Hope for Literacy -- and for Women

A beautiful country of green mountains and scenic lakes, natural resources and hard working people, Guatemala is a troubled place.
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Unless a volcano erupts or an earthquake hits, Guatemala is not a country often mentioned in North American news or very much in the consciousness of people north of the border. A few months ago, before traveling to Guatemala in March, I was among those who couldn't have told you just where it is or exactly how to spell its name.

A beautiful country of green mountains and scenic lakes, natural resources and hard working people, Guatemala is a troubled place. Finally emerging from a long, unhappy history of war and oppression, it is today roiled by a toxic mix of corruption, impunity, machismo, gang warfare and drug trafficking. Violence against women is at grievously high levels and getting worse. The UN Commission on Human Rights has called Guatemala the most dangerous place for women in the hemisphere. Illiteracy is widespread, particularly within the large indigenous population, particularly for women. At the very bottom of the social ladder -- abused, discriminated against, and lacking in education -- are female sex workers.

In 2005 a professor at Loyola Marymount University, Jodi Finkel, and two of her students, heard a story on NPR about a sex worker named Susie in Guatemala who had a dream, a dream of learning how to read. Professor Finkle challenged the students, Ana Moraga and Tania Torres, to find Susie and to help her achieve her wish.

The two young women traveled to Guatemala City and searched in its notorious La Linea red light district. Remarkably they were able to locate Susie. But this is where their idealism collided with Guatemala's unforgiving reality. Susie, with seven children and a dangerous, demanding job, wasn't able even to attempt the additional burden of learning to read.

Ana and Tania, however, had gotten an up-close-and-personal look at a need that was very real. Mentored by Professor Finkle, they returned to Guatemala City and tried to engage other sex workers in a literacy program in the heart of La Linea. They were met with distrust and suspicion.

As we learned on a visit in March, conditions for women in Guatemala are desperate and getting worse. The trip, under the aegis of the Pacific Council for International Policy, was an investigation specifically into the situation of violence against women. In Guatemala, on average, two women are murdered every day, yet the rate of impunity for these crimes is, at best, 98%. The office which prosecutes crimes against women last year received 5,000 cases, prosecuted 1,500 and ended up with 56 convictions -- a rate of 1% or 99% impunity. The Guatemala Human Rights Commission puts the sentencing rate at 1 out of 500 cases (0.2% - 99.8% impunity!). We know that in the United States many sexual assault cases are never reported and the number of unreported cases is probably higher in Guatemala. Whatever the precise figures, Guatemala endures an endless open season on women.

Ana and Tania called their program Leer es poder -- reading is power. By braving the red light district, by coming back again and again, by staying for longer than the women there ever expected they would, little by little they began to earn their trust.

Slowly, local women -- sex workers and others -- became involved. The group was able to expand its programs beyond the teaching of reading and writing, eventually establishing a multi-service community center for female sex workers called MuJER. Mujer means woman in Spanish. The acronym stands for Mujeres por la Justicia, Educación y el Reconocimiento -- Women for Justice, Education and Awareness (www.mujerguatemala.org). The staff is headed by the remarkable Flor Juarez, a university educated psychologist. Computer classes are offered. A former sex worker teaches jewelry making, and sales of the jewelry help fund MuJER's programs. A teacher of reading and writing is a bright, attractive young woman whose mother once earned a living in La Linea.

In its five years, MuJER has worked with over 350 sex workers in Guatemala City. Along with other human rights groups, MuJER has advocated for changes in the laws, including the creation of a law against femicide, the killing of a woman because she's a woman -- a legal concept we haven't found necessary to institute in the United States.

Progress is slow. Better laws have not translated into better enforcement. Interdiction of the supply routes from South America through the Caribbean has forced more of the drug traffic directly up through Central America, creating the problems we read about in Mexico. Neighboring Guatemala is equally as affected. Gangs from Los Angeles and narco-traffickers from the south all prey on the most vulnerable targets - sex workers among them.

But one woman from La Linea, who had thought it would be impossible, finally worked up the nerve to approach the program and to make the effort. Today, in 2010, Susie, the woman whose aspirations started a movement, has herself learned how to read.

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