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A Mennonite Tragedy: The True Story Behind 'Women Talking'

"Women Talking" is loosely based on a harrowing tragedy in a Bolivian Mennonite colony, where numerous women and young girls were drugged and raped. 

A still from Women Talking

The film “Women Talking" is a remarkable and disturbing tale about women in an isolated religious colony who are faced with a crisis of faith after multiple sexual assaults occur in their community.

The film from Sarah Polley is based on the 2018 novel “Women Talking” by Canadian novelist Miriam Toews, Time reports. The book follows eight Mennonite women who meet secretly in order to discuss what the next steps will be after discovering that men in their colony were regularly drugging and raping them.

Tragically, the novel itself is loosely inspired by a true crime story in Bolivia.

"There are eight women, two families, different generations, teenagers and then their mothers and their grandmothers, and all of the women have been attacked, have been raped, including the young children of the women there, and they have two days, 48 hours, to figure out what to do," Toews, who was raised Mennonite herself, told National Public Radio during a 2019 interview about the book. "The options they're considering are to stay and fight, to leave and to do nothing."

Elements of the book come from the shocking Bolivian crimes that made international headlines in 2011, according to the BBC. That year, seven male members of a Mennonite group were sentenced to 25 years in prison for raping more than 100 women.

Just as in “Women Talking,” the Mennonite men secretly drugged the women, as well as girls as young as 3, before raping them, Vice reported. An eighth man received 12.5 years for supplying the sedative used.

"Due to their religious beliefs, they thought something bad, something evil was happening in the colony," Fredy Perez, the prosecutor who investigated the case, told the BBC of the widespread confusion in the community when the attacks were happening. "In the morning they had headaches… Women woke with semen on them, and wondered why they were without underwear. And they didn't discuss it with neighbours in case someone said, 'That house has the devil in it.'"

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Nearly 150 members of the colony, which had around 2,000 members, took part in the trial, the BBC reported in 2011.

Elders in the community became suspicious after they noticed that one male member was getting up late in the morning so they began following him, according to the BBC. That’s when they noticed him jumping through a window of one of the many victims' homes.

After being questioned, he named the other men who were involved in the attacks.

Many of the members of the community felt conflicted over coming forward.

"It was very difficult to get them to testify," Perez told the BBC. "Many times the women said, 'No we don't want to,' and they'd start to cry. And I would say to them, 'But if you don't co-operate, I won't have any witnesses. So the men will be acquitted, and they'll return to the colony.' That would make the women and girls cry even more. Mennonite culture is pretty sexist. And apart from that, the women are shy, and don't want contact with the outside world."

The ramifications linger in the colony today, as the victims attempt to move forward — and certain members of the community push for the perpetrators to be forgiven. 

"We would welcome them back with great pleasure," one resident told the BBC. "And if they need anything, we'd like to help them. Our ministers always say we have to forgive, even if someone's committed a crime, that's why they've sent people to find out if the men can be freed."

Others in the community disagree and are fearful the men will return when they complete their sentences

"A lot of people support the men in Palmasola. And if we - the victims - talk, those men in prison will hear, and families will be threatened," one victim told the outlet.

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