A church commits a moral offense and when accused of the action, it blames it on the teachings of God. Sound familiar? It should. After all, just a few years ago, the movie “Spotlight” cautioned against these very actions. And yet, as if the church turned a blind eye through the entire movie, these crimes have been committed yet again, almost in the exact same fashion, with the exact same justifications.
In El Cortezal, Nicaragua, a twenty-five-year-old mother named Vilma Trujillo was burned alive by Juan Rocha when citizens reported her mentally ill. Rocha claimed to be a pastor and leader of the Assemblies of God. She was left captive in the woods for a week prior to her death, left alone talking to herself and hallucinating. The pastor periodically returned to check on her behavior, eventually deciding an exorcism prayer and a burning fire was necessary to expel her “demons”.
Juan Rocha and his brother-in-law Franklin Jarquin claimed that there were ten people present who all agreed that her burning was an accident and the spirit had suspended her above it.
Obviously, the court disagreed. The brothers, along with three other conspirators, were sentenced with 30 years in prison for this outright crime.
Yet, some citizens rationalized his actions solely because he could read and write, which apparently proved his higher education and connection with God. To the mostly illiterate people of El Cortezal, he seemed capable to take charge of the situation. However, it should not take much for someone to realize that under no circumstances is torturing someone justifiable.
This is not the first incident in which a woman is wrongfully punished and blamed for her own death. Recently, there have been many instances where women are treated disproportionately with no plausible reasoning.
Around the same time of Vilma’s death, there was another incident in which a woman’s security-guard boyfriend shot her six times, and then proceeded to blow the barrel and walk away. The government responded by looking into restricting gun rights when weapons are not the main problem. The person behind the weapon should be accountable. As if these cases were not horrific and immoral enough, there was yet another case that involved a husband attacking his wife with a machete simply because she refused to have sex with him. The idea that men have undisputable authority over women and can dispose of them when they fail to comply with the man is absolutely absurd, especially in the progressive world that we currently live in.
In 2017, Rosita (the closest town to El Cortezal) had the worst record in the country for violent deaths. These incidents are no coincidence, and there is obviously something that needs to be fixed. Campaigners in organizations against gender violence argue that had Vilma Trujillo been a man, she would not have been imprisoned and burned because societal and gender norms would not have allowed such a crime. Even her own family members at the time allowed pastor Juan Rocha to isolate her and did not reach out to authorities. Members of the community are not perceptive in mental health, but instead prefer supernatural explanations.
No doubt, Nicaragua has made significant progress towards preventing femicide. In Latin America, femicide is listed in law as a specific crime. Women’s rights group leader Miuriel Gutierrez from Rosita, Nicaragua claims half the fighting of gender violence is getting the community inside. “We are not going to end violence against women if people don’t recognize this as violence,” she says. “People see it as a normal way to discipline women when they misbehave.” In 2016, Law 779 put the crime of femicide on the statute books, and prohibited police from trying to mediate between a man and a wife unless it was a minor offense.
Additionally, there should be more awareness of how religion is being incorporated into people’s education. The superintendent of the Assemblies of God in Nicaragua, Rafael Arista, empathizes for the perpetrators, suggesting they could be innocent and that the press should focus on the five children of the convicted parents. Keep in mind Vilma also had two children, who are now being taken care of by her husband and brother. Arista referred to her as a crazy woman, claiming that she could have thrown herself into the fire. Another pastor under the Assemblies of God, Saba Calderon Tobares, believes that there needs to be progress in education and secular thinking. Berman Bans, a Capuchin friar in the southern Caribbean recognizes the damaging effects of fundamentalism, specifically a tendency to blame the devil for everything from drug abuse to homosexuality. There are many components that restrict the ability for these citizens to differentiate right from wrong. Because the man had called himself a pastor, the community excused him and his heinous actions. How could have no one stepped back and questioned his supposed knowledge? Religious freedom should not be overriding human rights.
Nonetheless, these cases set a precedent not just for Nicaragua, but the entire world. Justice was served in court and laws were changed to suppress gender inequality. Now, there should be an effort to reduce the number of the 775 million adults who are illiterate, two-thirds of whom are women.