Fleeing from violence: GBV against children in Central America

11.09.2017 / Lesli Gutiérrez Garduño, Junior Advisor for Migration in Latin America, Terre des hommes Schweiz, Basel, Switzerland

Forced recruitment to join the gangs in the northern triangle of Central America, has made thousands of children and youth flee from their homes in search of protection. Gender based violence (GBV) against girls and adolescents in the region takes a variety of forms by these gangs and other criminal organization members who force them into intimate relationships and trafficking.

Following the recent Global Forum on Migration and Development, there is an urgent need to defend the rights of children on the move, and in the case of Central America, it is certainly a region that needs more concentrated efforts.

This year and in commemoration of World Refugee Day, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) highlighted the situation of the forced migration of people from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, known as the Northern Triangle of Central America, as one of the main challenges in the region.

According to the UNHCR around 182,400 refugees fled the northern region of Central America in 2016, a large number that has increased over the last five years.

And among them, there is a really alarming number of children and youth, who are fleeing alone. Just in Mexico slightly more than 16,000 unaccompanied children were detained by authorities in 2016, and around 58 per cent of these children were searching for international protection.

The main reason to flee is closely related to the high degree of violence on the region. Children and young people are being especially targeted and forcibly recruited by the local gangs, known as “maras”. Using life threats to their family members or themselves, extortion and in general, physical and psychological violence, these children have sometimes no other choice than to run away in search of safer places, many times on their own. 

Living with fear: facing gender based violence at home.

When talking about GBV, there is no doubt that in the case of many girls from the Northern triangle of Central America, this is what makes them flee from their homes.

The sexual violence perpetrated by gangs is unfortunately increasing; several reports from different organizations indicate that many of the girls have been raped by gang members and are subjected to constant sexual abuse. A common way to operate for the gangs, is when they select girls to become their “girlfriends", which generally entails forced sexual intercourse with them, these girls face threats of harm against them or their family members if they do not accept the demands and some are even violated when they resist.
The threat of sexual violence by gang members forces many girls to stop attending school. Schools are one of the main centers of recruitment for the gangs, taking control in many cases of the neighborhood and the community. Girls living in gang-dominated areas live with a constant fear of sexual violence, which in many cases, causes them to drop out of school and limit their movement to activities that avoid continuing threats.

In cases of gang-related violence, reporting is very risky for victims and witnesses, as gangs often punish those who report their activities with violence or death. In addition, victims who report sexual violence face a number of obstacles in access to justice, ranging from slow judicial processes to discrimination.

Child protection systems in the region do not protect or provide adequate care for children suffering from sexual violence and gender discrimination, and this deficiency is especially evident in cases related to gangs. Often when girls refuse to become "girlfriends" of gang members, their entire family suffers threats of violence but they have nowhere to turn to shelter or safety because of a complete lack of programs or services to help them.

Breaking dreams: sexual violence on the route.

Thus, the sexual violence that these girls in Central America live is one of the main reasons that has forced them to flee. Nevertheless, it seems that the violence they escape does not end there, as many of them also are victims of sexual violence during their trip through Central America and Mexico, through sexual harassment, rape, trafficking and coerced sexual relations to survive. Those responsible for this violence include criminal organizations, traffickers, other migrants and even immigration officials and other authorities.

According to some organizations’ reports, the children who have been victims of sexual violence in Mexico for example, rarely report these crimes to the authorities because they fear that they will be detained or deported. The reality is that they do not trust the authorities and the violence they have experienced makes them fear to even talk about it.

The concerning situation is that given the lack of awareness from the governments and meaningful access to international protection, children are deported to their countries of origin, making them go back to the place they ran away from in the first place. Sexual violence survivors, who have returned to their home country do not receive the necessary support, and in many cases also lack adequate protection or assistance.
Taking action: protecting children on the move.

Within the framework of the Destination Unknown Campaign (http://destination-unknown.org), an international campaign dedicated to protect children on the move led by Terre des hommes International Federation and implemented by campaign members, Terre des hommes Schweiz (https://www.terredeshommesschweiz.ch) is working together with its local partners in Central America to respond to this situation by advocating for local strategies that support children on the move in these countries.

Included in the actions of the campaign is the promotion of the 9 recommended principles for children on the move and other children affected by Migration (http://destination-unknown.org/wp-content/uploads/recommended-principle-EN.pdf) that have been drafted by experts from the UN agencies, academics, donors and civil society organizations, including Terre des hommes. In line with the principles, Terre des hommes Schweiz is taking action to protect children, through different projects on prevention and gender based violence and psychosocial support for children and youth.

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