In Guatemala, justice has been grinding painfully slowly for dozens of girls caught up in a deadly fire six years ago in an overcrowded shelter for victims of domestic violence in the outskirts of the country’s capital.
On the night of 7 March 2017, the young residents started a riot to protest not only their poor living conditions, but also the sexual abuse and rapes they said they had endured at the state-run Virgen de la Asunción shelter in Guatemala City where they were forced to live.
Over 100 girls escaped, but they were quickly apprehended by the police and returned to the residence. Fifty-six were then locked up in a classroom for the night, with no access to the bathroom. The next morning, desperate for someone to let them out, one of the teens set fire to a mattress. Nine minutes passed before someone came to rescue them. By then, the fire had spread throughout the 46-square-metre room: 41 girls died; 15 survived with severe burns.
The tragedy did draw some international attention to the abuses being committed in state-run institutions meant to protect girls in Guatemala. But this was short-lived, and it has taken the judicial system years to get around to properly investigating and prosecuting those responsible for the deaths and the alleged abuse.
Eight people – the former director of the shelter, five senior government officials, and two policemen – have since June 2017 faced charges of abuse of power, breach of duty, culpable homicide, child abuse, and neglect.
After years of delays, the trial was finally set to begin in January 2023. However, that first hearing has already been postponed 11 times, as defence attorneys repeatedly recuse themselves in an apparent attempt to disrupt the prosecution.
Despite the rash of recusals, which critics feel is a blatant interference with due process, the high-profile trial has brought renewed attention to the enduring crisis of gender-based violence in Guatemala, and to the authorities’ failure to protect women and girls from harm.
Guatemala is considered one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a woman.
In 2022, 12,563 women – out of a population of just 17 million – reported having been raped or sexually assaulted, according to the Women’s Observatory of the Public Prosecution Service. Last year, the monitoring body registered 82,848 victims of violence against children, teenagers, and women – amounting to 217 complaints per day.
According to statistics from the Guatemala-based Mutual Support Group (GAM), there were 48% more femicides between January and May 2022 than during the same months the previous year. Only tiny fractions of reported cases of gender-based violence lead to punishment in Guatemala, with impunity for femicides especially high.
“The violence stems from – first and foremost – structural inequalities.”
One of the Virgen de la Asunción shelter survivors is Nayeli Flores, 13 years old at the time of the fire. That night, the flames burned 80% of her body. She was transferred to a hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, where she remained for nearly nine months, three of them in a coma.
Like many others, Flores doubts all the attention raised by the trial will help change anything for the better.
“It is not that I do not care about criminal proceedings,” she said in a recent interview for “La persistente esperanza” (“The lingering hope”), a book on the case recently published by La Alianza GT, an organisation that works with children and teen victims of sexual violence. “I know everything will always stay the same.”
While Flores’ situation and the trial have garnered some Guatemalan media attention, the root problems that lead to violence against women are still barely being addressed, experts and women’s rights advocates say.
For Stephanie Buechler, associate research professor of gender equity at Penn State University – an expert on GBV in the region – the reasons are complex, as the violence manifests in a range of ways, from social and economic to physical and psychological.
“The violence stems from – first and foremost – structural inequalities between women and men due to persisting power asymmetries based on a patriarchal system,” Buechler told The New Humanitarian.
No punishment for the crimes
In 2017, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) – regarded by many as an international bill of rights for women – stated in a report that brutality against women and girls in Guatemala deserved special attention because the levels of GBV, femicides, sexual violence, and other hateful acts against women were so high.
Experts say the situation hasn’t improved since, and stress that the current data likely undercounts the number of sexual assaults, and therefore the scale of the problem.
“Violence against women remains an under-reported crime due to societal pressures, fear of publicity and stigmatisation, and low confidence in the justice system,” Buechler said.
Indigenous women in rural areas are particularly vulnerable. Extreme poverty among the Indigenous population has been soaring, according to a recent UNESCO report. Women and girls in these communities are also more likely to face high risks of sex trafficking, sexual violence, or other kinds of physical and psychological intimidation.
“They also generally have less access – like other low-income women – to legal assistance, political representation, professional medical assistance, including reproductive and psychological care, as well as to economic aid and education,” Buechler noted.
Rachel Schmidtke, senior advocate for Latin America at Refugees International, called on the Guatemalan government to provide more formal labour opportunities to reduce one of the main drivers of outward migration.
“Strengthening the rule of law and giving victims of gender-based violence access to justice, is urgent,” she also told The New Humanitarian, underlining the need to invest in social programmes supporting women and families.
Looking for an escape
Overarching poverty, physical and sexual violence, as well as the lack of justice are all factors prompting more Guatemalan women and girls to make the risky journey to the United States.
Hilda Choc, 54, described how difficult it has been for her to live under the continual strain of abuse in a mostly Indigenous rural community in central Guatemala. The mother of two said she has always been mistreated.
“My first partner [sexually] abused me and made me do uncomfortable things I did not want to do,” she told The New Humanitarian. “No one would believe me, because here in Chimaltenango the people are impoverished and still think that we women grow up to take care of men.”
When she was young, her mother taught her to follow her father's orders. She recalled how, after fighting with him one afternoon, he abused and injured her.
“I don't remember everything in detail because I have tried to forget it, although it has been more than 25 years since the incident. I didn't want to tell many people out of fear,” Choc said. “I was scared of being excluded from my community.”
In 2017, weary of her life in Chimaltenango, she decided to migrate to the United States. “I realised that there were no opportunities for my children, my parents were getting old, and we don't have access to a healthcare system [here],” Choc explained.
Although she was conscious of the dangers – including sexual and physical abuse – that migrants, especially women, face en route to the United States, she was still determined to go.
“I felt disappointed for a long time, as if I had failed because I was running from violence,” Choc said. “I later realised that the trip is just as dangerous, if not more treacherous [than staying put].”
Not long after arriving in the United States, Choc was deported and returned to Guatemala.
Finding paths forward
For Buechler, the first step towards improving the situation for women in Guatemala, and across the wider region, is to gather more information about the social and political factors driving them to migrate.
“Applied research needs to focus on realities for women in Central American countries, as well as their experiences during the migration process, to understand how to reduce violence, especially gender-based violence,” she said.
Buechler called for greater investment in education for girls – and in guaranteeing their access to it – and for the strengthening of institutions like the National Ministry of Education and Guatemala’s public school system. Teaching boys about the effects of GBV on vulnerable populations is also key, she added.
And while Flores won’t be holding her breath, experts said it’s also vital to continue striving to secure justice for victims like those of the Virgen de la Asunción shelter blaze.
“Even if it comes years or decades after the facts, prosecution can help show that the legal system works,” Sandra Castro, associate dean of sociology at Adelphi University’s College of Professional and Continuing Studies, told The New Humanitarian.
“To reduce violence against women [in Guatemala], the legal system and legislation must be improved, and corruption must be eradicated to prevent impunity for perpetrators of femicide and other forms of violence against women.”
Edited by Pradnya Joshi and Daniela Mohor.