The silent wounds of Guatemala’s youth

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A few days ago I visited a community an hour and a half from Quetzaltenango. We arrived by car on a remote and unsafe path. While one of my coworkers facilitated a workshop, I asked a young participant to guide me to a nearby waterfall that I’d heard was beautiful. While we followed trails that wound through coffee fields, my guide told me about his community. I was shocked at the magnitude of the violence there. In several nearby communities two gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha and the Mara 18, fight for territory. Both gangs are made up mostly of children and teenagers. This situation, according to my guide, has exacerbated the violence and insecurity in a place where, for example, neighbors have found children’s dismembered bodies and it’s common to see teens fighting with machetes and guns. This same day we were told that one of the girls we were working with had been raped. Do we truly understand the reality of Guatemala’s children and adolescents?

Malnutrition, child labor, and high rates of assault are the most common problems facing Guatemala’s youth. According to UNICEF, in 2014 21 cases of assault and sexual violence and 19 cases of physical abuse were reported daily in Guatemala. Also in 2014, the Public Ministry registered 1,371 cases of sexual violence against minors. That’s a monthly average of 114 cases. The Ministry of Public Health and Public Assistance (MSPAS), meanwhile, reported that 99 girls died of sexual violence in the first half of 2014 alone. That implies that 200 girls die every year here from sexual violence. These figures do not include the high numbers of unreported crimes.

The situation of girls and young women also faces other aggravators. According to the MSPAS, 30% of Guatemalan girls will lose their virginity with a close relative: a father, stepfather, brother, uncle, cousin. Further, the country has normalized marriage and pregnancy at an early age, both of which are on the rise. The Office for Food Security and Nutrition (SESAN) registered more than 27,000 pregnant minors in the first half of 2014, and 50% of them were chronically malnourished. The National Register of Persons (RENAP), meanwhile, recognized 13,794 weddings of youths between 14 and 18 years old from 2009 to 2013. Even though civil society groups have written reform bills, like the one that would amend the Civil Code, these bills can’t find approval in Congress.

The role of the state is fundamental in the protection of children’s rights, but the data tell us clearly that what is being done is not enough. According to UNICEF, the Guatemalan government invests only Q5.22 (around $.68) per day to cover the needs of each child: health, education, housing, safety, etc. Meanwhile, holistic policies to address not only direct violence but also cultural and structural violence are nonexistent.

Concerned about my guide’s stories, I wondered what the collective soul must be like of a society so violent that it appears to have normalized the silenced wound that spreads within its youth. On my way back, I thought of the important efforts of civil society to transform this silence through support to victims, strengthening reporting practices, etc. But without a clear and holistic commitment from the state it’s difficult to maintain processes of social change. Even so, inspired by the beauty of this place and its people, I feel sure that, alongside violence, a gorgeous poetry also blooms.