COBAN, Guatemala – Marta turned 15 this week and her family marked the occasion with a small party, but the lingering trauma from her rape two years ago by a teacher who has yet to suffer any consequence put a damper on the celebration. And she’s not alone, as at least 21 other girls in the northern Guatemalan province of Alta Verapaz have endured the same horror.
Violence against women and girls constitutes the largest single category of crime in the Central American nation, where 90 percent of offenses go unpunished.
But attorney and feminist Lilian Vasquez is determined to resist the normalization of this dismal situation, and since 2014, it has been her mission to seek justice for the victims.
One of the people she represents is Marta (not her real name) and Vasquez was in Coban on Monday for the birthday meal of kak’ik – an indigenous dish – at the family’s home.
Marta was raped by a teacher in 2018 when she went to the village school to collect her sister. Her mother confronted the assailant and asked the school to remove him.
But the community sided with the teacher, instead blaming Marta’s mother for allowing her to be assaulted.
The school is less than 500 meters (yards) from Marta’s home and the teacher makes a habit of spitting outside the front door each time he passes, according to the family.
Marta has dropped out of school and is given to weeping inconsolably.
“The teachers have legitimacy in the community. The accusation of an isolated victim doesn’t count. The shame and the guilt attaches to the victim and not to the aggressor,” Vasquez tells EFE.
Including Marta, the 37-year-old lawyer is representing 12 of the 22 young women in Alta Verapaz who have leveled rape accusations against teachers.
And the true number of victims may be more than 100, as many girls are reluctant to report sexual assault by a teacher.
Vasquez says that despite the difficulties of pursuing charges, every conviction of a teacher for raping a student makes it likelier that accusers will be taken seriously.
Another of her clients is Teresa, who was 16 when a teacher drugged and raped her. He went on to extort sex from Teresa for three years with a threat to release videos and photos of the original assault.
The abuse only stopped when Teresa’s mother discovered what was going on.
“She’s someone intelligent. She likes reading and painting and has a strong character,” Vasquez says of Teresa, who became so depressed that she expressed a wish to die in the wake of a court hearing which saw her bang her head against a wall repeatedly during a bathroom break.
It was then that somebody involved in the case recalled that Teresa liked to paint and suggested that art could serve as therapy.
She has since turned out a series of illustrations featuring girls or women, generally accompanied by a cat or tree. The setting for every painting is a moon-lit night.
“It is just that I don’t understand the day. I can’t understand the life of the day. Only the night makes sense for me,” Teresa says of her pieces, several of which adorn the walls of her lawyer’s office.
Vasquez says the most disturbing aspect of the cases in Alta Verapaz is that 12 of the teachers accused of rape remain in their jobs. Even the handful who were transferred to other schools returned to their original positions within a few months.
“It’s a threat that the teachers continue holding classes after the accusation. They are twisting the right to work and giving it a different purpose. The right to work is not superior to the girl’s right to a dignified and calm life,” the attorney says.