by Nicolle Richards


In Guatemala, a criminal is more likely to die in a car crash than go to prison. The conviction rate for murder, is a mere 3%. Violence is not an anomaly – it is part of everyday life. Security is available to those who can pay for it, with the amount of private security guards 7 times the amount of police. Yet the majority of the population lives in a constant state of poverty and fear.


I showed up with my head full of notions and theories about violence, poverty and justice. I had studied the important people, and knew the facts about the dire situation of poverty and criminal justice in Guatemala. Yet nothing from a textbook could prepare me for the reality of the complexity of the issues related to violence, abuse and criminality.


I met Maria my first afternoon at the aftercare home for survivors of sex-trafficking and sexual abuse. She stood there quietly, with a lollipop in her mouth and a smile in her eyes. She laughed and gave me a quick hug, and on the outside she seemed like any other little girl you would meet on the playground. Yet behind the appearance of a carefree nine year old girl lay an ugly truth. Maria had come to the home when authorities found out that two men had sexually abused her.


Sexual abuse is wrong. And from that, the logical conclusion I came to was that her abusers were bad, criminals who deserved to be locked up in prison, probably for life. Her first abuser fit into my model – even though he was her father. He had abused her intentionally, and was now paying for it as he spent years in prison. Her second abuser, however, did not fit in my black-and-white view of victim and criminal.


He was her brother, and had been 12 years old at the time.


Marco had seen what his dad had done to his sister. And when his dad told him to do the same thing, he had obeyed. It threw me completely off guard. Yes, he was guilty – there was no denying that what he had done was wrong. But he was also still a child, and seemed to me to be almost a victim of their father’s crimes himself. Should he be put in jail?


There are many situations where right and wrong is not as black and white as we would like. Maria’s story showed me that this holds true in situations of abuse, and that blame is complicated.


In response to this, many organizations have taken a “victim-centered approach,” shifting the focus away from technicalities and taking the measures that will benefit the person who has been wronged. The US Department of Homeland Security explains that this is an approach which “places equal value on the identification and stabilization of victims, as well as the investigation and prosecution.”1 survivors of sexual a use, domestic violence and human trafficking, it is imperative that the victim be recognized as a key voice and decision maker throughout the process.As more and more organizations look to provide aftercare and legal services to survivors of sexual a use, domestic violence and human trafficking, it is imperative that the victim be recognized as a key voice and decision maker throughout the process.

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