“Guatemala has one of the highest rates of femicide in the world.”
-World Bank, 2023
In 2021, we received a significant grant from the Fund for Innovation and Transformation (FIT) and Global Affairs Canada which funded the testing of our Whole Family Healing Program (Holistic Three-Pronged Approach to Violence Prevention & Response) with the objective of expanding, deepening, and diversifying our efforts to address gender-based violence. Recognizing the complex, systemic, and historic nature of gender-based violence in Guatemala, we knew it was critical to be extremely thoughtful in our approach. When it came to addressing gender-based violence in our partner community of El Hato, we knew we had to look carefully at the unique and complex circumstances of the violence and recognize the many obstacles that stood in the way of eradicating gender-based violence.
One of the greatest obstacles we identified in providing the supports needed to address gender-based violence was the strong reluctance of many female victims to report abuse or seek support. Through our previous in-depth experience in the area, as well as rigorous Baseline Assessments, it became clear that even if women or girls knew of existing supports and programs, the vast majority would opt not to report abuse as they feared that it would result in the perpetrator (most often a male family member) going to prison or facing consequences that could divide the family or lead to the removal of a family breadwinner. This reality made it clear that a Restorative Justice approach was essential to bringing the pervasive gender-based violence into the light so it could be addressed in a way that would have lasting healing outcomes for all.
What is Restorative Justice?
A common misconception is that a restorative justice approach means no consequences for the perpetrator and denies the victim the justice they deserve. However, true restorative justice programs not only increase offender compliance with restitution and decrease re-offending, but they also increase victim satisfaction, when compared to more traditional, punitive criminal justice responses.
(You can read more on the differences between restorative and retributive approaches to justice here.)
Why was a Restorative Justice approach important to our program?
During the feedback and data collection exercises at the beginning stages of our Whole Family Healing Program, one of our most important takeaways in speaking at length with various members of the El Hato community about gender-based violence, was that the vast majority of incidents took place in the home, where the perpetrator of violence was a family member. We also learned that survivors of familial gender-based violence consistently wanted healing for themselves, their family and even for the perpetrator, and almost always did not want to take legal action that could result in incarceration, other serious legal consequences, or having a child taken away. This fear historically pushed victims of violence into silence, especially young girls. When victims suffer in silence, the violence often continues and neither justice nor healing becomes a possibility.
In response to this, we knew we made the decision to incorporate a restorative justice approach in all aspects of our program, which included:
- Workshops for girls, boys, women and men.
- Therapy sessions for individuals, couples, and families.
- Comprehensive violence response services, including legal support, psychological support, and therapeutic support. *
*Ensuring our violence response services were comprehensive was a key innovation of the project, as our research determined that the vast majority of violence response are unilateral in their support. For instance, programs will provide legal support to victims but ignore the psychological trauma victims experience. Or programs will provide psychological support but no legal accompaniment meaning victims will continue to be at-risk and the perpetrator will never be brought to justice.
Often, if a young girl growing up in Guatemala were abused, it is highly unlikely she would know where to go or what supports exist for her. Even if she sought out help from community organizations or the authorities, it is unlikely she would have easy access to the varying supports she needs. Not only are the existing practices ineffective, they also increase trauma and re-victimization. If girl in Guatemala were abused and she wanted legal aid to get a restraining order to protect her from her abuser, she would go to one organization. If there was an on-going threat of abuse and she needed a safe place to stay, she would visit another organization. If she needed medical attention following her abuse, she would visit yet another place. If she wanted counseling services to process the trauma, she would go to another. In this relatively simple yet far too common example of gender based violence, this young girl has been asked to re-live her trauma with at least five separate entities, tell her story to five different people, and place her trust in five different complete strangers at the most traumatic time of her life.
Our comprehensive violence response services however, allowed survivors of violence to access all the support they need to address and overcome violence, abuse and trauma in one place.
The Impact of Implementing a Restorative Justice Approach
Through our approach, we also saw the following indicators of violence reduction:
- The number of reported cases of violence among participants dropped by 45%
- 62% of participants reported overcoming a situation of violence as a result of the program
- 79% of participants reported experiencing less violence in their homes after the program
- 90% of the women who participated have reported taking concrete action toward their empowerment
When it comes to doing complex and challenging change-making work, it is critical as organizations that we challenge existing solutions which are no longer working, avoid making assumptions about what our participants desire and need, and push ourselves to think outside the box when designing our response. Through in-depth work with individuals and families, conducted in our therapy sessions and workshops, it became clear that what the majority of survivors of violence desired was:
- For the perpetrator of violence in their life to be held accountable through honest, direct and healing-centered communication and reconciliation efforts (restorative justice).
- To set clear criteria of what they expected from a ‘healthy relationship’ and be able to hold firm boundaries with others in relationships, especially with past perpetrators.
- To see real and permanent changes in the behaviors and attitudes of past perpetrators (eradication of violence).
- And to be able to find closure from their past trauma, heal past wounds, and be able to move forward with a strong sense of self-value, self-esteem, and empowerment.
As international organizations, it is critical we step away from dictating what our participants need. Instead, we must prioritize intentional listening to the honest needs, fears, and goals of our participants and let their voices shape how we approach issues, long term solutions, and the design and implementation of our programs. For us at REALgirl (SERniña), this has mean an steadfast commitment to the incorporation of restorative justice practices.