About the Author: Jay Raman is Acting Public Affairs Officer at U.S. Embassy Guatemala City in Guatemala.
As in many countries, violence against women is a significant problem in Guatemala. In 2009, the Guatemalan Attorney General's office reported that it received nearly 32,000 complaints of violence against women for the year. Approximately 700 women were murdered -- almost two per day in a country of only 14 million. And those shocking figures don't take into account the number of unreported cases of violence or the collateral effects that domestic violence has on children and other family members.
Clearly violence against women is a very serious problem, with serious consequences, and the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala is working very closely with governmental, non-governmental, and international partners to help raise awareness of the issue, to provide services to victims and their families, and to ensure that perpetrators of violence are punished in accordance with the law.
On November 25, the Embassy joined with many others around the world to celebrate the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women (IDEVAW) and to observe the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence, which runs from November 25 through December 11. Fighting domestic violence is a priority every day, but these two events offer an opportunity to reflect on the problem and to redouble our efforts to promote a world free of domestic violence.
To "kickoff" our observance of these two important events, Ambassador Stephen McFarland joined with his counterpart from the British Embassy at a soccer match to promote a campaign entitled "Breaking the Cycle," which is designed to raise awareness of domestic violence. The two ambassadors took the field at halftime of the annual "Classic" match between the two top Guatemala City teams and tried to stop penalty kicks from fans selected from the crowd. Discretion prohibits me from commenting on the success of their efforts on the field, but I can say that the joint appearance generated a significant amount of media coverage, which brought attention to domestic violence in a new and meaningful way.
A couple of days later, Ambassador McFarland attended a public event to present a $100,000 donation to an amazing NGO, called the Survivors Foundation, which offers counseling and advocacy services to women who have been affected by violence. Survivors Foundation (Fundación Sobrevivientes in Spanish) was started by domestic violence survivor Norma Cruz, who was honored as an International Woman of Courage by Secretary Clinton in 2009. The name of the foundation alone speaks volumes. Most women who suffer domestic abuse are "survivors," not victims. And even in cases involving death -- which are all too common -- there are almost always survivors left behind who suffer the consequences.
The $100,000 donation, which was awarded through a competition sponsored by the State Department's Office of Global Women's Issues, will help the organization to provide additional services to victims to help them recover from the trauma of violence, and in some instances to pursue cases through Guatemala's justice system. The Ambassador was joined at the public event by Norma Cruz and by two extraordinarily brave women who have been helped by the Survivor's Foundation.
One of these women, Aura Suruy, suffered an unimaginable tragedy when her three daughters were kidnapped, tortured, and killed in 2008 while on their way to school. With the help of the Survivors Foundation, Suruy dedicated herself to bringing the criminals to justice, despite long odds and even death threats. Her hard work paid off earlier this year when, with Ambassador McFarland in the audience, the three defendants were each sentenced to 163 years in prison -- a landmark verdict for a shocking crime. At the donation ceremony at the Survivors Foundation Suruy acknowledged that the verdict won't bring her daughters back, but she was proud that her case would be a step forward for the cause of justice in Guatemala.
In addition to these two events, in early December the Public Affairs Section invited an expert from the United States to offer trainings on the subject of Trafficking in Persons (TIP) -- a serious problem that overlaps with violence against women. Guatemala was identified in the 2010 State Department report on TIP as a "source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to trafficking in persons, specifically sexual servitude and forced labor." Guatemala was placed on the Department of State's Watch List for TIP and faces the possibility of losing most U.S. government aid if it does not improve in this area.
In September, a group of key Guatemalan government officials and anti-TIP activists traveled to the United States as part of an Embassy-sponsored program to introduce them to new ideas to combat TIP and to provide services to victims. During this multi-city visit the group met with Erie County, NY, deputy sheriff Elizabeth Fildes, who has been recognized for her efforts to combat human trafficking in her county. Building on the visit to New York, Deputy Fildes accepted an invitation from the Embassy to travel to Guatemala for a week-long series of presentations, lecture, and workshops to help build local capacity to fight TIP.
Deputy Fildes's visit included a visit to the state university to speak with law students, discussions with key government officials, and workshops for colleagues from law enforcement. The visit concluded with a training session for media representatives on how U.S. police work with the media to report effectively on TIP without causing additional harm to trafficking victims. Fildes's visit is a great example of the value of Department of State speaker programs, where U.S. experts have the opportunity to influence foreign counterparts on issues of vital importance.
Although the 2010 IDEVAW and the 16 Days of Activism are coming to a close, the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala is as committed as ever to eliminating violence against women in Guatemala. We will continue to do our best to look for innovative ways address the issue of violence against women and to encourage the Guatemalan authorities to aggressively prevent these crimes, to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators, and to provide effective services to the survivors.