We need to talk about Guatemala

Illustration of a girl sitting on a step

Guatemala has been described as the worst place in the world to be a child.

More than 660 children were murdered there in 2014, the Office of the Public Prosecutor says, while a case of sexual violence is reported every two hours.

Teen marriage is common in a country where the legal age for a girl to wed is 14.

But the recent case of a 12-year-old girl who was married to a man almost twice her age has made headlines.

It was officiated by the local mayor who could now face prosecution.

Small child with an adult who is begging on the street

Guatemala, in Central America, shares borders with Mexico, El Salvador, Belize and Honduras. To the east is the Caribbean, while the south-west coastline is on the Pacific Ocean.

"Something has to be done about it but the problem is child marriage is so strongly rooted in Guatemala's society," says 14-year-old Gilda Menchu.

Being an indigenous girl in Guatemala is not an easy task
Gilda Menchu

She has been campaigning in youth politics for many years and says the support of her parents meant she could "break the cycle" and avoid being a teenage bride herself.

"They really are not living a healthy life," she tells Newsbeat over the phone from Guatemala.

"They get pregnant at a very early age and their bodies are not prepared to have children. They stop being children, literally, to start working as women."

She says "traditions such as paying for a bride" are common, through the exchange of money or land, and that often a teenage girl will marry a man much older than her.

Protest march with people holding flags and banners

Sexual abuse is a problem for many children and young people in Guatemala.

In 2014 the Office of the Public Prosecutor received 8,067 reports of sexual violence against children - and this figure obviously does not include the instances of abuse that go unreported.

One of these cases involves a 17-year-old boy who spoke to Newsbeat from Guatemala.

Because the case is ongoing and in order to protect his identity, he is not named in this article.

The young sportsman was abused physically and sexually by a group of players in a locker room, as part of an "initiation".

Child looking at a banner showing people who have been disappeared

As well as "hitting and kicking" him, he says one of the players "grabbed me on the genitals" among other forms of sexual abuse.

"So far my life has changed in many ways," he says.

"Now I'm afraid of going out in the streets. I moved out of my house because I didn't feel safe there.

"I'm living away from my family. I am really struggling with that."

Legal proceedings are underway, he explains, but "at this point they are still playing. They are still free."

A women carrying a flag

Between 1960 and 1996 Guatemala experienced a devastating civil war, in which 200,000 people were killed and 45,000 people were "disappeared". Four out of five of these were of indigenous Maya ethnicity.

The UN later ruled that "genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity" had occurred during the conflict, but last year the government in Guatemala denied the genocide.

"I have to live with the stigma of being a rural, indigenous woman and that really closes opportunities for me," explains Gilda, who says there is still a lot of discrimination in Guatemala.

"I have to struggle to be able to be at school... I have to really struggle to get the right to participate."

People gathered with banners in front of candles

Ongoing protests against Guatemala's president, Otto Perez Molina, accuse him of corruption, with demonstrators like 25-year-old Helen Arriaza describing the way the government and the courts are run as "rotten".

The law student from Guatemala City has been attending the regular Saturday protests.

Their demonstrations enjoy the respect from the Government of the Republic and all civil rights guarantees for the demonstrators have been observed
Guatamalan Embassy statement

"We see corruption every day, even in the smallest things like parking in a place you shouldn't and just paying off someone to let you know when to move your car," she says.

In a statement issued to Newsbeat, a spokesman from the Guatemalan Embassy in the UK said: "Regarding the issues of corruption, the General Prosecutor's Office (Ministerio Publico), which is a public institution, is prosecuting all acts of corruption that have been discovered, and its findings have been submitted to the legally competent courts of law.

"Since the discoveries made by the Prosecutor's Office, citizens have gathered to demonstrate against corruption every Saturday.

"Their demonstrations enjoy the respect from the Government of the Republic and all civil rights guarantees for the demonstrators have been observed.

Otto Perez Molina denies the claims of corruption.

He has recently criticised courts in Guatemala after they gave approval for him to be investigated.

Roxana Baldetti, vice president, stepped down earlier this year after accusations of customs fraud, a form of tax avoidance.

President Molina of Guatemala

Protesters are now calling for President Molina to also be removed from power.

"As a law student, it is our duty to make things right and to get the best people, the most knowledgeable people on top," says Helen.

Her brother is a doctor, working in the public healthcare system. She says he regularly has to buy medical supplies using his own money, because hospitals often run out of essential supplies.

"Hospitals right now are in yellow code because they don't have the basic medicines," says Helen.

A family of women wearing brightly coloured clothes

"For example they don't have epinephrine which is used for allergies, really extreme allergies, they don't have oxygen, they don't have basic antibiotics, so it's really hard.

If you don't have a job or your job doesn't have any social benefits and you don't have social healthcare, you're pretty much screwed
Helen Arriaza

"If you don't have a job or your job doesn't have any social benefits and you don't have social healthcare, you're pretty much screwed."

"On the issue of education, we can confirm that primary education in Guatemala is obligatory, free and secular," the spokesman from the Guatemalan Embassy told us in a statement.

"Currently, although much has yet to be done, there is virtually universal access to it. In Guatemala every single person, either indigenous or not, has exactly the same rights and the same obligations before the law."

Both Helen and Gilda say there are positives to living in Guatemala and praise their family and friends for supporting them.

"Being an indigenous girl in Guatemala is not an easy task," says Gilda.

"The fact that we are discriminated [against], the fact we do not have education, we do not have health[care], opportunities, really makes us fight every single day of our lives to get respected.

"[People in the UK] need to take advantage of the opportunities they have. I believe that by children and adolescents getting involved, participating, they are going to be able to build a better world for the future."

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