Providing Hope for a Violence-Free Future

How a community leader in Guatemala is supporting women’s rights and equality

Cristina Azucena “Suzy” Carbajal (right), with a woman and her son from the Cuilco municipality, seeking legal advice from the Municipal Directorate for Women. / Jessica Benton Cooney, USAID

After 10 years of a marriage marked by physical violence, Cristina Azucena “Suzy” Carbajal left — for her safety, and with the conviction that she had to stand as a role model for other women.

Suzy left despite her husband’s threats to take their children. She overcame her fear of the difficult economic road ahead — her freedom to pursue education and job opportunities had been cut short after marrying at 18.

Nonetheless, Suzy knew she could become a better mother when free from the stress that came with domestic violence, and she wanted to demonstrate to her children that such behavior was not acceptable. She drew upon the support of her family members, who feared for Suzy’s life and the fate of her two sons if she were killed.

Cristina Azucena “Suzy” Carbajal (left), the coordinator of the Cuilco Municipal Directorate for Women since 2015, and her assistant in the western highlands of Guatemala. / Jessica Benton Cooney, USAID

Today, Suzy no longer faces violence. She has even forgiven her husband, and they have agreed to a shared custody arrangement.

As a USAID-trained coordinator of the Municipal Directorate for Women in Cuilco, in the western highlands of Guatemala, Suzy uses her story to inspire other women in the community in similarly abusive situations — including victims of rape, not only by the men in their lives, but also by those in positions of authority.

“I am the listening ear and the supportive voice,” she said. “I take their hands and let them know they aren’t alone.”

Violence Against Women Surging

During the 36-year civil war that lasted until 1996, violence against women in Guatemala surged, with sexual violence used as a tool of war. A U.N.-sponsored report estimated that 25 percent of the victims of Guatemala’s war were women. Rape, torture, and murder — were carried out by the country’s army and civilian defense forces who were trained to commit such acts of violence.

Since then, a culture of violence has persisted, making stories like Suzy’s commonplace in Guatemala — the world’s third-most dangerous place to be female, after El Salvador and Jamaica.

Women hold makeshift crosses to commemorate International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women in Guatemala City in 2015. / Getty Images

Still there are signs of hope in Guatemala. In 2008, Guatemala introduced legislation outlawing violence against women and officially recognized femicide, the murder of a woman because of her gender, as a crime. However according to the U.N., at least two women are still killed every day on the basis of their gender in Guatemala, with rampant impunity fueling the widespread crisis.

Inspiring a Violence-Free Future

Suzy credits the USAID training, part of DAI’s Nexos Locales program, with helping her to maximize the impact of the Municipal Directorate for Women in advocating for women in her community. The training gave her the skills she needed to understand public financing and devise a step-by-step plan and budget for providing key services to affected individuals.

Today, Suzy provides trauma counseling and supports violence-affected women in pursuing micro-enterprise ventures to increase their income.

Suzy also encourages women to understand their rights — even accompanying them to court if they choose to seek legal action for sexual or physical abuse, despite the fear of having their cases rejected. She recently assisted a woman negotiate child support; her ex-husband relented when the judge threatened jail time if he failed to pay what he owed.

Additionally, Suzy trains women on gender equality and violence prevention, encouraging them to overcome the sexism and gender discrimination that has been culturally normalized over many generations.

Women of Guatemala marched for their rights on Women’s Day on March 8, 2017. / AFP

Suzy envisions a municipality free from violence against women.

This includes increasing awareness of gender-based violence with men — including her own sons. She teaches them to respect women and embrace equality in the home, and to be open about the reason why she left their father.

“It can’t just be the women stopping the violence, the men also have to stop generating it,” Suzy said.

She is also fighting for the inclusion of women in political and public spaces — a key activity of USAID — to make their needs and perspectives heard and taken into account, particularly in decision-making processes for community development.

Women remember victims of gender violence in Guatemala. / AFP

By supporting dedicated community leaders such as Suzy, USAID’s programs around the world work to prevent and respond to gender-based violence, as well as enhance the ability of women and girls to participate and have an equal voice in the governance of their communities. Since 2012, USAID has reached more than 5 million survivors of gender-based violence with potentially life-saving services.

USAID investments in Guatemala are also building more effective, inclusive and participatory governance in high-poverty and high-need areas of the country, and ensuring that women and girls receive both the services and representation they deserve.

“When women come to us, I see it as a great responsibility and privilege to be that support system for them and provide hope for a violence-free future,” Suzy said.

About the Author

Jessica Benton Cooney is the Communications Specialist of USAID’s Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance.