On March 24, 2012, Aida was looking after her nephew. She was home alone – her sister had travelled to Peru for work. At about 9pm, her brother-in-law showed up drunk. He knew nobody was around – that nobody would be back for hours – and proceeded to rape her. A month later, Aida found out she was pregnant.
She was just 15 at the time.
Six years on, sitting under a single bulb in her house, Aida stares at the floor. Marta, her daughter, clambers in and out of her lap clutching a toy doll.
'For years I tried to talk to people, but I felt so ashamed,’ she says.
Aida is just one of many girls who have been victims of sexual assault in the indigenous community of Chimborazo. Located roughly three hours drive from the capital Quito, the community is traditionally very closed off. Elders here prefer to silence women with shame and stigma, meaning much of what happens remains hidden in the rolling hills.
Nationwide, Ecuador has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in South America. Recent statistics paint a bleak picture: 16.9% of teenage girls aged 15-19 are mothers. And abortion is illegal, punishable by prison sentence.
If a woman like Brett Kavanaugh’s accuser, with all the advantages of being born, raised and educated in one of the richest countries in the world, cannot have her story of sexual assault heard and believed, what hope does someone like Aida have?
But the fight is on. People like Hilda won't rest until the abuse ends. A serious, no-nonsense woman, she heads up Guamote Women’s Corporation, a collective of women who lobby local government to make sure the specific needs of the women in their community are being met.
In a community where rape isn't considered rape if the victim is over 18, it's vital men – says Hilda – are part of the conversation. Sexual health workshops organised jointly by Plan international and the Ministry for Health, and led by local health workers, are educating girls and – importantly – boys about sexual health. In 16 indigenous communities, they run 'Pregnancy Free Zones' – fortnightly workshops, where sex, reproductive rights and contraception are discussed openly.
Clearly the fight for women's rights is rumbling away at all levels, from the grassroots to the global. Whether through policy or simply speaking out, we look at the key players bringing about change in one of the most remote parts of the world.
This photo essay is part of a European Journalism Centre project via its Innovation in Development Reporting Grant Programme.
When people in the community found out about Aida’s pregnancy, they blamed her for seducing her brother-in-law. Some, like her uncles, blamed her sister – they said she had gone away for work. What did Aida expect? The brother in law has always denied it. He lives in Quito with his three children and his wife, Aida’s sister.
Thanks to therapy, she doesn't blame herself.
'Now I refuse to remain silent – for myself and my daughter. I understand it's not my fault anymore, and I have zero tolerance to misogyny,' she explains. 'But machismo doesn't just exist in Ecuador. I see it on the TV, every day. It's everywhere. We need to do more.'
Hilda is on the warpath. When she heard a woman in a nearby town had been murdered by her partner, she gathered together a group of other women from the collective, and marched on the town to demand the husband be jailed. His family got her barred from the town, but it hasn’t stopped her – 'This violence against women - it has to stop.'
She’s also well aware of her community’s sexual violence problem, and of attitudes surrounding sexual assault and rape prevalent in the Western world too.
'Women are always blamed for rape, as if it was our mistake,’ she says. 'No one supports us, not anyone in the family, not the father, the uncles. We shouldn’t have those kind of attitudes in our culture.'
In Hilda’s community and others like it, rape isn't considered rape if the victim is over 18. So it's also vital that men are part of the conversation – like 45-year-old Luis, who wants his daughter, Alexandra, to stay in school and follow her dreams, whatever they may be.
'I have two sons and I talk to them all the time about respecting women,' he explains. 'They live away from home but I’m always in touch with them.'
Alexandra's Dad, Luis, is her biggest cheerleader. As a result, she's been involved in the teenage pregnancy project for two years and leads workshops on gender equality in her village.
Her green silk Valedictorian’s sash hangs over her bed; one day she hopes to go into politics. For now, though, she's concentrating on her studies. She was class president, and her green silk valedictorian sash hangs over her bed.
'When women have knowledge and capacity, they make better leaders than men,' she says. 'We’re good at analysing. We might be different genders, but we have the same right to participate in everything.'
Alexandra is lucky to have a dad who supports her. Women like Maria aren't so fortunate. She had her daughter, Luz Mari, when she was 19, after an incident of sexual abuse left her pregnant. She’s a single mother. Maria works in agriculture, but she was born with a medical condition in her leg which means she can’t work as much as she wants.
Luz Maria’s father was a boy from the community. One night, there was a party in the village for her cousin’s wedding – he wasn’t invited, he just turned up. That’s when he forced himself on her.
Maria didn’t tell her parents until after she gave birth, because she didn’t want to disappoint them.
'I didn’t want to tell them because I’d become pregnant as a result of abuse.' The community intervened and said he had to give her 20 dollars monthly in child support, but he rarely pays it.
'I wish he was more supportive financially, but I don’t want my baby to be with him. I take care of my kid,' she explains.
The Health Unit
This health unit, the poorest province in Ecuador, is where the Pregnancy Free Zone workshops are held. The unit offers specific information about teenage pregnancy in the region, indicating areas of high risk, as well as arming people in the community with practical advice – like who to call if someone goes into labour, and where new mothers can go to get the right vaccinations for their children.
Angel worries about the amount of older men he sees with younger girls in the community. A friend of his was going out with a much older guy when she was 14. She dropped out and didn’t finish school. She stopped caring about studying or her family, and married him. Angel says it’s a big problem.
'They don’t finish school, and they can’t have the life they would have had. Girls need to be independent.'
He says fighting for women’s rights isn’t just a women’s issue – it’s something men have to be involved in too.
'Feminism is when a woman leader helps other women protest men who are violent, and they fight for this day to day. But men can help, they can get involved in campaigns.
'I’d say I’m a feminist – I support girls when they need it. It’s not something that women should do alone – they need men to help.'
Jenny gave birth to her son, Justin, when she was 17-years-old. As the oldest sister, it was often her responsibility to visit the land where her family own cows after school.
Justin’s father’s family owned cows there, too.
'He came at night,' she explains. 'I didn’t tell anyone. I was too scared my dad would hit me.'
Community mediators offered marriage as the only solution, so Jenny went through the courts to get child support. They travelled to Quito to do a paternity test, and Jenny says his family paid the doctor to say the result was negative – that he wasn’t the father. He demanded £8,500 from her, but dropped the claim when she asked for another paternity test. Then, he disappeared.
'I’ve heard of this kind of thing happening, but I never thought it would happen to me.'
Girls sit and talk at the Health Unit, where the Pregnancy Free Zone workshops are held.
Nancy is eight and a half months pregnant. The father of her child is around, and they’re together – they got married a year ago. He’s 19 – serious, but affectionate. They met through Facebook, when she was 12 and he was 13. He friended her, and they started talking.
'I was happy when I found out I was going to have a baby,' she says, grinning. She and her boyfriend have never used contraception.
'I do want to finish high school,' explains Maria. She left when she was 15.
Her dream was to be a nurse but now that she’s married, she says, it's impossible. 'I’m not that happy about being married. But I did it because my cousins and aunts were lying to my mum, saying I was pregnant and having sex with my boyfriend.'
Her husband’s happy for her to go back to school, but she’s worried she would be judged for being pregnant and married. People in the community would gossip either way.
'You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t,' she says with a half-smile.