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At a glance: Guatemala

Olga’s story: Violence against women and children in Guatemala continues to devastate lives

By Vivian Siu

GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala, 28 November 2011 - Every morning Olga Vasquez* would wake up wondering if she would live to see the next day. Isolated in her home, she suffered in silence at the hands of her father’s brutal wrath, trapped in an ever-escalating cycle of abuse. Olga would also witness her father beat her mother and her siblings on a regular basis. When her mother eventually fled, leaving her children behind, Olga focused on protecting her siblings from her father’s rage.

VIDEO: UNICEF and partners are working together in Guatemala to help victims of sexual violence. Seventeen-year-old "Olga Vazquez's" personal story of survival from her father's abuse, in her own words. Produced by Vivian Siu.  Watch in RealPlayer


“He would force me to have sex with him,” said Olga, now 17.  “I hated when he would do it and if I refused him he would beat me very hard with a TV cord. He took away my freedom and that really hurt me.”

Earlier in her childhood, Olga’s mother tried to save her by sending her to live with her paternal grandmother when she was eight years old, but the situation was no better. “It was just as difficult,” said Olga. “She would drink and she would make me sleep in the same bed as her between her and other men.” 

Fighting the stigma

Guatemala is one of the most dangerous places for women in all of Latin America—on average, two women are murdered each day. Last week, thousands of protesters marched through Guatemala City to mark the United Nations’ International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, where 98 per cent of crimes against women go unpunished.

© UNICEF video
Guatemala is one of the most dangerous places for women in all of Latin America—on average, two women are murdered each day.

The years of physical, sexual and emotional abuse continued on unabated, and when Olga turned 15, she noticed an inexplicable change in her body - she was pregnant. 

“The problem was nobody ever told me about pregnancies or where babies came from,” said Olga. “Then my belly started growing and I remember a woman asking me, and I told her it was my boyfriend's, but I didn't even have a boyfriend because my father wouldn't even let me have friends. I was so afraid of him.” 

Worldwide, up to 50 per cent of sexual assaults are committed against girls under 16. In Guatemala, domestic violence is also on the rise.  An estimated 90 per cent of domestic violence incidents go unreported.

“The prevalence of impunity of crimes against boys and girls, and the social stigma on sexual violence constitutes a situation where boys and girls become trapped, and where nobody does anything or says anything,” said Adriano González-Regueral, UNICEF Representative in Guatemala. “There is a growing fight against this type of silence that prevails in the communities and UNICEF is supporting these efforts.”

© UNICEF video
In Guatemala, 98 per cent of crimes against women go unpunished.

UNICEF provides support

Fortunately, with the help of her neighbors, Olga and her siblings were rescued by authorities and brought to the Children’s Shelter Association, an NGO supported by UNICEF in providing shelter and psychosocial services to children who are victims of sexual violence, exploitation and trafficking. Since then, Olga’s siblings have been relocated and are now being raised by an aunt and uncle. Olga and her daughter are still under the protective custody of the Children’s Shelter Association where they continue to receive care and support until a safe alternative can be found for them.

“There is warrant out for Olga's father's arrest but he is out there on the loose,” said Leonel Dubón, Director of Children’s Shelter Association. “She cannot go back to the community where she came from if he is free because she has spoken against him, so what we're going to do now is to try and locate the mother to determine if there is extended family we can reach out to.”

Present-day violence against women in Guatemala stems from the country’s three-decade civil war combined with the country’s long history of gender inequality and deeply patriarchal society. Until 1998, women legally held an insubordinate status to their husbands.  Until 2006, violent sexual acts were considered “private crimes” where a perpetrator could go free if the woman consented. A man could also escape prosecution for rape if he married the victim, even in cases of girls as young as 12 years old.

© UNICEF video
Olga Vasquez* and her two-year-old daughter are being taken care of by the Children's Shelter Association, an NGO supported by UNICEF, until a safe home can be found for them.

“We have to fight against this prevailing silence that exists in society,” said Mr. González-Regueral. “Guatemala has seen the need to fight against impunity and UNICEF supports the public attorney’s office to change the way of this negative trend.  UNICEF, along with other UN agencies, is making public statements before courts and others to protect the lives of women and children, and is carrying out campaigns to protect the lives of boys and girls and teenagers.”

Moving forward

In 2009, a new law called The Law Against Sexual Violence, Exploitation and Human Trafficking was passed which increased sentences for violent crimes against children and where imprisonment and fines were put into place if the perpetrator was a relative.

“I know there are teenagers and girls who are going through the same situation and who don't speak out because of fear,” said Olga. “I urge them to not be silent, to be brave and tell someone they trust; to speak with a responsible adult and to fight for their dreams so that they can go forward, like I will.”

*Names of individuals have been changed to protect their identity.



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