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‘I now realize that I am not guilty, that I am just another victim’

At the age of 12, Fatima’s teacher in Guatemala abused her and disappeared. Now, along with four other women, she is demanding justice to prevent history from repeating itself

Caso de embarazo adolescente
En Guatemala hay muchos casos de embarazos forzados en menores de edad.Getty Images
Catalina Oquendo

Fatima from Guatemala was subjected to sexual violence as a child, as were Norma from Ecuador, Susana and Lucia from Nicaragua and Camila from Peru. All fell pregnant as a result of the violence and became mothers in early puberty. Today they are speaking out to demand justice. Under the auspices of the umbrella movement, Girls Are Not Mothers that brings together a number of organizations including Planned Parenthood Global, the Center for Reproductive Rights, Surkuna, Women Transforming the World and Promsex, they filed a lawsuit with the UN Human Rights Committee and, four years later, are waiting for a verdict.

Recently, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child condemned the Peruvian State for violating the rights of Camila, a child rape victim who was tried in a court of law for having an abortion. Latin America and the Caribbean are the only regions in the world where there is an increase in the numbers of young girls giving birth. And this is why Fatima has decided to tell her story:

I am Fatima, I am 27 now. I was raped when I was very young, at the age of 12, and I am still fighting for justice. That is why I am here. It has been a whole process and now I can speak openly without feeling guilty, because during my childhood I was made to feel that way. I was a child and I felt guilty believing that I had caused this older adult to hurt me. He was a teacher and a person who, on account of his professional role, was supposed to protect me, and take care of me, and yet he caused me a lot of pain. In my country, Guatemala, in my region, there are many girls forced into having unwanted pregnancies and their numbers unfortunately keep increasing. They have helped me become stronger and now I want my voice to be heard.

Fortunately, I received psychological support from the Guatemalan organization, Women Transforming the World. It has helped me to grow and realize I am not guilty. I am just another victim. In my case, I have been re-victimized – singled out by the authorities, by the health system, even by my close family members. Those who point the finger tend to twist the knife: it was you, your fault, you provoked the aggressor by wearing a skirt or, in my case, you made your teacher desire you, you made him see you as a woman and not as a girl. Those things scar you and you start to think you are guilty. And you believe it because you believe everything they tell you when you are a girl. So, yes, I was made to feel guilty for what happened and also for the unwanted pregnancy that felt, at times, like a burden.

To begin with, I was denied access to justice. I did not have good legal support and the person who raped me was very well known in my community and region. I was told: “You can’t touch him. Besides, who is going to believe the word of a girl against the word of a respected person, a professional? What you are saying is not credible in any way.” Or: “You are the one who looks bad. You should drop the lawsuit, give it up, because in the end this is not going to get you anywhere. It’s just a waste of time.”

The fact that nothing has happened after waiting so long is exhausting. Sometimes you consider giving up. The justice system has been trying and so difficult; a lot of information has been leaked and the proper processes not carried out. In my case, I was forced to repeatedly relive the rape. For me it was like having to remember over and over again what I had gone through; instead of closure and healing, more salt was added to the wound, opening it further.

There are many in this man’s circle who were influential enough to ensure he could escape – his whereabouts are still not known. The truth is that every day things go slower and I feel that sometimes they even go a little backwards because the system always falls short. I feel that the authorities are looking to the victims to carry out the investigation. We get calls asking: “Do you know where the aggressor lives? Have you seen him? If you know where we can go to look for him, can you call us?” This is despite the fact we gave them that information when they could still arrest him, and they did not.

As for the health care I received, being a minor I was treated very badly: “If you are good at opening your legs, let them do a test to check if the baby is okay,” I was told. There were many situations that scarred me, and I can talk about them now because I know that these people’s behavior was not right. The medical treatment I got made me feel guilty for having ended up with an unwanted pregnancy, for not understanding that what this person did to me was rape, things that I didn’t understand because I had no information. Now I am informed. But there are many girls in many communities, living in distant villages who still do not receive a comprehensive education, which I believe is necessary to prevent them from being subjected to physical, emotional, psychological, and sexual abuse. Now that I have my own children, I am determined none of them to go through what I went through. It is also for their sake that I am speaking out.

What can I tell girls going through something similar? I think one of the most important aspects concerns trust. I didn’t trust anyone. I come from a very difficult family background. My mom was my mom and dad at the same time and there were seven of us children. I knew that if I told her, she might not believe me. I also had to think about the economic resources that the aggressor provided us with. I had a scholarship from an institution and I thought of the aggressor as my father because he had known me since I was a baby, since I was three months old. I always thought he was the one person I could trust.

It is important for children to know that the people closest to them can also hurt them. We have to educate ourselves on this. I talk about it a lot with my children. I would tell girls having a similar experience that we should not keep quiet for fear of what will happen to us or what is said to us. In my case, my aggressor would threaten to take away our economic assistance, or hurt my sisters. That was my biggest fear. There are three of us and we get along very well. If something happened to them, it would be very painful for me. They were always uppermost in my mind.

At first, I didn’t understand what had been done to me. Now I talk a lot to my children about how to take care of their bodies, that no one, not even me, can touch them. I think it is very important that we continue to educate our children, regardless of whether they are our children or not. I am a teacher and I insist on the same thing every day, that if we do not want to hug someone we do not hug them, if we do not want to give someone a kiss, we don’t, because if we do not feel the need or feel affection towards that person, no one can force us.

That is the departure point. Trust must be paramount and if there is someone we can talk to about what is happening to us, that’s a big step. I really couldn’t talk until I sat down with a psychologist because I was so scared. I didn’t understand how I could be giving life to another child when I was only 12. I couldn’t get my head around it. I did not understand how I could be giving life to another child when I was still a child.

The experience was followed by another painful ordeal – I was told by the education authorities: “You can’t study because you are pregnant.” Then I was told that I could not do a degree because I was a mother and I had to be married for that. There were many obstacles along the way and, of course, that made me unstable. I wondered what I was living for. And yes, at one point in my childhood I tried to take my own life. But then I understood that there was a purpose to my journey and that was to speak out in the name of all the many other girls that had died because they’d been raped or who had been tortured. To be honest with you, I don’t remember my pregnancy. I didn’t feel it. I don’t have pictures because it was not something I wanted. When I am asked, I only remember being mistreated by the doctors, but I erased a part of myself during that time and maybe it was because it was very painful.

The support of my mother and siblings was what helped me to get through it. After that, I focused on studying and, thanks to the Women Transforming the World organization, I could continue my studies, albeit with episodes of being singled out and of rejection. In Guatemala, there are parades held in honor of virgins and the distinguished students from each school participate in these. I was top of the class in my school, but they did not let me join the parade because I was a mother.

It was all very painful, but I focused on being able to achieve what I had dreamed of since I was a little girl, which has always been to become a doctor. Now I have two university degrees – a Bachelor in Pedagogy and one to be a high school teacher – which were not easy.

I always said: “When I grow up, I want to be a doctor, a lawyer or a teacher – any of those three careers, all of them humanitarian.” And I thought: “At some point I am going to give back and repay what people have done for me,” and I think I am achieving that with my children, as a teacher at the primary level.

My goal is to continue studying. Right now, I am doing a diploma course in educational inclusion, because I think there are many children who need us and who are not treated properly. And I am also taking a course in personal education because we sometimes ignore our own problems when dealing with the problems of others. I ask a lot of myself and I am sticking to my goal which is to continue studying medicine or law, one of the two. It doesn’t matter if it takes a long time. I hope to become a little more financially stable. My situation has got better, but I don’t yet have enough money to study.

My journey has led me to believe that there is a lack of empathy and immediacy in my country’s justice system. There is also very little information and security for women, girls and adolescents and we continue to be vulnerable to acts of violence – specifically, sexual violence. That is one of the most important aspects of my journey, which is also why I am here now, speaking out for those girls who have not been able to do so, for those women and adolescents who, like me, have at some point experienced sexual violence and have probably remained silent, or have been silenced in different ways. I can be their voice. I can help provide spaces that allow us to close the gap that exists between our governments and a society that seeks better security and justice for all.

I also believe that the small things we can do from wherever we are will also make our world a little better.

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