In 2014, 5,100 girls under the age of fifteen became pregnant in Guatemala. That, to our senses, is a violent reality check. As such, in this issue of La Cuadra Magazine, we present a small selection of images captured by Swedish photographer Linda Forsell who documented this national embarrassment for two years starting in June 2013. Recently, I sat with Ms. Forsell for a conversation on these issues. Presented below is some of what was learned. For those who wish to know more about this issue, visit LindaForsell.tumblr.com. There you will find more images of these girls and their children. There are also extensive field notes by Ms. Forsell and links to other pages that encourage and facilitate action against the continuation of this particularly pernicious form of violence.
Prior to meeting with Ms. Forsell, I studied her images and considered the headline number of this exposé: 5,100 girls between the ages of 10 and 14 were impregnated during one year in Guatemala. The thought that thousands of children are being put through this experience was, in-and-of-itself, deeply unsettling. Yet, being from the United States, there was another trigger in my mind. Coming from a country with a much larger population than Guatemala, the number seemed troubling, but not statistically significant. Feeling that many of our readers from the global north might experience the same sense of distance from the totality of this crime, we offer an observation and encourage your own analysis. By population, the United States is twenty times larger than Guatemala; thus, for an equivalent per capita number, there would need to be over 100,000 children between the ages of 10 and 14 being made pregnant each and every year in my homeland. The weight of that simple calculation nearly brought me to my knees. It was among the first things that I wanted to speak to Ms. Forsell about. Her take on the issue was compelling.
“Yes, that is true, but the 5,100 number doesn’t even come close to describing the totality of childhood pregnancy in Guatemala. First, it should be acknowledged that by a 2009 national law, each pregnancy of a girl younger than fifteen is considered evidence of rape, yet only forty men were sentenced for these crimes in 2014,” Ms. Forsell said.
I noted that Guatemala was well known for its high impunity rates for major crime. According to a 2012 study by Freedom House, only 2 percent of major crimes result in convictions and sentences in Guatemala. Yet, it seemed by some quick math (40 out of 5,100 child rapes in Guatemala leading to conviction), the conviction rate for this specific manifestation of child rape was only 0.78 percent. In a 2007 report for the United Nations, Philip Alston, the author, stated that Guatemala is “a good place to commit murder because you will almost certainly get away with it.” Given the chance, he could have noted that, however disturbing to consider, it is significantly easier to rape a child with impunity in this country than it is to take a life.
Ms. Forsell agreed, and went further, telling me that while we do absolutely know that only forty men were convicted of child rape last year, the number of actual child rapes is essentially unknowable given the lack of access to neonatal care whereby pregnancies would be reported, the high rates of maternal mortality, infertility and spontaneous terminations of pregnancy for girls so young. On top of that, she noted the effect of homespun, and often dangerous, methods of aborting a pregnancy. It was, however, her concluding observation that struck the deepest nerve. To quote her directly: “The single most important reason why the number of rapes are unknown, is that any woman, and even more so an immature girl, can only become pregnant for a few days within her menstrual cycle. Thus, we can confidently conclude that only a small fraction of rapes actually lead to pregnancy.”
I asked Ms. Forsell if she could elaborate on the underlying causes of childhood pregnancies and the natural corollary of child rape in Guatemala. She did, but first took pains to note that this is, in fact, a particularly egregious problem in Guatemala. “Guatemala has one of the highest rates of child pregnancies in the world, with the exception of a few selected African countries,” Forsell said.
She went on to explain the perfect storm that has led Guatemala to be so overrun by the issue of children having children. “Guatemala has a long history of violence against women. According to Helen Leiva who works with the reproductive rights organization Tan Uxil in northeastern Guatemala, it has been an issue since the Spanish inquisition and the time of the conquistadores. Violence against women has peaked during times of high societal violence, a recent example of which occurred during the Guatemalan civil war. Now we are witnessing skyrocketing rates again, as the nation is overrun by drug cartels and the street gangs that serve as their shock troops.”
Expanding on the impact of this violence, Ms. Forsell continued at length:
“A girl giving birth before her body is fully developed is an enormous risk. Mothers below the age of 16 in Latin America are four times more likely to die giving birth than women who have reached full sexual maturity. It is only logical to conclude that the risk is astronomical for a child of 10 or 12 or 14. In order to attack this issue, education is key — but it is also one of the nation’s weakest structural links. Moreover, sexual education is close to nonexistent. These girls do not know what they are being subjected to when raped. Several of the girls I met did not understand that they were pregnant when their belly started growing, and they had never heard of contraceptives. The main churches, both Catholic and Evangelical, generally discourage any education on the matter and often take part in the shaming of these girls after their pregnancies become noticeable.”
According to Forsell, the problem of child rape is distributed fairly equally throughout Guatemala, though it expresses itself differently in different communities. For example, child marriage, wherein girls are married off by their parents, often to a much older man, is more common among the indigenous population. However, in urban centers you see more sex-tourism and gang-related targeting of children. Incest in Guatemala is also, compared to other nations, widespread. To quote the photographer directly, “Incest is unusually common and normalized in Guatemala. Of the girls I photographed for my project, Niñas teniendo Niños, 90% were raped by someone they knew well — either a family member or an individual close to them in their community. In 30 percent of that 90 percent, the rapist is the child’s father.”
In 2009, the government signed a new law defining sex with any girl below 14 as rape in all instances, even within the institution of marriage. Moreover, in recent years, the number of civic organizations combatting this problem have been rising, so there clearly are efforts to address this pressing issue. Still, with an impunity rate above 99%, it cannot be seriously suggested that significant progress has been made.
Before concluding our meeting, the conversation turned toward the images themselves. While consent to use these images was acquired from both the young mothers and their parents, we discussed the probity of showing these images in public. To this, Ms. Forsell had a powerful response. She said:
“In all parts of the world, this kind of violence is blamed, repeatedly, on the girls or women themselves. They carry the shame heaped on them by their communities and are stigmatized for being victims of rape and abuse. Yet, there is little understanding of the underlying manipulation to which they are subjected. I believe that showing the faces of girls or women who refuse that shaming and blaming can counteract and strengthen other women. Naturally, any time I show my work, it is done with consent and no one is placed in any unknown risk due to the publication of their images. Rather than worrying about any offense the larger community might feel by having these realities exposed, the least we can do is to support the courage of these young mothers as they strive for full lives for themselves and to help prevent their lot from becoming the lot of even more children.”
La Cuadra Magazine agrees.