Arts and Humanities People and Community

Survivors, experts discuss how to prevent gender-based violence

The University’s Institute for Advanced Study of the Americas invited Gloria Estefan, along with national and international leaders, to talk about sexual assault and about using a “framework of prevention, healing, and justice.”
Side by side headshots of Felicia Knaul and Gloria Estefan
Felicia Knaul, left, director of the Institute for Advanced Study of the Americas, and singer-songwriter Gloria Estefan. 

For much of her life, internationally acclaimed singer-songwriter Gloria Estefan buried the traumatic experience she endured at just 8 years old.

But she rarely forgot it.

When a trusted music teacher sexually assaulted her, Estefan knew the older man was in the wrong. However, he also threatened to kill her mother if she told anyone. And she believed he was crazy enough to do so. Yet the anxiety consumed her, and fearing the situation could escalate, young Gloria woke her mother one morning at 3 a.m. and told her.

Recently, Estefan shared her experience for the first time on an episode of “Red Table Talk: The Estefans,” on Facebook Watch. During a panel discussion on Wednesday hosted by the University of Miami’s Institute for Advanced Study of the Americas, Estefan said that she decided to reveal her experience to help others suffering the immense physical and emotional trauma of gender-based violence.

“I knew that for victims around the world watching that show, it would make an impact and it would let them realize that your life doesn’t have to fall apart; that you can reach your dreams; that you can be a healthy, complete human being—despite whatever may have happened in your past,” said Estefan, who is also a University alumna.

Sadly, Estefan’s childhood experience is not uncommon. An estimated one in five children worldwide suffer physical or sexual abuse in their lifetime. And one in three women face the same fate, the World Health Organization reports. Even worse, 90 percent of victims know and trust the perpetrator beforehand, and 68 percent are family members, according to the Children’s Advocacy Center.

“Our greatest worry is that these numbers, which are unacceptably high and have not changed in a decade, have intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic and will live well beyond it because there is no vaccine that we know of for violence against women and violence against children,” said Felicia Marie Knaul, director of the Institute for Advanced Study of the Americas, a professor of public health in the Miller School of Medicine, and co-chair of the Lancet Commission on Gender-Based Violence and Maltreatment of Young People.

Estefan talked more about her experience, as well as her desire to prevent gender-based violence and to support other survivors, during a virtual panel discussion with Knaul and five other leaders in the field, who all thanked the celebrity for sharing her story and putting a spotlight on the issue. The conversation “Gender-Based Violence Against Women and Children in the Americas,” was hosted as part of the 16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence, a campaign led by the United Nations and the Center for Women’s Global Leadership.

When Estefan’s mother found out about the incident, she immediately called police to report it. But she quickly decided not to press charges after officers told her that the experience of a trial would be more upsetting to young Gloria than it was worth.

Many of the panelists—some of whom are survivors themselves—said they are working to make sure that any child, teen, or woman who is exposed to sexual violence can seek justice without the same repercussions and get the psychological support they need as well.

Panelist and Bolivia native Brisa De Angulo said the horrific experience of being raped by a family member and then testifying against her perpetrator in court, led her to attempt suicide twice.

“I broke my silence more than 20 years ago; and as an adolescent, I was one of the first who took my case to court [in Bolivia],” said De Angulo, who is now a lawyer, human rights activist, and recipient of a CNN Heroes award. “What was really hard was that through this process I could not find one person who would not belittle me, blame me, or question me and make me feel like I had done something wrong. And I could have avoided it."

She realized that the same anguish was happening to thousands of children around her, so in 2004, De Angulo founded A Breeze of Hope, a support center that aims to improve access to justice and healing for child and teen survivors of sexual violence. Today, what was once a 2 percent conviction rate against these perpetrators, is now close to 95 percent in Bolivia, she said.

“I wanted to dedicate my life to make sure that no child would have to experience what I did,” De Angulo said, adding that she has worked to create both legal and therapeutic psychological services to help survivors heal and fully enjoy their lives again.

Estefan and some of the other panelists touted ideas for the United States, like introducing a mandatory educational curriculum in preschool or kindergarten that teaches students about appropriate forms of contact and who to talk to if something seems wrong. In addition, some states and many other nations are removing legal barriers to survivors by getting rid of statute of limitations, so that survivors can press charges against their perpetrators years after the violence. Other panelists said the federal government must also offer more support for existing survivors by training community-based organizations on specific therapies that are helpful for victims of sexual violence.

Panelist Daniela Ligiero, who is also a survivor, is now the executive director and CEO of Together for Girls, a public-private partnership for ending violence against children. She has also worked with the United Nations, and the U.S. government on an initiative called Keep Kids Safe, a blueprint for ending sexual violence against children and adolescents. She said President Joe Biden’s commitment to ending gender-based violence, and his decision to create a White House Gender Policy Council led by panelist Rosie Hidalgo, gives her optimism that things are moving forward.

“We are hoping that this blueprint can help inform a national action plan that is relevant for adults, adolescents, and kids using the framework of prevention, healing, and justice,” she said.

Panelist Gary Barker leads Promundo-US, an organization that works to prevent sexual violence before it starts in South America by educating young men about respect for women, sexual consent, and power. He said this means showing young boys how to treat others differently, modeling healthy relationships both in school and on television, and encouraging boys and men to seek support for mental health issues before they escalate into physical aggression. However, he said, funding for these efforts often falls short.

Hidalgo said she hopes to include many of these ideas in a national strategy on gender equality, and Knaul plans to explore many of these global initiatives through the Lancet Commission.