are living at a nearby shelter and she attends school and receives counselling and social services through CEPAT. “I want to learn to read and write,” she said. “I am also learning to be a seamstress to make ‘polleras’ [costumes for indigenous women] in order to earn money to support my son.” Gabriela has a married sister living in Argentina, who has visited her only once since she entered the shelter. The therapists at CEPAT are trying to identify other family members who may be able to help her, but neither her mother nor sister appear to be willing to fill that role. Nevertheless, Gabriela says that she would like one day to go to Argentina “to work and raise my son. My mother and sister live there,” she says.

Susan Markisz is a UNICEF Photographer and Assistant Photography Editor

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  1. Thank you for making this visible to more people by capturing the moment. I am a native of Bolivia but have lived in the US for most of my life. This is the gut wrenching story that punches you in the stomach and makes you take stock of the suffering and pain all around. Thank you again for doing this.

  2. A poignant, moving story, told and photographed so beautifully.

  3. Gabriela’s situation is distressing and heartrending and unfortunately all too common – she should be applauded for her strength and resolve.