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Guatemala slowly confronts widespread rape of women

In Guatemala, drug trafficking, gang violence, and a climate of impunity lead to widespread rape of women. At least 10,000 women were victims of sexual violence last year.

By Ezra FieserCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 20, 2009

Guatemala City

Moving up the ranks of Guatemala's ruthless gangs can be as simple as robbing a store at knife point or as brutal as shooting a city bus driver. Marisole figures she fell somewhere in between.

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In January, a group of gang members ripped the teenager off a public bus at 7:30 a.m. Six of them raped her for nine hours in a house she'd never seen. Eventually they dropped her off shirtless in a nearby shopping center parking lot. .

"It hurt so much," said Marisole, who did not want her last name used for fear of her safety. "I don't know why they did it. I thought they were just going to rob the bus. I made eye contact with them. And they just took me away in front of everyone."

From the patriarchal days of the Spanish conquistadors to the military's systematic torture of women during its 36-year civil war, the country has long cultivated a reputation as one of the Western hemisphere's most brutal places for women. These days, Marisole and thousands of other victims of gang violence and a wave of street crime are giving that long-standing problem a new face. The government estimated that 10,000 women were raped last year, about 77 for every 100,000 residents. The real numbers are likely higher, organizations said.

But the alarming rate of abuse is finally garnering attention – and action – from the government, which observers say might be a sign that the conservative culture is ready to address the problem.

'Of all the banana republics, it's the most repressive'

"The situation is worse than it was during the war. It's terrible. But, with pressure from the international community, we've been able to push the government to start acknowledging the problem," says Norma Cruz, director of Fundación Sobrevivientes, which helps victims navigate the legal system to prosecute their crimes. The foundation is part of a network of women's rights groups that pressured the government into passing a law last year that set stricter penalties for rape and murder of women. "We still don't have solutions to prevent it from happening, but we now have a beginning."

From the streets of San Salvador to the murders of women in Juárez, Mexico, and domestic violence in the US, violence against women cuts across the hemisphere. But Guatemala's history, its male-dominated culture, the growth of gangs battling for territory and the climbing level of violence have made its problem more complex.

"Of all the banana republics, it's the most repressive," says Roselyn Costantino, a Pennsylvania State University professor who studies violence against women in the region. "The country is out of control right now with [drug] trafficking and violence, and women are often the innocent ones caught in between."