When Life Goes Dark


The traditional practice of raising children and teenagers in Guatemala is the result of a systematic, intergenerational disciplinary custom characterized by violence, and thus causing severe consequences during childhood and adolescence. According to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), children and adolescents immediately experience fear and terror when faced with the threat of receiving a blow. That is, minutes or seconds before the child is struck, they anticipate what is about to happen.

After the blow, they feel emotional as well as physical pain, and a sense of helplessness. To try to overcome this experience, children and teenagers will develop coping mechanisms for violence, such as extreme obedience or violent behaviors (UNICEF, 2022).

The tendency mentioned above is important, because it helps us understand the elements generated by the home environment that permit submissive attitudes, fear, or extreme obedience. Thus, whoever uses violent force against children and teenagers is also creating conditions in which the child or teenager will not speak up in the event of sexual assault within the family; this can be perpetrated by the father, grandfather, uncle, male cousin, or brother, although women can also be sexual predators.

For this reason, it is necessary to reflect on the links between the different types of violence that take place, and how they affect the wellbeing of child and teenage victims. Due to widespread misinformation and the victims’ own innocence, and the fear caused by traumatic episodes of physical and psychological violence, these children are vulnerable to extortion. As a result, they develop coping attitudes because they feel confused, and do not understand the pain that they are living through.

Sexual education

It is no secret that within Guatemalan culture, the topic of sexuality is a taboo. This leads families to forbid conversation on the subject, thereby increasing the possibility of vulnerability among children and teenagers, who lack information about their own body and the private parts that no one is allowed to touch, such as the mouth, breasts, vagina, penis, testicles, or buttocks. At the same time, in Guatemala children and teenagers are frequently taught incorrect terms to refer to the penis or the vagina, producing disinformation.

This demonstrates that our sexual education is in a fledgling state, still lacking or nonexistent in familial circles.

Meanwhile, teachers in schools have shown shortcomings when it comes to teaching about the topic, due to the little or no training on how to teach a sex-ed class within the teachers’ unions.

The flaws in both the familial and educational environments manifest in the reality of the systematic sexual violence against girls and young women, as is reflected by a report from the Observatorio de Salud Sexual y Reproductiva (OSAR), an organization for sexual and reproductive health. The report indicates that 52, 878 births from mothers between ten and nineteen years old were registered in 2023. Of these cases, nearly two thousand were girls between ten and fourteen.

These recent numbers are chilling, and are the result of fathers, mothers, caretakers, teachers, and even religious officials who limit the development of education to prevent sexual violence.



It is important to note that many cases of child and teenage pregnancies are the consequence of years of systematic sexual violence, leading to the moment when their bodies are naturally changing, creating the conditions for a pregnancy to occur

Some of the behaviors of aggressors and sexual predators include: gaining the victim’s trust during their childhood or adolescence, using games to take sexual liberties, instilling fear in the victims through extortion or threats, and playfully enforcing secrecy.

Sexual assault takes place primarily in familial environments. As a result, when the incident is discovered, it is very common that the aggressor goes unreported, that the adults react with indifference towards the child’s or teenager’s claim, and, in extreme cases, that these claims are met with doubt or disbelief. As it has been proven that a child or teenager lacks the ability to describe a sexual situation if they have not lived it, it is important to always believe their claims and to carry out the necessary investigations.

Speaking about sexual assault is uncomfortable and can cause shame, and when it is talked about so little, it becomes normalized in a society like Guatemala’s, which is characterized by violence and adultism—that is, a way of thinking in which children and teenagers are believed to know nothing, and that they cannot even say what they think or feel.

Dangerous Silence

Silence is the worst way of contributing to the continuation of dehumanizing cases of sexual violence against children and teenagers. It is one of the most difficult forms of violence that a human being can live through, because the damage is never completely reversed; rather, one learns to live with it.

In Guatemala, it was recorded that, of the women who became mothers as teenagers, only 2% earned a university degree, as opposed to 9% of those who became mothers between ages twenty and twenty-nine. (United Nations Population Fund, 2022).

Sexual education is a fundamental pillar in the prevention of sexual assault against
children and teenagers. It is important that mothers, fathers, and caretakers always foster spaces for dialogue with their sons and daughters to strengthen confidence and break silence, which is the most difficult task for someone living through any kind of violence involving the extortion or threats that the victims experience from the perpetrator.

There are existing efforts to prevent these incidents, such as the guide to prevent sexual assault of children and teenagers led by UNICEF. Its content is directed towards the different social actors at the community and municipal levels able to carry out arrests, enact punishments, and file complaints and reports, ensuring that we are all responsible for protecting the wellbeing of children and teenagers.

We must pose the following question: What would you do if you knew of a case of sexual violence in your family or community? Please pause for a moment and reread the question, and now respond silently. This exercise will help you personally gauge how you would act when faced with a case of sexual assault.

The usual response to the previous question is: report it immediately, without considering that the health of the child or teenage victim is the most important and urgent issue to address, due to the possibility of pregnancy in the case of a female victim, as well as the risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). The UNICEF guide includes information for assistance in cases of sexual assault.

For all of these reasons, it is necessary to keep this in mind: “A comprehensive sexual education is crucial in order for adolescents to acquire the abilities and the information they need to lead healthy lives,” affirms Dr. Ana Silva Monzón, research professor at the Latin American Department of Social Sciences in Guatemala (www.guttmacher.org, 2017).

“For a world free from sexual violence.”

Lisseth Santos, woman committed to social transformation for a better world for all people. Profession: social worker, with a background in social anthropology, graduate of the Centro Universitario de Occidente.