Despite dramatic gains in women’s rights over the past 100 years, one of the most troubling realties that still exist is the persistence of female-targeted violence. For women around the world, domestic violence, rape, and physical assault remain all too common.
According to data from the World Bank, women aged 15 to 44 are more likely to suffer from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, car accidents, or malaria. In some countries, up to 70% of women experience serious violence in their lifetime.
Today, one of the worst countries for violence against women is Guatemala.
An Extreme Problem in Guatemala
Guatemala currently has the distinction of being the single most violent country in the Western Hemisphere. In 2012, the country reported an average of 99 murders every week. And most of those victims were women.
In Guatemala, women are deliberately targeted by criminals and gangs. Between 2000 and 2007, the murder rate for women more than tripled.
Exacerbating the problem is the fact that these crimes are seldom prosecuted. According to recent studies, only 2% of the perpetrators are ever brought to trial.
In the face of all this violence, some women are beginning to rise up. They are demanding protection and fighting to bring violent criminals to justice. One of the most dedicated and effective activists working in Guatemala today is Norma Cruz – a 48-year old mother who, against all odds, is making a real difference for the women of Guatemala.
The Work of Norma Cuz
Despite constant threats against her life, Norma Cruz is working hard to transform the country’s legal system and its culture of violence. In 2001, she co-founded a non-profit group – the Survivors Foundation – an organization dedicated to preventing violence against women. The group provides legal, emotional, and financial help to female victims and their families.
But these services are just the beginning.
At the same time, Norma Cruz is fighting to change the entire system of justice– from criminal investigation to prosecution and sentencing. It’s a daunting task, but one she sees as essential. Without large-scale, systemic reform, Cruz believes that women will never be safe in Guatemala.
But why is Guatemala – of all nations – so particularly violent?
The country’s recent past offers some clues.
Guatemala’s Difficult Past
From 1960 to 1996, this tiny, Central American nation was engaged in a violent civil war. For 36 years, the country’s repressive military government was locked in battle with a guerilla movement fighting for reform.
Over time, the war got ugly and the government’s tactics grew increasingly severe. People suspected of helping guerillas were tortured and killed in grisly ways. In some areas, entire villages were wiped out.
Women were often targeted for extreme treatment during the war. Women and young girls were frequently raped and dismembered before they were killed.
This is the culture that Norma Cruz is trying to change.
A Personal Struggle
In 1999, Norma discovered that her live-in boyfriend had been sexually abusing her young daughter for 5 years. Although this kind of abuse was generally kept quiet in Guatemala, Norma filed criminal charges.
After a long, 3-year trial, Norma was finally able to win a conviction against her ex-boyfriend, who was sentenced to an unprecedented 20 years in prison. The victory made Norma a national figure, brought the issue to light, and gave hope to other victims.
This put Norma on a bold new path that would help her begin transforming a nation.
Norma’s goal is ambitious – the eradication of all violence against women.
The Survivors Foundation
The first thing she realized was that there was no system in place to seek justice for women. To the local police, crimes against women were simply not worth investigating.
As recently as 2006, the police were not even gathering evidence at crimes scenes involving women – even if the woman had been murdered. They simply picked up the body, removed it, and buried it.
Norma realized that she and her staff would have to teach themselves the basics of forensic science.
“We decided to begin to study the sciences that would be our tools. We decided to speak the same language as the medical forensic experts, as the attorney general’s office, and as the judges.”
Although many of the Foundation’s members – including Norma – had never even finished high school, they learned quickly and soon became very skilled. Before long, they were solving cases and bringing the evidence to the police.
With each conviction, Norma’s fame grew, and so did the hope of Guatemala’s women. The Foundation began to win support nationwide. By 2007, Norma had a staff of 35 people, including 6 lawyers, 4 psychologists, and a social worker. The Foundation was growing, and it was starting to make a real impact.
Great Dangers, Great Success
Soon Norma was receiving death threats on a regular basis. In 2006, the Foundation’s offices were shot up by armed gunmen. Although no one was injured, the message was clear. Today, Norma doesn’t go anywhere without a bodyguard.
Despite the risks, Norma continues to press on with her cause. And she is slowly making a difference.
In 2009, her Foundation helped to capture 69 murderers and rapists – including 2 serial rapists who had terrorized local communities. In the average year, the Survivors Foundation provides assistance to more than 1000 women.
As a result of her work, Norma Cruz received a Woman of Courage award in 2009. That same year, she was named Woman of the Year by Il Prensa Libre, a major Guatemalan newspaper.
Norma’s example reminds us that courage and determination can help bring about justice – even in the most extreme circumstances. Progress may be slow at times, but major changes can happen.
“This is a topic that must be addressed in every country. We need to see this as a problem that affects everyone – men and women. It’s not just a problem for women; it’s a problem for humanity.”