Monday, November 26, 2012

From the first time I visited with then-First Lady Hillary Clinton in 1998, Guatemala's natural beauty and the warmth of its people, particularly the strength of its women despite many hardships, have left me with a special affinity for this Central American country. However, it has also long been a place rife with challenges. Even after the 1996 peace accords were signed to end the 36-year internal conflict, Guatemala has continued to struggle with malnutrition, poverty, corruption, organized crime, and high rates of violence against women.

Despite these challenges, my recent visit to the country has convinced me that Guatemala is beginning to address them, particularly gender-based violence (GBV) and other crimes. A big part of this change is due to women's leadership in key positions.

After a brief stop in Peru with Secretary Clinton, I had the opportunity to travel to Guatemala City and Antigua, where I met with government and civil society leaders to address GBV and discussed ways we can better collaborate to prevent, respond to and address this global scourge. As part of our efforts to stem GBV in Central America and create a more effective network of women leaders working to prevent and respond to GBV, I was proud to launch the new Mujeres Adelante ("Women Moving Forward") program, a collaboration with the Seattle International Foundation. Mujeres Adelante will bring emerging leaders from Central America to the United States for skill and capacity building. This will enable these leaders to raise awareness of and accountability for responding to GBV.

These networks and initiatives are vital to continuing the fight against GBV. And yet, as we have learned over the years, a strong civil society must be complemented by a government committed to addressing this violence -- from its root causes all the way to its devastating consequences. Under the leadership of women like Vice President Roxana Baldetti, former Supreme Court president Thelma Aldana and Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz, as well as strong civil society leaders like Norma Cruz, who won an International Women of Courage award from the State Department in 2009 for her work leading Fundación Sobrevivientes, a shelter that helps rebuild women after brutal attacks, Guatemala is addressing impunity and making justice a reality.

During my visit, I met with Guatemala's president, Otto Perez Molina, who told me about the special courts his government has established to adjudicate cases of femicide -- the act of killing a woman simply because she is a woman -- and the work his government is doing to ensure that GBV is addressed on all fronts. "We can't leave women behind," he told me emphatically.

At Norma Cruz's Fundación Sobrevivientes, I was impressed not only by the facilities, but by the women and families who graciously shared their stories with me. It was a place of angels, they told me, and I agree. Thelma Aldana and Claudia Paz y Paz each told me about fighting to make Guatemala's 2008 laws against femicide real: they will soon inaugurate a brand new 24-hour court specifically for women survivors. A report Ms. Aldana gave me indicates that 46 percent of all 2011 sentences in Guatemala were issued by these courts. In other words, six judicial bodies produced almost the same number of sentences issued by approximately 100 criminal courts across the country. Attorney General Paz y Paz told me both of challenges -- lack of training for judges and police and scarce resources -- but also of the extraordinary progress she and her team are making in bringing perpetrators to justice.

In Antigua, I met with indigenous women artisans who are literally stitching their future, ending malnutrition and bringing income to their communities with the help of one of our WEAmericas cohort women, Lucrecia González. This kind of economic empowerment is crucial to providing women with opportunities to leave abusive situations.

Of course, like many countries all over the world, Guatemala has a long way to go. There was a harsh reminder of this during the launch of Mujeres Adelante itself -- one of our alumni from the first tranche of the initiative, Helen Rojas, was attacked on her way to the event. And yet, unwilling to be silenced, she stood up and spoke about how committed she is to addressing GBV, and how the training we offered her this past year in the United States has fortified that commitment. Like the Vice President, the former Supreme Court president, and the Attorney General, Rojas is a symbol of Guatemala's women, bound and determined to transform their country for the better. As we look ahead to the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on November 25 and the accompanying 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence, we can take inspiration from the women of Guatemala who are on the frontlines, working tirelessly and selflessly to create a world free from the senseless abuse of women and girls.

Visit for more information on the Office of Global Women's Issues at the U.S. Department of State, follow @S_GWI on Twitter, and visit our Facebook page for more pictures from Ambassador Verveer's travels.