This year’s International Women’s Day theme is “A promise is a promise: Time for action to end violence against women”. In observance, this week USAID is profiling brave individuals and dynamic programs focused on addressing gender-based violence around the world.
The nightmare began when she was thirteen. For two years, Cindy was the victim of repeated rape and sexual abuse by her uncle. The details of the case are heart-wrenching; she also suffered death threats against her mother and grandmother if she reported her case.
Cindy’s happy childhood was interrupted by a sexual predator; her life of play was replaced by horror and shame, and later by courtrooms and lawyers. The last time Cindy was raped was two months ago, just before her uncle was formally charged for rape and sexual abuse.
This case underscores the ongoing tragedy of gender-based violence in Latin America. Many women and young girls like Cindy are afraid to speak out because they are threatened by their attackers and fear being stigmatized by their family and communities. Hence, official statistics do not reflect the true scale of the problem.
Guatemala has long been seen as one of the worst examples of crimes against women in the hemisphere. In the past decade alone, nearly 4,000 women were killed. Some of the victims had sought help but were rebuffed by local authorities. Less than four percent of these cases were solved.
Mounting pressure pushed authorities to pass legislation outlawing gender-based violence. In 2009, a law for femicide, violence, sexual abuse, and trafficking was enacted, but only three men were convicted and sentenced even though in the first two weeks of that year 26 women were killed.
In Guatemala, as in other Latin American countries, cases of gender-based violence fall in the lap of an overburdened criminal justice system with no specialized services for women victims. Most women simply opt for dropping charges.
Local leadership and donor cooperation
Recently, Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz and former President of the Supreme Court, Thelma Aldana identified the need for a specialized court for cases related to violence against women, exploitation, sexual violence and human trafficking.
USAID Guatemala responded to their request and provided technical assistance, training, and equipment to operationalize a new specialized 24-hour court located in the Attorney General’s Office. The new model opened in October 2012 and includes a criminal court, a public defense office, a police substation, and a forensic clinic, and is staffed by prosecutors, psychologists, doctors, and lawyers. The integrated approach ensures victims receive the assistance they need and strengthens criminal investigation by using scientific evidence. The 24-hour court also includes a special Gesell Chamber that allows judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys to observe interviews with minors conducted by psychologists.
This court, one of the first in Latin America, represents a fundamental change in Guatemala’s justice system. Since the 24-hour court opened its doors, 846 protection measures for women and 307 arrest warrants have been authorized. In total, 125 people have been sent to prison for violence against women and sexual exploitation. Although Cindy is forever marked by the horror she endured, justice for women in Guatemala is finally within reach.