Major Step Forward to Protect Guatemalan Children: New National Policy Will Defend Children's Rights in Court

IJM Guatemala lawyer Mabel Guiterrez, left, and paralegal Gabi Soria sit in the Guatemala City court room, where IJM regularly advocates for children who have been sexually abused.
IJM Guatemala lawyer Mabel Guiterrez, left, and paralegal Gabi Soria sit in the Guatemala City court room, where IJM regularly advocates for children who have been sexually abused.

GUATEMALA CITY – In March 2013, the Guatemalan government launched a critical nationwide policy to better protect child victims of crimes, drafted with the help of IJM Guatemala and UNICEF.

This "General Instruction" policy substantially improves how public prosecutors handle crimes against children – including cases of sexual assault – from the initial report of abuse through the entire legal process.

"The General Instruction is a huge step toward justice in Guatemala," explains IJM Guatemala Director Brad Twedt. He says the policy "will impact the children we defend and serve, but it will also have a national impact that will help thousands of other children who have been victims of different crimes."

No Policy, No Certainty

IJM has been prosecuting child sexual assault cases in Guatemala since 2005, and UNICEF has years of experience working with vulnerable children. This on-the-ground expertise provided key insight into how Guatemalan courts had been faltering in the care of child victims.

"The General Instruction...will help thousands of children who have been victims of different crimes." -IJM Guatemala Field Office Director Brad Twedt

Before the General Instruction, many Guatemalan children – especially those from impoverished families who could not afford lawyers – received inconsistent care and attention in court. They were often asked to testify again and again against an alleged abuser – forcing them to relive trauma each time. Precautions were not always taken to ensure children were kept safe as trials proceeded, and ethnic minority groups were not given basic provisions like translators.

"Without a set of guidelines to govern how cases were handled, cases commonly slipped through the cracks," says Twedt. "Corners could be cut, good standards often were not enforced, and children were needlessly re-traumatized in the process."

Now, Children will be Protected

With the passage of the General Instruction, courts will now prioritize a child's rights and promote sensitivity to the boys and girls seeking justice for sexual assault or any other crime.

The new policy includes these critical measures to protect children:

  • Ensuring confidentiality during a trial
  • Guaranteeing the right of a child to testify about what they endured
  • Allowing children to testify in a safe setting – so the child does not have to face the alleged aggressor again
  • Considering the child's cultural identity and providing a translator if necessary
  • Requiring prosecutors work with social workers to ensure children receive proper attention
  • Establishing minimum standards for investigations and obtaining evidence

Over the next six months, IJM will assist the Public Ministry (similar to the U.S. Department of Justice) in training Guatemala's prosecutors on the child-sensitive policy. These trainings build toward IJM Guatemala's long-term vision of improving the public justice system so that children are protected across the country.