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“There has been progress in services provided for women who suffer from domestic or sexual violence,” says Leivy Suyuc, Project Coordinator for Renacimiento, ChildFund`s local partner in Comalapa, a town in Guatemala’s impoverished highlands. “In Guatemala City, for example, you can find shelters and legal counsel for women who have been abused. There are also special units at police stations and public attorney agencies that investigate cases of sexual violence and physical abuse. But outside the city, these services are scant.”

Comalapa and the nearby community of San Martin Jilotepeque have a year-old project to address domestic and sexual violence. Supported by ChildFund, Voices Against Sexual Violence is a support network of police, local authorities and health care workers who are trained to help victims.

“Local culture tends to look the other way when it comes to sexual violence or simply deny it exists,” says ChildFund Guatemala’s National Director, Mario Lima. “It is a patriarchal culture, and girls and young women in these parts may feel they have nowhere to turn. This is what the project is trying to solve.”

Often, when women are abused by husbands or partners, the abuse continues into the next generation, with children becoming victims or abusers as they grow up. Efforts like “Voices” help create an environment where people feel more open to talking about violence and abuse, which ultimately reduces the number of cases.

The Guatemalan Ministry of Health’s local centres provide primary care to victims and, if necessary, refer them to hospitals. Then, if the victim wants to report her case to local authorities, a municipal department for women and the national police’s special unit for women are available to assist her. Their staff members are part of the Voices network and provide a friendly ear and legal counsel.

“So far, during the year since we’ve opened up, we have handled seven cases,” Leivy says. “It has not been easy convincing people they need to report sexual violence, especially because of fear of reprisals, stereotypes and lack of trust in public institutions. We suspect there are more cases out there, but we also have to remember we are working in small communities where everyone knows each other and the stigma of sexual violence can be hard to deal with.”

The project began with establishing the most basic procedures: inviting organisations to join the support network, and training staff members at health care centres and police departments. Local grassroots organisations and young women from ChildFund’s I Respect and Protect Myself project were also recruited into the effort. This group launched an awareness campaign in Comalapa and Jilotepeque, not only to prevent sexual violence but also to encourage reporting abuse to local authorities or members of the network.

Leivy says the program will continue throughout 2016: “We just received some extra financing by a local institution, and with all the partners and protocols in place, we can really make a difference. We are confident that girls and young women will overcome their fear and shame, knowing we are here for them and will not let them down.”

The pavement stopped on the outskirts of a small village tucked into a crevice of Guatemala`s mountainous countryside. We walked the rest of the three kilometres up a steady incline, passing by houses made of scrap metal amid small plots of land. We came to an opening in a field of corn. As we descended toward a small building, I could hear the familiar sound of children`s laughter erupting from inside.

I walked into a home that is opened up to ChildFund Guatemala`s local partner organisation each week for two hours to host a community-based early childhood education centre.

When we arrived the children were already in the middle of a game. Divided into two competing lines, the children were each to catch a ball gently tossed by a volunteer and then place it into a basket. The staff from our local partner organisation cheered them on, and other volunteer mothers helped the younger ones.

This race, filled with laughter and balls flying in all directions, had a purpose beyond the noisy fun. The game is also designed to improve the children`s hand-eye coordination and gross motor skills.

The staff and volunteers then led the children to a large mirror propped up by the edge of the play yard. The children initially stared at themselves quizzically, trying to figure out who was in the reflection, most had seen only small hand mirrors before. Within seconds, they were posing with their friends, and their confidence grew. This exercise is to improve and self-recognition and motor control.

From there, the children gathered in a circle and echoed a poem identifying the parts of the body: “cabezahombroscinturarodillaspies” (head, shoulders, waist, knees and feet). They danced around to the rhythm of the poem, giggling all the while. In this village, most of the children speak K`iche`, so this is helping them to learn Spanish in preparation for school.

Our visit ended just as the children were settling into small groups to colour, paint, draw and write to their sponsors. This activity brought about the most smiles of the day.

It all seemed like child`s play. And it was fun for today, but educational for tomorrow!