This week International Justice Mission celebrates a decade combating sexual violence in Guatemala.
To kick off the celebration, IJM hosted a special day for boys and girls who we are currently representing in court, and children who have received therapy and care from IJM over the years. The day, named the “Super Day of Joy,” included a comedy show, a short movie, and games.
"In every child we see God's love made real,” said one of IJM’s Guatemalan investigators who was also one of the very first employees when IJM opened an office in 2005. “It is incredible to see girls and boys smiling, to see them overcome such deep suffering.”
At another event on October 6, Guatemalan government authorities joined IJM staff for a panel discussion and reception to talk about past successes and future endeavors to continue to address the problem of sexual violence.
The panel included IJM Vice President of Operations for Latin America, Pablo Villeda; the advisor to the Human Rights Ombudsman of Guatemala; the secretary to the president of the judiciary system; and the Attorney General’s Advisor, Mayra Véliz.
"For the country, it's so important that we continue to promote this theme [protecting children from sexual violence] to the government and to encourage public officials to act in support of children," said Véliz, adding that addressing sexual violence has become a priority for el Ministerio Publico and that IJM has been a key player in achieving these advances.
There is still much work to seek justice in Guatemala, but local authorities are better equipped than ever before.
For example, Guatemala recently established the country’s first-ever specialized police unit to handle sex crimes—a huge sign of the government commitment to making the nation safer for at-risk children. IJM has trained the first class of officers. IJM has also provided training for Guatemala's National Police on basic criminal investigations, and has led workshops on handling these legal cases for more than 350 public prosecutors in the three provinces where we work.
There are now real consequences for breaking these laws: Men who sexually abuse boys and girls are being convicted, and courts are issuing sentences up to 111 years in prison for child sexual assault.
The progress is remarkable. IJM Vice President of Government Relations and Advocacy, Holly Burkhalter, remembers hearing over ten years ago that bringing change would be impossible in Guatemala. But the engaged courts and passionate police are showing change is possible. IJM will continue to work alongside these authorities to ensure impoverished children are rescued and restored, and criminals are held accountable for sex crimes.
“IJM is working to get all of the presidential candidates to take a pledge and make a commitment that violence against children will be a priority,” Burkhalter said, referring to local advocacy taking place right now in Guatemala in advance of the country’s upcoming presidential election. “It's like turning a page in Guatemala's history.”