Note: This Op-Ed was first published in Spanish in “Prensa Libre” a local Guatemalan outlet.
GUATEMALA CITY, GUATEMALA – After the visit of the US Vice President, Kamala Harris, to Guatemala I have been pondering about the high rates of violence women and children suffer in Guatemala, including sexual assault and femicide. Even though the pandemic caused by COVID-19 has made things even worse, I want to remind both the Guatemalan leaders and the United States leaders that there are reasons for hope and their commitment is essential to keep this hope alive. As someone who was sexually assaulted for many years when I was a child, I know this is true. I know protection, restoration and justice are possible in Guatemala.
I was fourteen years old when police arrested the man who had been raping for two years. It was 2007 and relying on the police was very difficult for me. I had to tell my story over and over. When the trial began, the court called me several times but did not take my testimony and made me wait. When they finally called me to testify, I entered the courtroom and saw that the aggressor was there. I wish I had been able to testify in a safe place to share my testimony without fear, but the Gesell Chamber, a private victim-friendly room where sworn testimony is taped, was not an option for me.
It was difficult to share what had happened to me in front of the person who abused me because I could see his face. Even with the support of a private lawyer and social worker provided by International Justice Mission (IJM), it wasn´t easy to access the public justice system fourteen years ago and I am sure that was also the case for other victims.
It´s no longer 2007, and today I am telling my story because I want other children who were abused to know that things have changed a lot in Guatemala. I tell it so that government officials will hear my voice as a survivor and user of the public justice system services.
IJM did a study in the four departments with the highest rates of crimes that showed that almost every case of sexual assault of children now uses Gesell Chambers and videotaped statements, so children do not have to face their aggressor in court as I did. Prison terms for convicted perpetrators are much longer than the aggressor received in my case – only eight years, and he was out in four for good conduct.
In Guatemala now we have a Sex Offender Registry (RENAS, its Spanish acronym), the Women’s Observatory — a publicly accessible data based that collects and analyzes information about crimes against women and children — and the Victim’s Institute (IAV, its Spanish acronym) which opened its doors in September 2020 providing survivor holistic attention so they can reclaim their life project in a resilient and empowered way.
During its creation, I joined twenty-three adult survivors who had been abused when they were children to collaborate with IAV officials in developing trauma-informed, survivor-centered approaches for their services. The fact that our voices and experiences were taken into account to speak into government strategy is a historic achievement for our survivor movement, Mi Historia Importa, (which means “My Story Matters”) and for the Government of Guatemala.
Justice in Guatemala has come a long way since my case was in court. I have seen institutions making an effort to provide nationwide support to survivors. I know there is still work to do so women and children can access the justice services they deserve, so they can feel safe where they live, and they do not have to flee the country due to violence. But from my community, I see the need for more opportunities and development for women, and providing protection and justice is key to ensure these empowerment actions are truly accessible.
I want to tell all survivors of violence that your story matters! To all Guatemalan leaders: It is in your hands to provide protection and dignity attention to vulnerable people. To the US vice president, Kamala Harris I say: Your work to support the Northern Triangle will be important to increase access to justice for women like me. And finally, to all Guatemalans I say: I have learned that by working together we have the strength, the resilience and the power to lead a movement that can make Guatemala a safe place, let’s work together!
Jakelin Mayen is an activist from the Mi Story Matters group, a founding member of the Global Survivor Network, an International Justice Mission team member and is currently pursuing a law degree in Guatemala.