Children Having Children in Guatemala
By Linda Forsell
Thirteen-year-old Lilian says nothing the first time that I meet her. Not even her name. Instead, her mother tells me the story of how Lilian was raped repeatedly by her great uncle and became pregnant when she was only 11 years old. Fourteen-year-old Michelle, who was raped by a 53-year-old neighbor, is a bit more talkative. But when I mention the abuse, she falls silent. During the first six months after she delivered her baby, she rarely touched her daughter, Erica. Gloria, who just turned 13, doesn’t even believe that she was raped. But the father of her unborn child is a 22-year-old disc jockey whom she has rarely seen since she became pregnant. These are just three stories of girls—only children themselves—who have been sexually exploited by coercion or outright violence in Guatemala and become young mothers while barely in their teens.
“Of course it’s rape!” says Dr. Carlos Vasquez, head of gynecology at a hospital in Sayaxché, Guatemala. “The saddest part is that the guys aren’t 13 or 14 years old, they are 27 or 28 and know what they are doing when they use these girls.” Sexual attacks against young girls are part of a wider pattern of violence in Guatemala. During the country’s civil war that raged from 1960 until 1996, some 20,000 people were killed, and the state used rape as a counterinsurgency strategy. Currently, Guatemala has the fifth highest murder rate in the world.
In 2006, drug cartels began to move much of their activity to Guatemala after the United States and Mexico made a tactical change in the war on drugs and cracked down on sea- and airborne trafficking.
Since then, the main route passes through the northern and eastern parts of the country. “Around organized crime, there is much violence, violence against women, and drug use. Unfortunately, there are very few prosecutions against members of this group. The women are afraid to testify against them, because they know that anyone who stands up against these people will die. It’s that simple,” says Helen Leiva, who works for Tan Uxil, an organization that promotes reproductive rights and receives funding from Planned Parenthood. “There has not been one single moment when we have been able to sit back and say yes, now the rates are going down. On the contrary. They keep going up.” In 2009, Guatemala introduced a law on sexual exploitation and human trafficking that defines sex with a girl under the age of 14 as rape under all circumstances and includes strict directives for sentencing perpetrators and instructions for aiding victims of sexual violence. Nevertheless, 5,100 girls below the age of 15 became pregnant last year in Guatemala, and the number of 10 to 15-year-olds who gave birth more than doubled between 2010 and 2012. And this disturbing trend is reflected throughout Latin American and the Caribbean, which the United Nations Population Fund reports is the only region in the world where births to girls under the age of 15 are on the rise, an increase that is projected to continue. Since 2012, every hospital and maternity ward in Guatemala has been required by law to report births to girls under the age of 15. While the legislation led initially to a sharp increase in reported deliveries among young girls, the numbers have since declined. “Families now know that the man will be reported if the girl delivers in a hospital, so they give birth at home instead,” Leiva explains.
Lilian’s Story: A Mother’s Courage
A recent study found that 89 percent of cases of sexual violence against girls under the age of 14 involve a family member or family friend, with a quarter of cases committed by the girl’s own father. Lilian was only nine years old when her great uncle—30 years her senior—began having sex with her during the day while her mother was at work. She became pregnant two years later. A shy girl, she rarely looks up from the floor unless her two-year-old son Marcos David demands her attention.
In spite of the fact that he was the result of an assault, Lilian is a patient and loving mother, and her son appears to be happy and well cared for. Lilian’s mother, Rosalia, filed charges against Lilian’s great uncle, who fled after the police issued a restraining order against him.
“We’re still very scared that he’ll come back and do it again, because he’s out there and we don’t know where,” says Rosalia. Lilian’s grandfather was upset when he first found out that his daughter had reported his brother for raping his granddaughter. His response was not unusual, according to Mirna Montenegro, a surgeon and the head of OSAR (Observatory for Reproductive Health), which advocates for reproductive rights. Social norms, patriarchal attitudes, and poverty make young girls more vulnerable to rape and sexual violence and less likely to seek justice for these crimes. “One thing we have seen is that the girl tells her mother what the father is doing, but since the man is her husband and part of the family, she steps into her social role. One woman whose daughter said ‘he raped me, daddy raped me’ began to think about who would support her and their other four children. This is poverty. So she thought ‘it’s better I don’t report him and instead I’ll wait and see if the girl finds another family soon, and if she doesn’t we’ll just carry on,’” Montenegro explains. “[The one] who raped did it because ‘the girl provoked him’. The first mental image that people get is that the girl is guilty. This also means that mothers are often aware of their husbands raping their daughters but fail to do anything about it. Many of these women have themselves been the victims of violence.”
Fortunately for Lilian, Rosalia is a strong woman who broke from this pattern of silence by reporting Liliana’s attacker to the authorities. In the midst of three small buildings that comprise Lilian’s home, children are running around and playing. The family moved here recently to escape the house haunted by memories of the attacks against Lilian. For the first time in a long time, Lilian smiles. She has just been allowed returned to school. “My favorite part is making paper flowers.”
Michelle’s Story: A Complicated Tale
While the country’s Forensic Institute registered 21,232 cases of rape between January 2012 and March 2015, only 974 of the perpetrators were found guilty. Michelle testified in court against her attacker—one of the few perpetrators ever brought to justice. “I was really nervous, and glad when he was convicted,” she remembers two and a half years after the assault. The 53-year-old man had begun harassing her during her walks home from the market. One day, he forced her onto his motorbike, drove to a nearby village, and raped her. The following day, Michelle reported the attack, but he was not arrested at the time. “I was terrified of meeting him again,” she says. A few months later, her fears came true. “He dragged me to a secluded field, where he tied me to a tree, raped me, and then left. The tree was rotten, and I managed to get loose, but the man returned before I could escape. Then he tied me to another tree and raped me again.” Meanwhile, her mother and aunt had notified the police that she was missing and began looking for her. They discovered Michelle while her rapist was attacking her. The man is now serving 10 years in prison for a wide range of crimes, including sexual violence. The next time that I see Michelle, she is relaxing in the shade of the tree near her home, while her 15-month-old daughter, Erica, sits in her lap. The baby has gained weight since we last met, but she has yet to take her first steps or say her first words. Michelle’s mother insists that the baby should see a doctor. I agree, but I don’t mention that the little girl’s problems are likely the result of malnutrition. Michelle has also gained weight. It’s clear that she is pregnant again, with only weeks to go before her second child will be born. She says that the father is an 18-year-old boy who lives in the capital a few hours away. “With this baby, it was voluntary,” she claims, unlike the rape that led to her first-born child. But it soon becomes apparent that the story is more complicated. “He is 35 years old. But it’s good, young boys cannot be trusted,” says Michelle’s mother when I see her the following day on my way to visit Michelle’s aunt. “No, no, no, he’s more like 65,” claims the aunt, who adds that the relationship between Michelle and her baby’s father was arranged by Michelle’s mother.
Gloria’s Story: The Importance of Sex Education
Gloria knows little about the father of her unborn child except that he is 22 years old and lives in her neighborhood. Although she doesn’t see him much anymore, she doesn’t dislike him and feels that their sex was consensual. “I was raped once when I was eleven,” she explains. “It hurt and I felt very bad, but this time I agreed to it.” Still, she didn’t want to have children. When I ask her if she knows what contraception is, she shakes her head. Gloria has only attended school for one year, but further education would have made little difference in her knowledge of sex, since sex education is virtually non-existent in Guatemalan schools. Michelle, Lilian, and Gloria had all been in school before becoming pregnant. But as their stomachs grew larger and increasingly visible, their days as students were coming to an end. Michelle was eventually expelled from school for setting “a bad example for the other children.” “What we fight for as an organization is sex education,” Leiva says. “As soon as the government announces that it is mandatory, we will visit the schools in the villages to teach.” While the state has made efforts to introduce sex education in this deeply religious country, it faces strong resistance from Catholic and Protestant Evangelical churches that believe discussing such topics will lead to an increase in sexual activity among youth. One Catholic church even took out a billboard advertisement comparing a box of contraceptives to ammunition, saying that both kill.
Alicia’s Story: An Arranged Marriage and Uncertain Future
Thirteen-year-old Alicia is lying on an operating table waiting for a C-section. The doctors in the room play Christian music from a cell phone while performing the surgery. Less than half an hour later, the baby’s head is visible. The moment he is born, he is transferred to another room where he is cleaned and weighed. The nurse says Alicia’s son weighs only about four and a half pounds. “Thirteen is too young. The pelvis is still not fully developed, and [the girls] have neither the physical nor mental capacity. It’s sad. The babies that grow up are rarely healthy,” Dr. Vasquez explains. The previous day, he had performed an emergency C-section on a 14-year-old girl with preeclampsia, a condition characterized by high blood pressure and signs of damage to various organs. Untreated, the condition can lead to the death of both mother and child. According to the World Health Organization, girls in Latin America below the age of 16 are at a four times higher risk of dying during childbirth than adult mothers due to complications including anemia, post-partum hemorrhage, and eclampsia. In addition, babies born prematurely to women under the age of 20 often have weaker immune systems and face a 50 percent higher risk of perinatal death. In Guatemala, abortion is illegal, except in rare cases that require approval from several authorities. “Legalizing abortion would lower the mortality rate for children in labor,” says Dr. Vasquez. “Our problem is the same as it is anywhere where abortion is illegal: women seek help from people who don’t have the skills or training to perform abortions. It’s incredibly dangerous.” At the age of 11, Alicia was married to a man named Jaime whom she didn’t know; she was never asked her opinion. “They just came to our house, he and his parents, and his parents talked to my parents and asked if we could get married,” she says. She doesn’t seem surprised by this, having seen other girls in her community undergo similar experiences. Arranged marriages are often a financial decision, Leiva explains. A girl does not contribute to the family; she is an expense. “We had one case where a single mother with nine children was paid when she gave her daughter to a 50-year-old man.” Alicia’s case is not uncommon.
New Legislation Raised Minimum Age for Marriage to 16
According to UNICEF, about 7 percent of girls in Guatemala are married by the age of 15 and 30 percent by the age of 18. In a recent development hailed by women’s rights advocates, a November 2015 law raised the minimum age for marriage from 14 for girls and 16 for boys to 18 for both, though a judge can give permission to 16- and 17-year-old girls to marry. Proponents of the new legislation hope that it will help stem the tide of teenage pregnancy, improve educational opportunities for teenagers, and reduce rates of sexual violence among adolescent girls. The day after Alicia gave birth, her baby’s 22-year-old father, Jaime, is left alone with his son. He briefly hesitates before picking him up, and then struggles as he holds him awkwardly in his arms. The boy starts to scream, and a nurse comes in to offer her help. The next day, a pediatrician leans over Alicia, attempting to demonstrate how she should hold her baby while breastfeeding. “You cannot leave if I don’t see that the baby eats!” the doctor exclaims. Alicia is frustrated and impatient, but after her son eventually attempts to suckle, she is discharged and returns home with her husband and parents. Their small house, which has a straw roof and only two rooms, lies at the end of a gravel road about an hour from the hospital. Alicia arrives home exhausted, falling into a red plastic chair while her mother begins to cook. The atmosphere in the room is somber and tense. Alicia’s son makes a feeble, but ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to suckle. While it often takes several days before a newborn begins breastfeeding, everyone understands that the baby is very weak and needs to eat soon. “It makes me sad, because if he doesn’t eat, he will die,” says Jaime. “We will have to pray to God that all goes well.” Only the children’s first names have been used to protect their identities.