Sexual Harassment and Abuse of Power Threaten the Careers of Many Medical Students in Paraguay

Photo: Protest taking place at the Universidad Nacional de Asunción. Published with Kurtural's permission.

The following is a re-edited version of María Dominguez‘s piece, published originally by Kurtural in their series “El país de las mujeres” (A women's country). In the original version, there are more details about the legal issues that make it diffcult to bring sexual harassment perpetrators to justice.  

“It’s just a kiss. No one will know.”

Carolina Wolf is a medical student and delegate of her class at the Asuncion National University School of Medicine (UNA) at its extension campus in Santa Rosa del Aguaray, 250 kilometers north of Asuncion, Paraguay’s capital. She was sitting in the car with Gustavo Rodriguez Andersen, a faculty member of her university, on a rainy night.

Andersen had invited her to attend a conference with him at Asuncion, so she could train her classmates later. At the end of the event he offered her a ride, but before that, he drove around campus for a while, and finally stopped next to a sugar cane plantation, a “dark place”, as Wolf remembered.

“My neck is hurting me,” said professor Andersen.

Wolf looked at him and saw that he was touching himself. “The only thing on my mind at the time was my family. I took my cell phone and started showing him pictures of my mom, dad and siblings to try to distract him,” said the student later. Then she asked him to take her to a nearby food store where someone else would pick her up. When they arrived, Andersen insisted again. He approached Wolf, grabbed her neck, tried to kiss her. There was a struggle.

Wolf broke away from him, got out of the car and walked to the store. She was scared. She called her boyfriend and asked him to come and pick her up. “I told him to never let me come by myself to the university again,” she said.

After that incident Andersen did not try to kiss Wolf again, but he was abusive to her in a different way. “He used to yell at me in front of the entire class, I was speechless when he talked to me. He used to tell me that I was dumb, an idiot and stupid, and all just because I am a woman,” said Wolf.

Wolf did not know how to explain what was going on to her family. She did not say a word about it to anyone. “No one would stop him from being abusive to me; if another student ever tried to say anything their career would be over,” she said.

In September of 2015, UNA’s students finally spoke up about the irregularities at the university. Allegations and charges against dean-level positions and others holding high academic roles at the university became public. The hashtag #UNANoTeCalles (#UNA Don’t Keep Quiet) became a trend on social media during that time. In the middle of that broken silence, Wolf learned that one of her classmates had also been sexually harassed by Andersen.

For me, that was a slap in the face. I still blame myself for not going to the authorities when he attacked me. I knew that he was a powerful man within the university, but I could not stop thinking of what happened to my classmate, so I decided to act and I reported my incident to the authorities,” she explained.

A network of favors

The school of medicine at UNA receives a large amount of state funding through its link with the public hospital network in Paraguay. In the specific case of the extension campus at Santa Rosa, the students’ legal advisor, attorney Guillermo Ferreiro, thinks that this campus was created with the intention of having a place to appoint favorite faculty and administrative members to high-paid positions. “The School of Medicine has become a tool for political domination,” said Ferreiro.

Meanwhile, Minami Akita, a surgery tech student, says that teachers at the school of medicine “owe favors to one another”. Their biggest focus is to get promoted and earn contract positions at the university and/or the hospital. “There is express faculty,” says Akita, referring to staff who are given positions without meeting all the necessary criteria, with the intention that “The Claque” — the power control group at the university — secures a certain number of voters to maintain its authority within the organization.

During the student strike and #UNANoTeCalles campaign, it was said that certain positions at the university were for sale. “Men were asked for cash in exchange for appointing them to certain positions; women, on the other hand, were asked for sexual favors,” says Akita. Because of this, and the fact most of the university's leadership positions are occupied by men, Akita believes that the School of Medicine exercises dual oppression against women.

During their promotion of #UNANoTeCalles social media campaign, Akita and her group received several complaints about the university’s wrongdoings; at least five or six out of every ten complaints were due to sexual harassment. One of the most remarkable stories was about a surgical tech student who acted in some way as an agent, behaving as a pimp would. In the operating room, she negotiated with students about attending private parties with certain teachers. At these events, students would exchange sexual favors for jobs at the hospital. Sometimes, it was the surgeons themselves who would make the offers directly to the students, while working with them during medical procedures.

A protocol to stop sexual harassment at the university

During the #UNANoTeCalles movement, students’ family members came to the university to protest against the abuse, harassment and aggression that the students were victims of, and that — for the first time — were becoming public knowledge. One of them was Dr. Graciela Escobar, an anesthesiologist who also graduated from UNA, and mother to one of the leaders of this student movement at the school of medicine.

In recent months, students’ families have embarked on a “crusade against harassment”, as Escobar calls it, by hearing the severity of the witness testimonies.

Using Wolf’s case as a starting point, they have been asking senators and representatives to act as intermediaries in a debate to establish new protocols against harassment and gender-based discrimination at institutions of higher education. “We’re asking for a new protocol to deal specifically with harassment cases across all campuses of UNA, and that includes a system that keeps victims from being re-victimized by having to tell their story over and over again. We want student affairs offices to have psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers, and that these offices can receive these types of complaints and handle them properly with the corresponding authorities”, says Escobar.

In the midst of all these efforts against impunity, there is the possibility of reopening Carolina Wolf’s case. On May 30, 2016, the Court of Appeals overturned the dismissal of Andersen’s charges made earlier in February. This change may lead to a new hearing of the case with a different judge and district attorney.

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