February 22, 2009

More than 10,000 cases of sexual violence were reported to the authorities in 2008, with 4,600 of these cases occurring in the districts of Guatemala City, where MSF runs a program to assist such victims.


Violence in Guatemala is forcing people to live in a state of fear. More than 6,200 people were murdered in 2008, close to 17 deaths per day. Likewise, more than 10,000 cases of sexual violence were reported to the authorities in 2008, with 4,600 of these cases occurring in the districts of Guatemala City, where Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) runs a program to assist such victims. By the end of the year, MSF was treating more than 80 people, mostly women, per month.

“We are working in the most violent zones of the country, especially in the suburbs of Guatemala City,” said Fabio Forgione, MSF director of operations in Guatemala. “Our teams work in two clinics on the outskirts of the city. Here, we offer medical and psychological support to survivors of sexual violence. These zones are strongholds of gangs called ‘Maras’ and are formed by young men previously deported from the US.”

The streets are dangerous for all Guatemalans, but women are even under threat in their own homes. Most rapes happen here, committed by family members or acquaintances. “Women are in most cases not aware that they are victims. The culture of machismo and the suppression of women can even lead to feelings of guilt. They often withdraw their complaint as it has little chance of being heard,” said Forgione.

The impunity shown towards those who commit these crimes is almost total. This was one of the major issues that brought tens of thousands of people to the streets in the capital to rally against violence on January 10. “MSF doesn’t focus on the legal system,” said Forgione. “Our main concern is to explain to the public, and especially to potential victims, that rape is a medical emergency. They have to be protected against sexually transmitted diseases, they have the opportunity to be treated by a psychologist and, most of all, they have to seek help immediately.” MSF gives victims of rape antiretroviral drugs to prevent them from contracting HIV/AIDS, but the drugs must be taken within 72 hours of the attack.

MSF began its sexual violence program in Guatemala City in 2007, and the team of medical personnel and psychologists have now intensified their activities. They organize informational meetings and discussions so that women who live in these areas know where to go for help after an assault.

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