Despite the improvements in legislation to sanction Violence Against Women (VAW) and increased awareness about the issue, the next big struggle is prevention. It’s not enough to simply punish perpetrators, we need to put an end to the global culture that normalizes gender-based violence and downplays the suffering it causes.
At Alas de Mariposas, the organization where I work as a lawyer, we support women that have survived sexual and gender-based violence. A few months ago, Susan*, a 16-year-old girl who came with her mother came into my office. They were referred to our organization by the Public Prosecution’s office having just filed a complaint. The details of their story were out of the ordinary. The complaint they filed was about documents that were taken away unfairly from Susan in her past school. After listening to this case for several minutes I had to explain to them that I didn’t think we could help much because we only focus on VAW. And that’s when Susan started to talk.
With a lot of passion, Susan explained to us that when they were filing the complaint for the stolen documents, she saw the chance to tell the officer about the terrible violence she and her mother were suffering from her stepfather. Even though, the officer never put Susan´s complaint on paper, and instead referred Susan and her mother to Alas de Mariposas.
It was very hard to understand why she had to talk to me for half an hour and never mentioned anything about the abuse. But Susan had to speak up, and just couldn’t keep that it herself anymore. After a couple of visits to Alas we got news from Susan that her mother still refused to denounce Susan´s stepfather. Susan herself used the information we gave both of them about the legal obligations parents have towards their children and the steps to properly file a complaint, and she filed one against her stepfather!
Of course, this took great courage, and everybody can recognize Susan’s bravery no matter where they are. What is truly amazing is that Susan took this action in Guatemala, a highly patriarchal society. Guatemala has very high levels of VAW. Last year alone there were 663 violent deaths of women, there over 69,000 complaints of domestic violence or VAW filed, and 4,222 girls aged 14 years old or younger had births registered (this excludes those that gave birth at home). In the same period, only 776 court cases ever reached the sentencing stage. In such a difficult context, it is understandable that most women never dare to talk about these issues, especially if they have to approach a police officer or judge.
Susan is not alone. At Alas de Mariposas we have noticed that, very often, when the daughters of survivors of sexual and gender based violence are aware of their mothers’ struggle and recovery process, they also start learning more about the subject and changing their conceptions about their rights. This changes the way they relate to men and helps to shape their wishes for the future. Encouraging these girls to continue reflecting about on VAW and getting more empowered is worth us doing.
We recognize the huge importance of supporting survivors and bring the perpetrators to justice – that´s our main task –, and we also think there should be increases attention and investment on prevention. Girls need to know VAW is out there, what it looks like and what they can do to protect themselves and others from it.
I’m convinced by stories of Susan and other empowered girls who are taking the first steps that it´s essential to create more safe spaces for girls and in doing so we will surely start to see some very positive changes. Supporting girls so they are able to continue in school and putting more resources behind Guatemalan women´s organizations that are providing core services is vital to prevent VAW and to help bring an end to cycles of violence.
Gabriela was one of the Nobel Women’s Initiative Sister-to-Sister Mentorship Program participants in 2013. She has just returned home after spending six weeks in Ottawa with our team and two other young women’s rights activists from Liberia and Myanmar.
 Data from Informe de monitoreo del fortalecimiento de la Conaprevi y Aplicacion de la Ley Contra el Femicidio y Otras Formas de Violencia Contra la Mujer durante el 2012 by Grupo Guatemalteco de Mujeres, Rednovi and Interdem.
Read the Sister-to-Sister Mentorship Program blog to find out more about Gabriela’s experience in Canada.