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‘Epicenter of Violence’: Guatemala Combats Brutality Toward Women

March 7, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Guatemala has become an epicenter of violence in Central America, and violence against women in particular has hit record levels. Ray Suarez and the NewsHour's Global Health Unit have the first of two reports from Guatemala with a look at programs aimed at stopping a long history of domestic violence.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to the grim story of violence against women in the Central American nation of Guatemala.

This is the first of two reports from Ray Suarez and our Global Health Unit.

RAY SUAREZ: In a modest home in the heart of Guatemala City, Rosa Franco Sandoval holds tight to the memory of her daughter, Maria-Isabel. Pictures of 15-year-old Maria-Isabel at her 15th birthday celebration, her Quinceañera,taken shortly before her murder in 2001, are a daily reminder of a life cut short.

ROSA FRANCO MARIA SANDOVAL, Mother (through translator): Maria-Isabel was a happy girl. Very dynamic, a high school queen who dreamed of becoming an air force pilot.

RAY SUAREZ: Maria-Isabel worked part-time at a clothing boutique where a known drug trafficker came in one day to shop. He met the teen and insisted she become his girlfriend.

ROSA FRANCO MARIA SANDOVAL (through translator): He had money and belonged to the Cartel del Golfo. He believed that all women should pay attention to him, but my daughter refused.

RAY SUAREZ: One evening, the girl left work to find three cars waiting outside the shop.

ROSA FRANCO MARIA SANDOVAL (through translator): She was forced into a car and kidnapped. Co-workers saw how her mouth was covered. I was watching the news, and they were saying a woman had been found face down dead. She had Maria-Isabel’s clothes, and I kept saying, no. But the camera focused on her feet. It was her, Maria-Isabel.

RAY SUAREZ: Stories like those of Franco’s daughter have become commonplace in Guatemala. Organized gangs have moved in…

RAY SUAREZ: … challenged and corrupted the justice system. Guatemala has become an epicenter of violence in Central America. Violence against women in particular has hit record levels.

Amnesty International reports 717 women were killed in 2009. Of those, many had been raped and mutilated. According to the United Nations, nearly 45 percent of Guatemalan women have suffered some kind of violence in their lifetimes. And abuses that don’t end in death are under-reported.

The country has a long history of brutality toward women. During a long and bloody civil war, rape was often used as a weapon. And cultural biases that tilt power to men have only compounded the problem.

CLAUDIA PAZ, Attorney General, Guatemala (through translator): Violence against women and gender-based violence is one of the biggest problems of our country.

RAY SUAREZ: Even Guatemala’s top law enforcer, attorney general Claudia Paz, admits most crimes against women go unpunished.

 

CLAUDIA PAZ (through translator): The justice system hasn’t given violence cases the importance they deserve. And with violence against women, the problem is even worse. We live in a culture of sexist behavior. And violence against women is either not seen or women are considered somehow responsible, somehow guilty.

RAY SUAREZ: Horrific cases like those of Maria-Isabel show how gangs often torture young girls, with the goal of scaring entire neighborhoods, police, and even the justice system.

ROSA FRANCO MARIA SANDOVAL (through translator): Her face was destroyed. She had a rope around her neck. They took off nails, a piece of ear. Her legs were broken.

CLAUDIA PAZ (through translator): These are very powerful men that use women as their objects. And if women no longer want to be in that situation, if they want to leave, they are killed. Women are used as instruments to threaten their adversaries: If they don’t do what I want, I will kill your wife, your daughter, your mother.

RAY SUAREZ: Pushing back against a society that tolerates brutality a group of Guatemalan girls came together at a workshop dedicated to gender violence.

The session was part of a larger program run by an international NGO, the Population Council. Called Abriendo Oportunidades, or Opening Opportunities, the program is intended to give voice to the most marginalized of Guatemalan populations, indigenous girls.

Jennifer Catino oversees the Latin American programs for the Population Council.

JENNIFER CATINO, Population Council: It’s a history of political and social violence, a history of marginalization and discrimination, a very patriarchal history where girls and women have been marginalized and oppressed.

Then you have, on top of that, the rise of activities related to drug trafficking and organized crime. And so all of these layers of violence have created a situation that place girls and women at very high risk.

RAY SUAREZ: The girls here have traveled great distances. Each is expected to bring back what they have learned to their communities.

JENNIFER CATINO: Change starts locally. And I think that these girls are, in their communities, demonstrating desire for their own lives to be different from the lives of their mothers and their grandmothers. That’s really creating significant change in these communities.

RAY SUAREZ: But changing attitudes in small, isolated rural communities has its challenges.

Alejandra Colom runs Abriendo Oportunidades in Guatemala.

ALEJANDRA COLOM, Population Council: The challenge is to engage the community to see each face as a recognizable face, see their sisters and their mothers and their daughters in every single victim.

RAY SUAREZ: On a road in Guatemala’s rural heartland, a team is walking from door to door, combating violence against women and girls using a combination of 21st century technology and good old-fashioned community organizing.

ELVIA RAQUEC YAQUI, Guatemala (through translator): We walk door to door, knock on people’s houses and ask if there are girls who we can invite to join the clubs. With the GPS, we put a point in every household that has girls between the ages of 8 and 17.

RAY SUAREZ: Girls are interviewed about threats they encounter in their villages.

ELVIA RAQUEC YAQUI (through translator): We are able to map public spaces considered safe spaces. We identify where girls may be at risk to be sexually assaulted or places where it is just unsafe to go.

RAY SUAREZ: Age is critical here. Often, when girls hit puberty, fathers order them to stay home to protect them from sexual attacks they might encounter walking to and from school. And that handicaps their futures. They’re required to do chores instead.

But buy-in from a member of the local community council and the local mayor shows families influential men are ready to stand up to protect women and girls.

Alejandra Colom says engaging households, particularly fathers, is key.

ALEJANDRA COLOM: You talk about the opportunities. You talk about the positive things that can come from allowing their girls to go to school, to learn new things. But you also make them a little afraid.

You — I think part of the discussion is, what will happen when it is your daughter or your sister or your mother? And then, by trying to put familiar faces into the victims, then I think the reflection and the discussion becomes more honest, because it — they realize it will happen to them, unless they do something about it.

RAY SUAREZ: The groups meet weekly for drills about self-esteem, education, and health. Every year, new peer leaders are identified and mentored.

Marcia Yat was an intern for the girls network and now serves as a mentor. She led a group of more than 300 girls in Santa Cruz Verapaz in northern Guatemala. And she stood up for one young girl named Maribel Chinquin, who saw her father beating her mother.

MARCIA YAT, Guatemala (through translator): The other children saw how their mother was being choked by their father. He used ropes. But when one of the boys tried to stop it, the father beat him.

MARIBEL CHINQUIN, Guatemala (through translator): We knew my mother was very afraid of my father, afraid when he would come back from work.

RAY SUAREZ: Last November, after years of abuse, Maribel’s mother died.

 

At Marcia’s urging, Maribel stood up to her father and insisted she and her siblings be removed from his care.

MARIBEL CHINQUIN (through translator): I want my brothers and sisters to be treated well. And I want to go to school.

RAY SUAREZ: For now, Maribel is back in school. She and her siblings are safe from their father. It’s cases like these that mark progress for leaders like Colom.

ALEJANDRA COLOM: Every person counts. Every time you have a father realize this is important, every time you see a community leader tell you that he got engaged in — for solving a dispute or stopped something from happening, and every time you hear a girl say she feels safer, it’s a gain.

So, we focus on each individual case. And then we try not to see all the work that’s ahead.         

RAY SUAREZ: It’s the only way you can go on, right?

ALEJANDRA COLOM: That’s the only way you can go on, is day by day.

RAY SUAREZ: Attorney General Claudia Paz echoes that sentiment.

CLAUDIA PAZ (through translator): Change can’t occur immediately. Twenty to 50 years of impunity can’t be changed from one day to the next. But we have begun.

RAY SUAREZ: And while admitting the change is slow, Paz points to 57,000 cases of abuse reported in 2010, a sharp increase in reporting from previous years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ray’s next report examines efforts to teach Guatemalan women about family planning.

There’s much more on our Web site, including a slide show of images of daily life in Guatemala, Ray’s reporter’s notebook, and a timeline showing key moments in the country’s history.