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Holly's News From Washington
We had an unprecedented visit to IJM’s office this week: His Excellency Julio Ligorria, Guatemalan Ambassador to the United States, who was accompanied by his Minister Counselor, Edgar Villanueva. We’ve had many meetings at embassies to Washington but this was the first time a foreign Ambassador came to our headquarters to see us.
Ambassador Ligorria joined IJM President Gary Haugen and our Latin America team to discuss our work on behalf of child victims of sexual assault in Guatemala. The Ambassador, who is a prominent businessman, told us that he didn’t know about the problem of sexual abuse of children until he met a young girl on the Guatemalan border who was attempting to get to the United States. Ambassador Ligorria asked the child, who was only about twelve years old and travelling alone, why she was making this dangerous trip. She told him that her home was dangerous, and he eventually learned that she had been sexually abused by her father. Even though she had been sexually assaulted by strangers in the course of her flight to the border, this child was intent upon getting to the U.S., where, she told the Ambassador, the abuse would stop. The Ambassador expressed his sorrow over the case and his eagerness to help his government address the crime of violence against children.
This anecdote illustrates a couple of things to me. One is that Guatemala is well represented in Washington by this large-hearted man. Another is that while there are many contributors to the migration of unaccompanied Central American children to the U.S., sexual abuse in their homes and communities is clearly a “push factor.” And finally, the Government of Guatemala wants and deserves help from the U.S. and other donors in keeping children safe in their country, their communities, and their homes.
I visited Guatemala in mid-August and had a chance to see some of the innovations that the Guatemalan government has adopted to address the distressingly common crime of sexual violence. One was the “MAI” – an integrated reception center for child and adult victims of sexual assault based in the Guatemala City prosecutor’s office. At this spotless and well-run facility, victims are provided with a social worker and supported while they report the crime to a judge, prosecutor, and representative for the accused. Forensic medical evidence is secured on the premises. This one-stop-shop center, one of fourteen in the country, greatly reduces re-victimization of women and children and enhances the likelihood of successful prosecution of perpetrators.
I also got a chance to visit the newly refurbished headquarters of the police sexual assault unit (SCU). For the past nine months, my IJM colleagues and I have been working with friends in Congress to secure $3 million in U.S. foreign assistance to help the government of Guatemala deploy additional SCU units. IJM has been asked to train the SCU’s and our team is eager to do so. But the Guatemalan Government has requested assistance to equip the new officers.
I am happy to say that human rights heroes in the U.S. Congress have been eager to help. Representatives Peter Roskam (R-IL) and Jim McGovern (D-MA) and Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) circulated a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry that urged him to assist the Guatemalan special units. Thanks to awesome bipartisan leadership and energetic work by Hill staffers, the final letters included 74 Members of the House and 16 Senators.
Bipartisan Congressional support was also reflected in House and Senate foreign assistance appropriations bills that designated $3 million for the special unit. The bill is expected to be finalized when Congress returns after the election.
In this run-up to the 2014 elections partisan feelings are high and candidates from both parties are pummeling one another on the airwaves. It is a good feeling to know that when the dust settles, there is a solid, bi-partisan group of members and senators who care about things like the sexual assault of Guatemalan children and will work together to get some help to a government that needs and deserves it.