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Fighting an Invisible Crime: Protecting Girls in Guatemala

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The case

Who – the protagonists

Dr Mirna Montenegro, Director of the NGO, the Sexual and Reproductive Health Observatory.


The Observatory was set up in 2008 to gather data and monitor Guatemala’s compliance with its legal framework for reproductive health, as well as with international agreements and commitments.


One of the legacies of the 36-year civil war that ended in 1996 is a general tolerance of violence, particularly towards women and children. It’s estimated that seven out of every ten children are neglected or abused. One in every five Guatemalan mothers is aged between ten and 19. Official figures show that in 2012, 4,000 girls between the ages of ten and 14 became pregnant and of these 30% were raped by their own fathers.


In the aftermath of the civil war, civil organisations and NGOs pushed for improvements in women’s and children’s rights. Dr Mirna Montenegro had been involved in the development of the Family Planning Law 2005, and by 2008 was forcing the issue of sexual violence onto the national agenda. By 2009, the Law Against Sexual Violence, Trafficking and Exploitation was enacted.


The Republic of Guatemala is a developing country located in Central America. It borders the north of the Pacific Ocean between El Salvador and Mexico and the Gulf of Honduras between Honduras and Belize. It gained independence from Spain in the first half of the nineteenth century but has suffered long periods of chronic political instability and serial dictatorships. Forty per cent of Guatemalans are of Mayan descent and suffer high levels of social exclusion and discrimination.

Key quote

‘It is normal to see girls pregnant. Why do we now have to report to the Attorney General’s Office?’ – Guatemalan Health Department officials

What next?

An increase in prosecutions and improved monitoring and reporting coupled with educational initiatives and campaigns represented a profound cultural shift. But can Dr Montenegro now do more? Might the forthcoming national elections and a potential change of leadership undermine what had already been achieved? And how can she reach out to tackle the ‘invisible’ problem of underage pregnancy in indigenous communities?

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Fighting an Invisible Crime: Protecting Girls in Guatemala
Ref 415-135-1

Teaching note
Ref 415-135-8

The authors

Sara Hurtarte and Tim O’Loughlin

Sara explains the background to this case and describes the benefits and drawbacks of writing from published sources.

Creating awareness

While working for the Guatemalan Government, I was involved in implementing new initiatives aimed at protecting girls from sexual violence through talks about reproductive health and their rights. During my studies in Australia, I wanted to create awareness of the topic in settings where it is not usual to talk about social policies for a developing country.

Alt textNational coverage

I was very surprised at the amount of interest the case created. This started with a feature in The Australian and soon the interest became more widespread, including at the Australian New Zealand School of Government. My impression is that this interest was stimulated by the lessons the case carries for indigenous peoples’ policy issues.

Writing from published sources

The benefits of using published sources were that it could be done in a timely way while the information was fresh but still carry the authority of drawing upon published resources. The drawbacks were that to make it both timely and authoritative it was necessary to use a mix of resources ranging from peer-reviewed publications to media stories. In addition, I needed to spend a lot of time carefully translating Spanish information so as to preserve the feeling of the original publications.

Wider policy lessonsadvice-tips

This case is not only about the specific issue of early pregnancies; it is also about the interventions needed to achieve behavioural change in a context of relative poverty and low standards of literacy.

The case also considers how an effective educational and communications tool worked to create awareness in combination with a change in legislation. This raises general questions about the relative effectiveness of policy instruments and how they need to work in tandem. Finally, one of the important lessons is to consider the obstacles marginalised communities face, in this case language and literacy barriers.

Alt textAn enriching experience

The process of writing this case was very enriching and also challenging in that I needed to create an interesting story about an alarming topic. Also, it was a great opportunity to talk about Guatemala, a country with many struggles but great potential. It was fascinating to see how many people in Australia became interested in Guatemala. I hope to see lots of Australians in Guatemala soon!  

About the authors

Sara Hurtarte is a postgraduate student at Carnegie Mellon University Australia.
e hsaralicia@gmail.com

Tim O’Loughlin is CMU-A Professor of Practice (Public Policy) at Carnegie Mellon University Australia
e toloughlin@australia.cmu.edu


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