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In Bolivia, rape trial pries open closed society of Mennonite 'Old Colonies'

A rape scandal inside one of the world's few remaining Mennonite 'Old Colonies' in Bolivia points to much deeper troubles for women in such reclusive sects.

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Nine Mennonite men accused of raping more than a hundred women in their community have been held for the past two years in the Palmasola prison in Santa Cruz, Bolivia.

Noah Friedman-Rudovsky

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Susana Banman dreads the dark. Since one terrible night in early 2009, she and her husband check the closets and lock newly installed window latches each night before going to sleep in their picturesque Mennonite community of Manitoba Colony, in the eastern lowlands of Bolivia.

"Even still, I can't sleep through the night," says the mother of eight, who has come forward as a victim in a rape trial that has become the most horrifying scandal in Mennonite history.

In an ongoing case soon to be decided by Bolivian courts, it's alleged that in 2005, a veterinarian in the isolated community altered a substance that sedates cows for use on humans. He and a gang of eight, the suit claims, spent the next four years terrorizing the community by spraying the concoction through bedroom windows at night, drugging entire families and raping any females inside.

It would be a shocking accusation for any community to handle, but it has threatened to divide one of the world's few remaining Mennonite "Old Colonies": 130 women and girls from ages 8 to 60 have come forward as victims, affecting about one third of the community's families. And the crime, the way the community has responded to it, and the trial itself point to much deeper troubles for women in such reclusive sects.

"Women are not seen as equal to men in these colonies, and this will continue to lead to ever more social problems," says Canadian Mennonite Abe Warkentin, founding editor of Die Mennonitische Post, a German-language newspaper that circulates widely among the hundreds of thousands of Mennonites whose ancestors migrated to Latin America.

'Old Colony' life

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