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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.

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Just two years ago a victim would be treated for her wounds, but the rape would not be documented. Doctors Without Borders is training the country's medical system to record rapes and other sexual crimes and to collect statistics on their prevalence.

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"Two or three years ago, you couldn't utter the words violence against women, or rape," says Dr. Pedro Rosales, a Guatemalan physician who heads up the government's new sexual violence project. "Now, we are actually collecting statistics on how many of those cases occur and prosecuting crimes."

Reliable numbers would focus the government's attention, and that could help shape policies, says Nadine Gasman, Guatemala's representative for the United Nations Population Fund.

"It's really important to acknowledge that this is not normal, that this is not the way things should be. It haunts these girls all their lives," she says. "We need to find ways to prevent it from happening. I'm a strong believer that if the state would take the lead, it would make a huge difference."

The UN is funding programs that seek to teach sexual equality to young men and teenagers. They have also funded performing arts groups and documentary makers that produce works that question the country's machismo culture.

The Red Cross and other groups are also working to keep youth from falling into gangs.

Although most agree Guatemala needs to incorporate sexual equality into its school curriculum and train doctors to look for the signs of sexual violence, the government has still failed to bring such programs into its ministries of health and education.

"I think the fact that we're able to talk about it as a society and the fact that we're recognizing the problem will help us come up with a way to prevent the problem," Rosales said.

Facing accusations that it has ignored the problem, the Guatemalan government last year passed a femicide law. It followed this year with the creation of a presidential office to assist in implementing the new legislation. More than 30 cases are currently being prosecuted under the law, which went into effect earlier this year. But the law is only minimally effective in a justice system riddled with corruption and impunity.

"The law is important, but we have a system in which 98 percent of crimes are not even brought to trial. Even fewer are convicted," says Cruz, of FundaciĆ³n Sobrevivientes. "For a woman to press for her crime to be prosecuted takes a lot of courage."

Under threat, women drop charges

Marisole said she chose not to push for her crime to be prosecuted because her attackers told her they would kill her and her family. Eight of 10 women who press charges wind up dropping them.

A virgin when she was raped, she says, Marisole has suffered with shame in recent months, telling just two of her closest friends about the incident. These days, sitting next to a man on a bus or being alone with her boyfriend make her nervous. "I hope I get better one day," she says. "But I'm afraid I'm hurt for life."