The Virgen de la Asunción is a Guatemalan youth shelter serving as home to victims of physical, psychological, and sexual violence, along with victims of mild disability, abandonment, childhood in the streets, addiction, and economic and sexual exploitation. In other words, it is a safe house, particularly for youth and adolescents spanning from ages 0 to 18-or at least it should be a safe house.
However, on March 8th, 2017 (International Women’s Day), a fire broke out in one of the shelter’s classrooms, leading to the consequential death of about 40 girls and the hospitalization of at least 23 others. The room in which the fire was ignited held 52 girls and was only about 16 square meters in size, making the consequences unbearable. Especially since human rights officials believe that the 35 girls who were killed had been unable to escape because they were locked inside. However, these claims are yet to be fully investigated by the Guatemalan attorney general.
As previously mentioned, large sums of teenage girls had been locked in tiny 4-by-4 rooms. This cruel restriction was put up as a punishment for a protest that the girls had carried out prior to the ignition. They had joined together to protest against the abusive conditions that they had been facing in the shelter, such as instances of rape and physical violence.
Despite claims that the girls set fire to their mattresses as a sequential protest, many are attempting to tie the girls’ protest to the fire, claiming that it might have been staged as revenge. If this is true, then the girls were placed in such a horrible circumstance simply as a punishment for trying to have their voices heard. Yet the boys who were involved in the protest did not find themselves face-to-face with such fate. They were separated into another room that did not happen to transform into an inferno. This again calls into question whether or not this was a direct governmental attack on the girls.
Although the fire began at about 8:30 AM, it wasn’t until around 9 AM that police officials actually arrived on the scene. The police initially ignored the cries for help, thinking the girls were protesting. However, it was too late. By that time, the boys had found one of the girls lifeless bodies. When they came running down to tell the supervisors, the police grabbed the boys and a carer began hitting them off for having left the room. Rather than consoling the boys and rushing to rescue the remaining girls, the police and caregiver were far more occupied with punishing the boys for simply attempting to help. This might be a coincidence, but it also might not.
However, despite the shelter holding an undeniable reputation for abuse, many believe that the events that occurred on March 8th are just the tip of the iceberg of an entire system of not protecting children and teens in Guatemala. Therefore, if any good has come from this tragedy, it’s that it now holds the potential to spread awareness about the issues in Guatemala and the situations that Guatemalans are faced with on a daily basis, yet sadly are not reported by the media.
Now, regardless of the true motives behind this tragedy, the truth that dozens of young girls were affected stands. This is why I beg that if anything about this situation resonates within your heart, please don’t hesitate to donate to the children affected. I’m sure that one simple donation would help these girls and their families tremendously.