The Sunday Magazine

They've been called 'the ghost rapes of Bolivia'

Canadian writer Miriam Toews takes on a shocking true story of crime and tragedy within a reclusive conservative community, and imagines how the normally silent victims gain the courage to speak out and take back their lives. Her new novel is called Women Talking.
Miriam Toews is the author of the novel Women Talking. (Carol Loewen/Knopf Canada)

Warning: this story contains graphic details of sexual assault.

In 2005, women and girls in a Bolivian Mennonite community began whispering that they were waking up groggy, in pain, feeling like they had been sexually molested.

Some had gone to bed wearing clothes, and woke naked, covered with dirty fingerprints. Others found blood and semen on their bed sheets.

Some Mennonite elders believed it was the work of the devil. Others speculated it was just "wild female imagination."

But the whispers persisted. And then, in the spring of 2009, two men were caught as they were trying to break into a home. They were part of a gang of Mennonite men that had been using animal anesthetic to knock out the women and girls as they slept in their beds.

The rapes were very real, and had been going on for years. As many as 300 women and girls were assaulted, some more than once. One was only three years old.

Eight men were eventually tried and sent to prison in 2011.

That story piqued the interest of the novelist Miriam Toews, whose books often explore the Mennonite experience.

Her latest novel, Women Talking, is her fictional reaction to these events.

Miriam Toews is herself of Mennonite descent. She grew up in Steinbach, Manitoba and has written eight books, including A Complicated Kindness and All My Puny Sorrows.

She has won a number of literary awards for her work, including the Governor General's Award for Fiction and the Writers' Trust Engel/Findley Award which recognises a body of work.

Click 'listen' at the top of the page to hear the full interview.