‘Children killed by a disastrous state – we will not forget them’
“This is one of those columns that should never have to be written because the deaths of 40 children in a ‘safe’ Home, in the charge of the state, should never have happened. Because the children should never have been locked in a room and should never have been mistreated by people who had the responsibility of caring for, and protecting, them”
This was how Marielos Monzón began her powerful piece in Prensa Libre in response to the fire that consumed 40 children and young women in the Virgin of the Assumption ‘Safe/Secure’ Home in San José Pinula, some 25 km from Guatemala City. I write ‘Safe/Secure’ because the Spanish word for the Home, seguro, can be translated as both. The fire happened on the 8th March, International Women’s Day, and the children were locked in as they perished. Indeed, it seems that the fire service could not access the installation at all for several hours as it was completely locked up.
“This column ought never be written because, in this country, there should be no place for routine violence against children and adolescents; they should not be raped, tortured and abused, nor excluded and abandoned.”
A neighbour of the facility mentioned that there had been a rebellion against the police and Centre staff the day before where the children threw stones against the teachers and police shouting, ‘come on, rape us here, in front of everyone. If you want to do it again, do it now’. The neighbour went on, ‘this was a rebellion of children – whoever lives around here knows that this place is hell’. As mentioned in Nómada, ‘Hell is not a metaphor’.
‘You will not leave here until you give me oral sex’, ordered the teacher, Edgar Rolando Diéguez Ispache to the 12 and 13 year old students when they tried to leave the room where they took class. None could avoid the sexual abuse. The same teacher ordered his students to parade naked in front of their classmates. A handyman raped a child with learning difficulties. Another worker forced students to have sex with him and used to take them out of the Home. These were included in complaints to the Ministry of Social Welfare, under whose responsibility the Home operated, and was reported by Plaza Pública in late 2016. Diéguez Ispache is currently awaiting trial and José Roberto Arias Pérez was sentenced to eight years detention for the rape of the young girl of 14, who had the capacities of a 10 year old.
“This is a column that no-one would want to write, because who would want to speak about a tragedy of such magnitude; the outcome of a failed system, of an indifferent society and of a government led by incompetence, that came to power by chance, appointed through godfathers and through campaign debts to people without the necessary competencies to coordinate the system of protection for children and young people.”
A government spokesperson stated after the fire that, ‘we could not accept the report that said that the Home was a cage where children were tortured. I consider that the cause of the rebellion, given as poor food, was not valid. There was no negligence.’ This from the Ministry that placed 800 babies, children and adolescents in a ‘secure’ space that had a capacity of 500.
A study by the Central America Institute of Fiscal Studies (ICEFI) and Plan International, pointed out that the State of Guatemala, between 2007 and 2013, spent an average of 0.65 cents daily on each child and adolescent in the country, whereas Costa Rica and Panama spent no less than 4 dollars.
‘Scene from a vigil in front of the National Palace’
This is abuse of children on a large scale – those who have the power had the means to make a change but chose not to do so. They decided that the poor must continue to endure their poverty and powerlessness, and that the children of the poor must endure hell. The poor will suffer what they must.. To ask another question, is this what it means to be pro-life? The state will use all means in it power to maintain a pro-life environment, even sending in the army, but it appears that it is only ‘pro-life’ until the moment of birth. Not only indifferent but hypocritical.
“What happened on the 8th March in the ‘safe’ Home of the Virgin of the Ascension, is the inevitable consequence of a system of exclusion, violence and inequality, that discards human beings on their economic status, their ethnicity and/or gender; a system where everything is bought and sold, and where children and adolescents are considered objects and their bodies, merchandise.”
While much is not known about the events of the night of the 8th March, much is known about the conditions in the Home from a report carried out by the Human Rights Ombudsman in late 2016. There was insufficient resources to cater to the health and hygiene needs of the children; the food was of poor quality; very few were registered in the Education system and some teachers had a very poor level of literacy; there was a distinct lack of stimulating activities, the infrastructure was in a particularly poor condition; and there were not sufficient levels of security within the Centre. This all in addition to the rape and violence inflicted on the children.
“There are children and young people who are sent to the ‘protection and care’ centres because of their vulnerability and there are also those in the centres because of trouble with the law – they have a common history of violence and abandonment. Their childhood has been marked by pain, hate, indifference and abuse. They are the little ones that have not had access to health nor education and that have had to deal with harassment and sexual violence in their homes and in their neighbourhood streets. Many have become pregnant after having been raped by their fathers or family members. These are the circumstances for which they have been sent to a ‘Home’. This is the situation, without resorting to euphemisms, of what it is to be a women in Guatemala.”
The Safe/Secure Homes were created to offer temporary residential protection to children and adolescents between 0 and 18 years of age, separated from their parents as a consequence of their vulnerability. Investigations found that they lived in atrocious conditions – lacking health, education, nutrition, recreation, and respect, all they could do was survive the abuse.
The Home was used not only to house vulnerable children but was also used to house adolescents and gang members who had been brought through the criminal justice system. The vulnerable children in the Home were then made doubly vulnerable to abuse.
The Home could not even maintain a register of who was there – in the photo above, at least two cards noted that INACIF (National Forensic Unit) had not been able to give a name to the body. These cards represent dead children for whom the Home was not able to provide a name. How is this acceptable?
“According to data from the Observatory of Sexual and Reproductive Health (OSAR), in 2016 there were 2,504 births to mothers aged between 10 and 14, all of them the result of rape. There were 10 babies born to 10-year-old children; 30 to children aged 11; 98 to children aged 12; 464 to girls aged 13; and 1,902 to girls aged 14 years.
They are the children of Guatemala, the invisible ones, who suddenly appeared before our eyes after the brutality of a fire. They are the little ones who were enclosed and institutionalised in a system that guaranteed neither their protection nor their reintegration, only that served to hide them, punish them and re-victimise them. They are the product of indifference and the normalisation of violence and machismo. Today we are missing 40, and for them we demand justice, there can be no impunity in the face of what happened. But we have thousands more for whom we must demand a profound transformation of the system.”
Marielos ends her piece with this plea:
“How many screams and pleas were needed for the door to be opened and for them to be let out? How many days confronting the head of government were enough to stop the bullying and abuse? How many complaints were required to stop the abuse and ensure a comprehensive system of protection? All are now questions of the past. Today we must also ask ourselves what needs to be done to open the door and that our children can get out of the hell of violence, harassment, inequality and exclusion.”
You can read the original article by Marielos Monzon, in Spanish, here in Prensa Libre.
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