Since arriving in La Paz, Bolivia, I have been following JusticeMaker Veronica Marisol Quiroga Pando (for the sake of brevity, I will call her Marisol) to document some of her work for International Bridges to Justice (IBJ).
I am a Canadian journalist who is a volunteer intern.
Already I am in awe of what Marisol does.
Despite being the mother of five children (some are grown up and have moved away but she still has three sons at home and a daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren living in an adjoining home) and having a husband who is in very fragile health due to rheumatic fever, Marisol works unbelievable hours, and is incredibly dedicated.
Her job as a human rights advocate puts her fighting for the lost women of her country.
Poor, indigenous women, incarcerated for crimes they may or may not have done are often abandoned by families ashamed of the intense social stigma associated with being a woman on the wrong side of the law.
Without support from the outside, they have no ability to obtain the required documents which could help further their cases or allow for reduced sentences.
Often they do not even realize they have rights within the system, such as the right to representation or a fair trial, and they may be detained without trial for months or even years.
Their treatment within the justice system can also at times be terrible and without an advocate on their behalf, these women fall through the cracks.
From the moment I met Marisol at the airport – after midnight she had come to meet me with her son in tow – it was clear this woman has a heart of gold.
She and her son got me settled at the hotel, and made their way in a taxi across the city back to their home.
The next morning she left her house at 6:30 a.m. to head out of the city to meet with women in need of her help (the poor and mostly indigenous city of El Alto is where many of her clients live, just outside La Paz).
She met me at noon after returning from the meeting, to take me to lunch before walking me through the courthouse in La Paz.
Seeing her in the courthouse, navigating a system bogged down in bureaucracy, like many countries around the world, is something to behold.
She is always polite, and speaks calmly, but she is also clearly very strong and assertive.
Even though I understood few of the details of what was said in her interactions in the offices, she is obviously very diligent towards the women she advocates for.
She explains carefully in Spanish to me about the woman she worked to get medical attention for while the woman was incarcerated.
It is a tragic story, and after much work on Marisol’s part, she finally got the surgery she desperately needed.
Marisol goes from one room to the next in a building crowded with people in lines, trying also to navigate their way in the system, each room she visits is filled with young clerks surrounded by stacks and stacks of files.
Stapled pages piled upon one another representing case files, some with names in large tabs sticking out from them.
When the case files become too thick for staples, and because there are no file folders, the clerks sew the pages together, and I watch one young woman stitch more pages onto a file at least two inches thick with a large needle and string. On one shelf I see files which have become bundles, tied together by string like old-fashioned parcels.
Yet despite the apparent chaos, Marisol asks for files and they are miraculously produced for her, after rapid searches through stacks on desks or piled high on shelves.
She flips through and asks clerks to acknowledge a particular page or answer questions, she makes notes in her book before returning the file and moving to the next room.
I sense her frustration when we leave, the lack of progress on her cases is very difficult for her, but still she smiles and prepares to catch a minibus to the prison to visit some clients.
When I ask Marisol later about her work, her eyes get soft.
She explains slowly to me how the women she works to advocate for are victims within a system struggling to overcome poverty, discrimination, corruption and bureaucracy.
She calls her project very tiny given the many women and their families caught in the system with no one to turn to, and yet I have already seen evidence of the large impact her work can have on these women’s lives.
She calls the problem huge, and looks heavy with the weight of it.
Her eyes are near to tears when she speaks of the women’s children, in a culture in which the women’s role in the home is integral, a family with no mother is not a family at all in many cases, and the impact on the children then can create further issues. A cycle perhaps not unlike what happened to First Nations children in Canada taken from their parents during the days of residential schools, and which we know now can create problems for generations to come.
Her motivation for what she does is clearly not only to help women struggling to navigate a system on their own, but also to help their children.
With no safety net for these children, they may be left to fend for themselves, and Marisol stresses to me the importance of conveying the greater social impact certain sentences or treatment of women can have.
This is only the tip of an obviously huge job this amazing woman strives to do, fulfilling a role at great time and sacrifice to herself and her family, and this is only what I have managed to gather with broken Spanish.
In the coming weeks I will attempt to document more of her work and some of the stories of the women and their families.