Horizons exchange aimed at tackling gender violence

By Cecilia Nasmith

Horizons of Friendship has announced the return of representatives of three local agencies from a 10-day knowledge exchange in Guatemala with lessons on tackling gender violence through collaboration.

The Cornerstone Family Violence Prevention Centre and Cobourg Police Forces joined forces with the non-profit international-development organization on the initiative to share and exchange strategies to prevent and respond to gender violence with Guatemalan institutions and civil-society members — including Indigenous Maya community leaders.

This is the latest chapter in a multi-million-dollar project Horizons has worked on in partnership with the Association For Health Promotion, Research and Education in an effort to strengthen maternal, newborn and child health for tens of thousands of Indigenous Maya women, children and families in the province of Totonicapán, Guatemala. This project is being pursued under a shared funding agreement between Horizons and the Government of Canada, carried out in close collaboration with Guatemalan Ministry of Health programming.

Cornerstone executive director Nancy Johnston and child and youth community counsellor and family-court support worker Lucy Caldwell, along with Cobourg Police acting staff sergeant Brent Allison, joined Horizons staff on a full schedule of meetings and sessions with partner organizations representing all levels of Guatemalan society.

These include the Women's Association for the Development of Sacatepequez, whose grass-roots efforts include traditional Maya weaving workshops where survivors of gender violence receive support and learn about their rights as Maya women.

There was also the Totonicapan National Hospital, which helps spearhead an inter-institutional Gender Violence Response Network that involves the National Forensics Institute, Public Prosecutor’s Office, Human Rights Attorney’s Office and the Totonicapán Police.

Another partner met with was the Network on Reproductive Health, which leads community programming with Maya youth to prevent gender violence and advocates for rights-based policies and laws to eradicate violence against women.

And of course, the Association for Health Promotion, Research and Education was a key participant. Its work includes leading sexual and reproductive health and rights programs with Maya K’iche adolescents both in and outside of school, covering themes essential to preventing gender violence They also engage predominantly male Indigenous authorities in workshops covering new masculinities and the elimination of gender violence as part of the joing project with Horizons.

Meetings with these partners offered a complementary perspective on the roots of gender violence in Guatemala, a country that consistently exhibits one of the highest rates of violence against women in the world. In Totonicapán, violent crimes against women exceed all other types of crimes in the province, even allowing for the low levels of reporting typically found in these cases.

While similarities were drawn to the Canadian experience (where half of all women have experienced at least one incident of physical or sexual violence since the age of 16), the Canadians also learned about the distinct challenges Maya women face and the impact gender violence has on maternal and child health.

Despite such widespread barriers as the lack of financial and human resources required to address the multiple factors involved in gender-based violence prevention and response, the Canadians praised the resilience and work of each Guatemalan actor in the face of these difficult circumstances and applauded the obvious commitment to work within and among institutions, civil society and community groups across sectors and jurisdictions as a key lesson from their Guatemalan counterparts to tackle gender violence.

As Allison stated in the Horizons press release, a law is a law.

“But its application is essential, and this is improved by having all people involved in the process sit down together, listen to each other, and collaborate — which is exactly what you’re doing and what we can do more of.”

Johnston characterized the exercise as a true knowledge exchange. Not only did they learn about the situation of Indigenous Maya women and the issue of gender-based violence, she said, “but I have also gained new ideas that will enhance the family violence prevention initiatives in our own community.”

Horizons executive director Patricia Rebolledo considers exchanges such as this one a vital tool to foster co-operation and understanding between North and South on an issue that transcends borders.

“Horizons has a long-standing commitment to eliminating violence against women in Central America and Mexico, and enabling opportunities for knowledge and experiences to be shared will help bring about a life free from violence for women and girls in the region — and at home,” Rebolledo said.

The three participating Canadian organizations are planning a public event in November, along with special guests and an in-depth discussion of gender violence and maternal, newborn and child health in Guatemala.