Photo by Carlos Sebastián, originally published on Nómada.

Orphanage tragedy exposes corruption

At least 37 girls dead after International Women’s Day protest

Yesterday I was included on an email from Alejandra, the director of Pa’nibal, a women and girl’s home I work with in Sacatepéquez, Guatemala. It was addressed to our staff of social workers and educators, as well as a few other colleagues. Alejandra began (translated from Spanish):

An embrace of solidarity, tenderness and resistance to the terrible repression in which we are plunged in this ill-fated and failed state of Guatemala. In the face of the unfortunate events that took place a few days ago in the “Safe Home of the Virgin of the Assumption” where [37] girls lost their lives, I want to share and express my resolve, regarding our political and social refuge Pa’nibal

Alejandra was responding to a tragedy that cuts far deeper than fire.

On Wednesday an orphanage in San José de Pinula, Guatemala, about an hour and a half from our project in Sacatepéquez, was burned down. At least 37 teenage girls were killed in the fire, far more injured. The fire followed a protest organized by girls living in the home. At first the government reports claimed the girls were protesting the food quality, but several news outlets including Guatemala’s Prensa Libre report the girls had intentionally organized on Wednesday, International Women’s Day, to protest physical and sexual abuse in the home.

Martín Rodríguez Pellecer, a Guatemalan journalist, writes in his article about the tragedy that the girls were locked in a dormitory for protesting abuse and poor conditions. After being denied release from the dorm, they set fire to the beds hoping to force the staff to unlock the doors. The doors remained locked.

According to Prensa Libre, a 16 year old resident of the home and witness of the fire said that staff refused to open the doors after the fire was started. “[They] did not help them,” he told reporters. “They stood still. We knew [the girls], we wanted to help them but they would not let us.”

The state funded orphanage, Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción, has been accused of appalling ill-treatment for years. Martín Rodríguez Pellecer cites three separate complaints against the orphanage that resulted in criminal rape charges, including a teacher who forced students to strip naked in front of each other, and another who forced 12 and 13 year-old girls to perform oral sex on him before he would let them leave their classroom. ABC Internacional reports that the home has received numerous publicized accusations of extortion, sexual assault and even murder, and that 233 minors have escaped from the facility since 2014.

Fireman and passersby gather outside Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asención after a tragic fire on Wednesday, International Women’s Day. Photo by Prensa Libre.

Escaped orphans? It seems like something out of a Victorian era novel. But the Hogar Seguro wasn’t just an orphanage. The building, originally intended to house 400, had swelled to a population of 738. Guatemalan courts had been quietly sending juvenile criminals to the home, having no other facilities to take them. ABC Internacional reported that prior to the incident, the courts had received numerous requests from relatives and friends of orphanage residents to transfer ‘minors in conflict with the law’ out of the home. Orphans living there were not safe, and in fact were sharing living spaces with gang members and other dangerous criminals. On Tuesday, just one day before the fire, 60 children escaped the orphanage into the surrounding ravines, trusting their lives to the tough streets of Guatemala City rather than go on living in Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción.

Carlos Rodas, the Guatemalan Secretary of Social Welfare, defended the state run home in his statement about the tragedy:

The adolescents were punished for extortion. The girls had sharps hidden in their hair. We exhausted the dialogue with the girls. We could not accept a report that said that place is a chicken coop where children are tortured. I think the cause of the mutiny—because they do not like the food—was not legitimate. There was no negligence. I will not file my resignation as Secretary of Social Welfare. The President ordered police last night to find and return the 60 escaped teenagers. The problem is that judges mix children who have committed crimes with children abandoned by their families. We ask the Public Prosecutor’s Office to investigate but we do not directly blame anyone. The President did not come to participate in the conference because he is attending urgent matters of the nation. This press conference is over.

Secretary Rodas (Secretaría de Benestar Social or SBS) also stated that the Guatemalan Government would pay funeral expenses for the 37 girls lost in the fire, but according to El Periodico most of the victims’ friends and relatives refused SBS compensation, saying “they didn’t want to hear anything about the SBS.”

The burning of Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción and the death of 37 teenage girls on International Women’s Day is more than a tragedy. It’s a reminder of the treacherous conditions that girls—and other disadvantaged peoples—face daily in Guatemala, one of the most dangerous and corrupt countries in the Western Hemisphere.

Alejandra ended her letter to the staff at Pa’nibal with a call for perseverance:

Work with women survivors of violence is a slow, difficult, heartbreaking work. I ask for your continued support and commitment to the improvement of our services. I want to emphasize that—contrary to current media—there are programs, shelters, and homes with dignified support for women and children. And a clear example of that is Pa’nibal where every day we strive to provide the best services to our residents and their families. We will continue to work so that more people can have another chance at a life worth living and free of violence. We have a great work ahead of us and a long way to go, for which I ask, above all, for your patience and perseverance.
With much indignation at the situation of our country, but also in the security of knowing that we are doing a good work, I say goodbye, not without emphasizing my gratitude for your daily efforts.

There is a massive, ongoing need in Guatemala for the safety, acceptance and social services that create hope in the lives of otherwise abandoned girls. I want to express my sincere wish that those of us in comparatively stable, advantageous circumstances work to make a difference in whatever capacity we can.

Eric Toupin is the founder of Pa’nibal, a private women and girl’s refuge in Sacatepéquez, Guatemala, working to create hope and change through security, long term individual advocacy and practical education.

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