Interview: The Central American Refugee Crisis and Violence Against Women in Guatemala
An interview and discussion of the extreme circumstances contributing to the Central American migration/refugee crisis. Robin Schmid provides firsthand insight into the brutal realities of legal impunity, violence against women and sexual assault she has witnessed while serving the Women’s Justice Initiative, a Guatemala based NGO.
This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Citizen Truth: This is Citizentruth.com. I am Peter Castagno, and today I will be talking with Robin Schmid, a former Princeton in Latin America fellow from Georgetown School of Foreign Service, and the Development & Communications Coordinator with the Women’s Justice Movement, a Guatemala based NGO. Thanks so much for talking to me today, Robin.
Robin Schmid: I’m happy too. Thanks for having me.
Citizen Truth: Can you talk a bit about your background, and how you got involved with women’s rights in Guatemala? And what your specific role with the NGO you work with consists of?
Robin Schmid: Sure, so as you mentioned, I went to Georgetown University’s school of Foreign Service, and I focused my studies there on Latin American community development. I spent a lot of time working, volunteering, and taking semesters off in various communities and countries across Latin America and really got into the grassroots non-profit world about six or seven years ago.
When I graduated, I received a Princeton in Latin America Fellowship and began working with a grassroots nonprofit in a large indigenous community, in Santiago Atitlan, called Pueblo a Pueblo. There I was involved in various aspects of fundraising, monitoring and evaluation, and external relations. It was through my time there in that community where I started really building relationships both within that organization and within the community that I saw how important the need is here to focus on woman, and empowering women and their voices.
Here in Guatemala, there is a very machista society, it’s very male-dominated. There is a lot of traditional gender norms and stereotypes at play and often women are seen as; their primary function is to be a mother, and to work in the home, and that’s it. Because of that, women really aren’t given the opportunity to participate in public spaces, to be community leaders, to continue with their education beyond primary if we’re talking about rural or indigenous communities. The more time I spent in that community, and the more I found out what my passions are, and I wanted to continue professionally.
I got a job with the Women’s Justice Initiative, we are a nonprofit organization that improves the lives of indigenous Guatemalan women and girls through education, access to legal services, and gender-based violence prevention. I am the Development and Coordination Coordinator, so I’m working primarily with fundraising, grant writing, and the administrative pieces to ensuring that our programs can function and that we have enough funding to be able to support our various programs.
WJI (Women’s Justice Initiative) has a multitier aspect to how we provide access to justice, and work on breaking these cycles of gender inequality and violence. That is done both through education of women and girls, and through workshops that are centered around women’s rights and leadership development. We build local female leaders who act as activists and women’s rights defenders and mentors to women in their communities. We also provide direct services, so that women can exercise their right to live free from violence and exercise their economic rights. It’s important that we aren’t just empowering women and girls with knowledge and skills but then we aren’t providing an outlet, a way that they can exercise their rights and use their voice. I love this work and I’m inspired daily by the women who are leading this movement for gender equality.
Citizen Truth: Something that really highlights the gravity of the situation in Guatemala was the burning of a children’s shelter in the Virgin de la Asunción home, resulting in the deaths of 35 girls. The door to the girl’s room was likely locked, possibly intentionally or due to extreme negligence, and authorities have failed to thoroughly investigate the situation. What would you say this tragedy reveals about the culture and legal system in Guatemala?
Robin Schmid: That tragedy that happened last year, in March of 2017, and it really mobilized this nation. Even though there are atrocious human rights violations taking place on a daily basis, and it actually 41 girls now that were killed because of that fire. And it really sparked outrage in the nation but also reflects a complete lack of safe spaces and adequate facilities for vulnerable youth, for any vulnerable population. Let’s keep in mind that this shelter, this was basically an orphanage. These girls were not accused of any type of crime, they were sent to this shelter because their parents did not have the resources to support them in the home.
Because parents thought they would be safer in this shelter than on the streets where the mob, or local gangs were threatening them or worse. What transpired in this event, is that earlier that morning, the eighth of March, a large group of girls and boys staged a mass protest, so they were rioting and attempted to escape. They were then hunted down and brought back, and locked in this room not given anything but some old mattresses. So why were they trying to escape? Why were they protesting?
So, its come out in the aftermath that that shelter had a long history of abuse allegations. Over 40 reports of abuse were filed between 2012 and 2016, however, there was no action taken. Even in 2014, there was a contractor that was hired by the home, was convicted of raping a 17-year-old disabled girl there. Many of these, the girls that had been living at the shelter said they’d rather die than go back because they were being mistreated and they were not being fed. There were many reports that these girls were being pimped out, that the staff and guards would be prostituting out these girls.
Then what transpired is that they were locked in this room, and to protest after being in there for hours, witnesses say that one of the girls set fire to a mattress thinking that of course they would be let out. But that was not the case they were in that room for over seven minutes, and so 41 girls have died. This incident is horrendous, it’s tragic, but it is not isolated. The fact that this ended in this tragic fire is atrocious but it really shows this lack of any state-run institutions for safe spaces of survivors of domestic violence and survivors of domestic assault.
I can speak from experience, in our organization, many times families, women, and girls are afraid to come forward and speak about, and talk about what has happened to them, if they were raped, if they were a survivor of sexual assault. Because, for example with girls, parents don’t want girls to be sent to one of these state-run institutions because of the horrors that happen there. So, in many ways, they feel it would be safer for the girls to stay with them, even if for example the neighbor was the perpetrator. That girl would still be safer at home, with her assailant nearby, than at one of these state-run institutions.
So, this horrible incident has shown more and more that really the state is not appropriately protecting its citizens. The levels of impunity in Guatemala are extremely high. Guatemala’s Secretary of Social Welfare has been arrested and charged with crimes such as wrongful death and negligence in the specific case. But even when there are charges there is no sentence.
Just to give you a better idea of how bad things are in Guatemala especially when it comes to gender violence; Guatemala has the third highest rate of femicide in the world, and the third lowest rate of gender equality in Latin America. So, combine this widespread impunity with this machista society, it’s a really difficult place to be a woman, and especially a girl.
Citizen Truth: Absolutely, and I know Honduras and El Salvador are very high up on those statistics as well. That really helps lead into my last question here, regarding the caravan that is currently a major headline in the news. So, a caravan of Central American migrants is currently fighting to get past the border, into Mexico to seek refuge. Can you talk a bit about the situation and how your background gives you insight into the extreme circumstances these people are fleeing from?
Robin Schmid: So, this caravan that originated in Honduras, most of the people are Honduran although some Guatemalans and Mexicans have joined along the way. It has now moved into Mexico, and Guatemala had tried to prevent the caravan from getting into Mexico but ultimately, they stood down when it was clear that these people were committed to moving forward.
And with the caravan I want to make it clear that these are not bad people, these are not criminals as it has been portrayed by the President of the United States. Of course, I don’t know every individual person, but these are people fighting to survive. They are fighting for a better life for themselves, and for their children. These are people who are fleeing from communities where violence is rampant. Every day their lives may be threatened by gangs, where in rural areas many families cannot afford to provide food for their kids, and kids are being sent to work in fields at age five and six. Not because parents want that for their children, but because there is no better option.
So really, it is a lack of opportunity with ongoing, horrendous violence that is pushing these people to leave and search for a better life. Speaking to Guatemala’s situation, a threat by the Trump Administration that aid will be cut to Guatemala, to Honduras, to Mexico, because they have allowed these people to travel through their countries. That’s a really terrible position to put Guatemala in, because foreign aid is important to this economy.
Another thing that is very important for Americans to remember, is that US involvement in central American governments is largely responsible for the instability we see today, and for military dictatorships and civil wars. For example, in Guatemala ,there was a 36-year civil war where there was a genocide against the indigenous people here. This is a post-conflict country that is still trying to get on its feet and still trying to recover from some horrendous events and really violent governments.
A nd who put those governments in place? That was in large part due to the United States and US foreign policy in central America. So when we talk about immigrants, it’s important to remember that they are people, and that we should not villainize people whose violent circumstances our government is largely accountable for. People are shocked by the idea of 3,000 people moving together in this big caravan, but they are together because it is safer. The journey from their countries to the United States is extremely dangerous.
One in three- with such underreporting that it is probably much higher- women or girls are getting raped and sexually assaulted. It’s a terrifying and dangerous journey, and there is safety in numbers. It looks like they are making a political statement. But if you look at members of this caravan, they are not doing it for the politics. They don’t even know the extent of this crisis in US politics and our divisions based on immigration policy. They don’t care. What they care about is surviving and getting themselves and their families safely to the United States. These are not bad people, generally, these are just people looking for a better future.
Citizen Truth: And like you highlighted, the US needs to recognize its foreign policy has destabilized a lot of these governments. For example, in Honduras, the US tacitly approved of the 2009 coup in which they pushed the OAS, the Organization of American States, to support new elections and sideline the ousted president, even though the actions were condemned as a coup by the UN, the EU, and the OAS. Since then, a lot of that aid goes directly to a militarized police that is widely condemned for oppressing dissidents and brutally suppressing protests. They’re directly funded by the US.
Robin Schmid: If we also looked to supporting Central American civil society, that would help so much with this idea of “no more immigrants.” These people would like to stay in their communities if they were safe, and the US played a large role in making their communities unsafe. Let’s be responsible in how we act, and how we welcome or villainize people who are fleeing this instability.
Citizen Truth: Thank you so much for coming on and sharing some of your insight and experiences about this crisis.
Robin Schmid: Yea absolutely, thanks for having me.