The Mennonite Women of Manitoba County

The horrible truth behind the amazing Movie, Women Talking.

Warning: this post deals with rape, and may be triggering for some and inappropriate for others. Proceed at your own risk.

In my last post, I discussed the not-to-be-missed movie, Women Talking. Today, I’ll discuss the real life scenario which inspired this film. I wish I could tell you that the truth was as heartening as the fiction was.

The pivotal point between the fact and the fiction is that there is a Mennonite colony in Manitoba County in Bolivia in which many of the woman have been systematically drugged and then raped by their men and boys for years. The women kept waking up with crashing headaches (the drug was originally intended for livestock), and their bodies would be bruised and bloodied, often articles of clothing would be missing, and there would be dirt in their sheets. Some women were impregnated. Some children as young as 3 years old were similarly abused. Fortunately, one perpetrator was finally caught and gave up 8 other individuals, and now 8 of them are in prison while the 9th absconded to another country.

Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could tie this horrific story up in a neat little bow as the movie does? Justice is served and life goes on. Sadly, we live in the real world. This is the point at which reality and the movie part company.

To explain the reality, I need to back up a bit. Mennonites have been around in one form or another since the 1520’s. You will find them in at least 83 countries throughout the world. Some communities have a much closer relationship to the modern world than others. It runs the gamut from those that reject all things modern to those who blend in with the larger community and are all but indistinguishable from their non-Mennonite neighbors.

I take no issue with Mennonites in general. Every adult should have a right to create their own society and come up with the rules under which that society will function, provided it does no harm to the wider community. But the operative phrase here, is “every adult”.

When communities are created that deprive a subset of their people from having any sort of agency at all, those people, whether they realize it or not, become slaves. They have no control or power over their own lives, and when they suffer abuses, they are given no voice to address them. This is unconscionable, but it happens more often than we care to acknowledge.

Such is the fate of the Mennonite women of Manitoba County, who find themselves on the very extreme edge of the Mennonite philosophical spectrum. Girls in this community are even less educated than their brothers, who are “at least” allowed to go to school until they turn 13. Their language is Low German. The girls and women are never taught to speak Spanish as the boys are, so they are incapable of speaking to the wider Bolivian world.

All the rules that govern their society are determined by 9 ministers, and those ministers are elected by men only. The community is devoid of law enforcement, because when they decided to relocate to Bolivia, they got the Bolivian government to agree to only step in in cases of murder. The ministers feel they should be able to handle any other problems that arise.

So, when some of these women finally realized that they were not the only ones who were being raped, and that this wasn’t some supernatural punishment from God or some sinister visitation from a demon, they tried to speak up. They were promptly told that this was women’s hysteria, and that they were imagining all of it. They were reminded that a woman’s role is to obey and submit.

And so the violence carried on for four more years. That’s when the one rapist was caught and everything seemed to fall apart like a house of cards. Finally, the ministers realized that this was not something that they could sweep under the rug or handle on their own.

They had contemplated building jail cells and imprisoning these men for life. It sounded like a more viable option than lynching them, which had happened to a rapist in a nearby Mennonite community. But the jail cell solution sounded grueling and unsustainable, so instead they took these criminals to the nearest city to allow Bolivian justice to be served.

The end? If only.

The main tenet of this community is that if you repent your sins, you will be forgiven. Since these men confessed (at first, anyway) the rest of the men in the community would have been quite happy to allow these sick men back into their midst. And the women were instructed to forgive these men. If the women were incapable of the forgiveness that their religious philosophy dictates, then they themselves would not be forgiven by God, so in essence the victims would be re-victimized for all eternity.

The unforgiving women would also be banished from the only community they had ever known, and what would they do then? They don’t even know where they are on the planet, having never seen a map. They don’t speak Spanish. They are taught that everything in the outside world was evil. And they are deprived of the education that would allow them to thrive in the wider world. So where were they supposed to go?

In the movie, they meet in a hayloft to have an almost scholarly debate about how they wish to move forward in light of these crimes. They make a plan for their future and execute it. I am woman, hear me roar!

In reality, to this very day, most of the victims in Manitoba County are still there and never talk about what happened. They weren’t even allowed to testify or even attend the trials. The plaintiffs were 5 men who where either husbands or fathers of some of the victims.

Oh, but it gets worse. When the wide world heard about these heinous acts, the broader Mennonite community offered to send counselors who spoke low German to help these women heal. But the ministers, and their men (their men!) did not see the point of it. What did these women need to heal from? After all, it all happened when they were unconscious.

Some reporters believe, based on interviews, that the women were never even told about the offer of counseling. So they are caught in a cycle of victim shaming and forced forgiveness and silence. That must be hell on earth.

But it gets worse still. Many in the community have told the reporters that all the rapists were not caught, and that these drugged rapes continue to this day. Less frequently, perhaps, but they still occur. And they suspect that the rapists are often their own brothers and fathers. Many people in the community now live with bars on their windows and doors, but that doesn’t keep the men who reside under their own roofs away.

There are rumors that incest ran rampant through this community even before livestock tranquilizers were brought into the mix. And when incest accusations were lodged before the ministers, they would banish those men, who would then take their families, including the victims, with them. That kind of justice doesn’t exactly encourage one to step forward.

So I suppose the women can’t be blamed for thinking that they have no recourse but to put up with this nightmare and try to make the best of it. Only a small percentage of them left. The rest are still there to this very day.

Persecution is practically in this sect’s DNA. As I said, the Mennonite doctrine came about in the 1520’s, during the Protestant Reformation in Europe. Pacifists by nature, many of them fled to Russia. By the 1870’s, Russia was no longer a welcoming place for them either, so they relocated to Canada. There, rather than living a simple life, they began to modernize. The more conservative factions of this group did not like the influence Canada was having on their people.

In the 1920’s, the most conservative among them finally had enough when Canada suggested that they should teach their children in English and adopt their standard curriculum rather than only teaching them from the bible. This faction relocated once again, this time to Mexico and Paraguay. Those governments promised to leave them alone and let them live the way they wanted to.

But in the 1960’s, even Mexico was becoming less tolerant, so they fled to more remote parts of Latin America, particularly Belize and Bolivia. These Old Colonists, as they’re called, are running out of places to go. They are left behind by the modern world, just as they wish to be, but that modern world is becoming less patient with them and their draconian lawlessness with each passing year.

I think of these victimized women, isolated deep within a country that doesn’t speak their language. We will never know for sure what is happening to them in real time. There’s no way to contact them. Outsiders are unwelcome. They don’t read. There’s no internet. There are no phones. And even if the Mennonite women of Manitoba County did find a way to speak to us, the horrible words they’d need to speak have, for the most part, been left out of their vocabulary. On purpose.

To learn more about the plight of these women, check out the following:


Author: The View from a Drawbridge

I have been a bridgetender since 2001, and gives me plenty of time to think and observe the world.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: