MIRIAM helped me find the strength in myself

26. Aug 2020
By
Rikke Hovn Poulsen

Jennifer was sexually abused and got pregnant as a teenager. She was very close to giving up on life before it really started. But a local women's group helped her out on the other side

GUATEMALA: Jennifer doesn't lower her gaze a single time as she speaks. She wants to tell the whole world about what she has experienced, because she hopes that she can help others this way. But for the sake of her six-year-old daughter, she would rather not have her picture shown.

“My daughter is the result of a sexual abuse that started when I was 13 years old. It was a very difficult time for me. But I have moved on, and we are both in a good place today. We have a good future ahead of us,” Jennifer states with no doubt in her voice.

In many ways, 21-year-old Jennifer's story is a typical story of a young indigenous girl in Guatemala, where poverty, violence and teenage pregnancies are part of everyday life. But it is also the story about how things can change. And about how a helping hand can mean the whole difference between victim and survivor – so that today, Jennifer has taken fate in her own hand and is in the process of creating a better future for herself and everyone around her.

HIDING THE BELLY

Jennifer is only eight years old when she loses her mother. The parents are divorced, and since her father is an alcoholic, it is decided that she will go live with her older sister’s family.

“I was okay for the first 4-5 years; I played football and made trouble. But when I was 13 years old, my sister's husband started abusing me. I was only a kid, so I had no idea what was happening. I didn’t even understand what was happening to my body when my period stopped. "

When Jennifer is five months pregnant, a group of educators from the local health clinic visit her school. They talk about how to get pregnant and what the signs are.

"Then it hit me: 'Oh no, that's what is happening to me! What am I going to do?'. I was desperate; I knew I couldn't tell my sister, so I considered jumping off a bridge. But something inside me was afraid of hurting the child - what if it died and I didn't die myself?"

Instead, the 14-year-old girl clings to an irrational hope that no one will discover anything, if only she pretends nothing is going on. She continues to play football and hides her belly as best she can. She is eight months pregnant before the sister finds out. 

"I did not say who the father was. But still, my sister didn't want anyone to know I was pregnant, so I stayed home from school. "

26 days before her 15th birthday, Jennifer gives birth to her daughter. But of course it is impossible to hide that something is wrong. People are gossiping in the community. And after a short while, the local authorities turn up in the home.

In 2018, Guatemala registered:

10,811 cases of sexual violence 

116,773 pregnancies among girls aged 10-19

417 murders of children and adolescents

YOU RUINED MY LIFE

In the beginning, Jennifer refuses to tell how she got pregnant. But the police officers put pressure on her, and eventually the truth emerges. It's a shock to everyone - not least to the sister who reacts with anger and distrust to Jennifer.

"She said I had ruined her and her children's lives. That I lied and that it was all my fault. And she would never see me again. "

For the first months of the baby's life, Jennifer stays at a shelter while the trial is on.

“It was very difficult for me - I was all alone and I knew nothing about caring for a baby. Most of all I just wanted to leave the shelter, but I had nowhere to go.”

The sister's husband flees to the United States, as it is clear that he will be held be responsible for his actions. He is sentenced in absentia to 16 years in prison. And after a year, he is caught and sent home to serve his sentence.

“Of course, it is important to me that he be punished. It gives me a sense of justice. But it gives me no pleasure, because it does not repair the pain and all that he has ruined for me."

After the trial, Jennifer is sent to live at her father’s house. But in addition to being an alcoholic, he is also violent. Jennifer is scared of him, and eventually she moves to  live with another sister, who lets her stay until she turns 18.

“I am grateful to my sister - she has four children herself, life it has not been easy for her. She helped me through. But it was very hard for me to be responsible for a little baby when I was not much more than a child myself. It was difficult financially, and then there was the uncertainty - I had no idea what was going to become of me, because I didn't really feel I had any options. And on top of that, I was burdened with a great shame because of all that had happened. "

Despite the problems, Jennifer insists on staying in school. And that is where she gets the push to change her life.

A small revolution

One of Jennifer's teachers works with a local women's group named Miriam, who, together with Oxfam IBIS, supports young women who have been subjected to violence. Here, they receive both psychological and financial support to complete their education - and they become part of a special education course on women's rights and feminist values. In short, the young women learn to take leadership in their own lives, and they commit to bringing the tools and the new knowledge home and sharing it with others in the local community. In this way, Miriam hopes to create a small revolution among girls and women in Guatemala, so that violence and oppression in the future are not just part of everyday life.

Jennifer's teacher can refer a few girls to Miriam each semester. And it is obvious that Jennifer needs help.

“In Miriam, I found the support I needed. They have helped me financially so that I can pay my school fees, which is of course a huge relief. But just as important, they have helped me through a healing process where I have learned to see the strength in myself and the good things in life. I have forgiven myself and let go of all the guilt and shame I was carrying around. If it wasn't for Miriam, I honestly don't know how I should have coped with my baby. They has given me the feeling that I can handle this - that I'll be okay again! "

A few years ago, Jennifer reconciled with the sister whose husband abused her.

“She's still upset, and I can easily understand her - it was her children's father who raped me, and it's been difficult for the whole family. But we've talked things through. Our relationship will always be complicated, but we are sisters after all.”

Jennifer is proud of her life today. She lives with her daughter in a one-bedroom cement house with a tin roof. But she manages, has a job in a factory and studies law at the university in the evenings and weekends.

 “I know I'll definately get my exam. In the meantime, I am able to raise my daughter in a good way. I tell her every day that she should stay in school. I can't give her a lot of dollars, but I can give her a future!”

When Jennifer finishes law school in three years, she hopes to get a good job in the justice system. Many people in her community are dreaming of going to the United States and to make big money - but that's not what she's looking for.

“I have a mission: I want to help others who are having a hard time, just like myself. That is why I want to be a lawyer. Maybe sometime in the future I will travel and help people elsewhere. But right now, Guatemala needs women like me!”

 

FLOW - for the fight against violence against women

WHAT: A major program to fight violence against women in Liberia, Guatemala and Burundi - three countries that are struggling in various ways with the aftermath of violent conflicts.

HOW: We support local and national organizations that are fighting violence and discrimination - and work for women's political influence in society.

WHO: The Dutch Foreign Ministry supports FLOW with DKK 80 million. Oxfam IBIS manages the program in collaboration with the Dutch NGO Impunity Watch - and a large number of local and national partners are working it to create the greatest possible change in their own countries.