After 40 Girls Die in Fire at Children’s Shelter, Guatemalans Fight Gender-Based Violence

Lead Photo: Photo by Saúl Martínez/Reuters
Photo by Saúl Martínez/Reuters
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As the world celebrated the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women on March 8 – International Women’s Day – Guatemala was marred by a fire at a youth shelter that claimed the lives of at least 40 teenage girls at the state-run Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción, a children’s home. What reportedly started off as a protest to the mistreatment in the facility, ended in devastation. Located 14 miles outside of Guatemala City, the shelter should have provided refuge for abused children. Instead, many allege it perpetuated the same conditions – violence, sexual abuse, and negligence – these young girls fled from at home and on the streets. As an ongoing investigation reveals disturbing details of overcrowding and ignored complaints of misconduct by staff, Guatemalan citizens demand justice for the teens and for women across the country. 

According to testimony from one of the survivors, on March 7, a group of boys and girls escaped the children’s home and the abusive conditions they experienced. After running for miles, she said, riot police caught up with them and violently rounded them up and returned them to the shelter, according to The New Yorker. They didn’t immediately gain entry to the building, a decision that the school monitors say President Jimmy Morales made. The group of children tried sleeping outside on the grass. By 1 a.m., the monitors let them inside. While the boys went back to their dorms, the girls were locked in a schoolroom. They had nothing but mattresses, and a policewoman guarded the room.

The next morning, the staff woke them up with breakfast and everything seemed normal. But they couldn’t leave the room, not even to use bathroom. The girls used the mattresses to cover the windows so that police officers couldn’t see inside. And according to the girl’s testimony, three girls lit a mattress on fire in a desperate attempt to be released. As the flames grew inside the room, police ignored them – seemingly even taking pleasure in the turn of events. “One of the police said, ‘Let these wretches suffer. They were good at escaping, now they can be good at enduring pain,’” the girl said. “They were watching how we caught on fire, but they were not going to open the door.”

About 20 girls immediately died, another 20 died in the hospital. Just Wednesday, the name of the 40th victim was revealed. By Thursday night, the death toll rose to 41. Prensa Libre reports that seven more victims are receiving treatment in Galveston, Texas; Cinncinatio, Ohio; and Chicago, Illinois.

Recently, in a press conference, Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales stated, “It’s obvious that our system must be thoroughly and decisively reformed.” Morales faces heavy criticism for what many see as his complicity in the state’s wrongdoing. According to the New Yorker, Morales, a former television comedian who assumed office in January 2016, appointed two friends to lead the Secretariat of Social Welfare – the organization tasked with improving conditions at the youth shelter following complaints that came prior to the fire. Guatemalans have called for Morales, who cut funding to the department, to lose his immunity from prosecution, much like his predecessor, Otto Pérez Molina, who now faces formal corruption charges.

Many activists in Guatemala also call the incident an act of institutional femicide, a framing that highlights a systemic problem that has been on the rise in the country. Guatemala has the third highest rate of femicide – the gender-motivated killing of women – in the world. Despite implementing laws against violence against woman and establishing specialized femicide courts, Guatemala hasn’t become a safer place for women. As it stands, less than three percent of femicide cases reach a resolution. These girls’ bodies were further seen as disposable due to their age; Guatemala’s also second in the world in the homicides rate of people under 20. On top of these factors, many of the girls came from poor and/or indigenous families with a history of abuse at home, making them extra vulnerable.

This tragedy adds another layer to the country’s battle against impunity for sexual violence and the fight for reproductive self-determination. Last month, the Guatemalan Army detained Women on Waves, a Dutch ship trying to provide safe and legal abortions in international waters. This occurred despite the fact that data shows that last year, girls aged 10 to 14 accounted for 2,504 births due to rape, a situation many of the 40 teens were particularly vulnerable to in and out of the shelter.

Many cite Guatemala’s US-sponsored 36-year civil war, which took place between 1960 and 1996, for further normalizing a culture of violence against women and girls. Guatemalan women, however, have fought back to correct some of these historic wrongs – last year in the landmark Sepur Zarco case, a Guatemalan city court convicted members of the Guatemalan military for sexual slavery against Mayan indigenous women during the war.

As the initial death toll climbed from 20 to 41, many started drawing parallels with the 43 missing indigenous students from Ayotzinapa Teacher’s College in Mexico by borrowing the movement’s hashtag #FueElEstado. Others use #NiUnaMenos, a hashtag that Argentines used to protest femicide and a phrase that has spread to encompass similar movements in other Latin American countries. Many are also expressing their grief and solidarity with the 41 fallen girls with the hashtag   #LasNiñasDeGuatemala, which also draws attention to the gender-based violence that continues to go unchecked.

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