As thousands of Central American women weigh the risks of migrating to the US each year, they must take into account an extra peril: An estimated 60 to 80 percent of female migrants from Central America are victims of sexual abuse at the hands of criminal groups, human smugglers, or corrupt officials during the journey.
Celia, whose name has been changed, knew the journey from her native Guatemala would be fraught with risks: extortion from gangs, possible injury, hunger and dehydration in the desert. However, because she was only 15 when she decided to leave her home country, she was too young to realize that she was in danger of being sexually assaulted as well.
Eight days into her trip, the human smuggler who had promised Celia's family that he'd get her safely into the US brutally beat and raped her—then abandoned her, along with three other female migrants traveling with them. "What could I do?" Celia says, fighting back tears as she recalls that night. "I endured it. I didn't have anywhere to run or anyone to turn to."
Her experience mirrors that of thousands of migrant women from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, three of the most dangerous countries in the world outside of a war zone. As violence and poverty persist in their home countries, these women continue to risk sexual assault while trying to flee. Rape is so prevalent that many have come to expect it, even taking birth control as a preventative measure, according to an Amnesty International report.
Growing up, Celia watched her single mother struggle to raise her and her five siblings. As the oldest, she felt obligated to help as much as possible. One day, the golden ticket out of poverty arrived at her doorstep in Huehuetenango, a Guatemalan province near the Mexican border: A man in his mid-40s, a human smuggler reaching out to possible clients in a town with a high rate of migration, visited her house unexpectedly with an offer. On his next trip, he said, he would smuggle Celia with other migrants to the US, where she could make a better life for herself. Even better, the family would only have to pay him once Celia arrived in the country and began working. Neither Celia nor her mother had met the man before, but they both agreed she should accept the offer.
"To stop suffering here in Guatemala, I went to search for a better life, but that's not what happened," Celia says. "People say that there is a solution to your problems there in the US, but the reality is it's so difficult to get there."
At the time, the arrangement with the smuggler offered didn't seem so strange, since migration is common where Celia comes from. Her province has one of the highest rates of migration in Guatemala. There, stories of the journey circulate through town: about who made it and who didn't, who found a new wife in the US or who stopped sending money back. Celia viewed these stories as just part of the rumor mill.
"Some people talk about [sexual assault on the journey], but since I was so young I thought that it was a lie and that it was just to scare people," says Celia, who recently turned 18. "Now I understand that what they say is true."
Migration from Central America has reached an all-time high in recent years. In the summer of 2014, a surge of Central American minors and women with children crossed the US border, sparking a humanitarian crisis. These numbers are still climbing, according to a recent UNICEF report. This level of migration paired with a high rate of impunity in Mexico—99 percent of crimes there go unpunished—creates the perfect formula for a human rights disaster.
The scope of the problem, both in terms of the number of victims and types of perpetrators, makes it so difficult to address, according to Madeleine Penman, a researcher for Amnesty International in Mexico. "Sexual violence against women migrants happens in a more general framework of sexual violence in Mexico—both in the private sphere, but also within the public sphere with authorities, where we see it is widespread," Penman says.
Tens of thousands of Central American migrants are sexually assaulted each year. In 2015, nearly 21,000 women or girls were deported from the US or Mexico to Celia's native Guatemala. Considering recent estimates of the prevalence of rape, that would mean that somewhere between 12,600 to 16,800 of female deportees to Guatemala likely experienced sexual abuse during their journey.
Celia was assaulted by the man who was helping her reach the US, but the perpetrators of sexual assault can vary—migrant women are also vulnerable to assault by other migrants, federal or local police, gangs collecting extortion payments, and even migration officials, according to Penman. The majority of these abuses occur after migrants have already entered Mexico on their way to the US.
According to Penman, many migrants prefer to continue on their journey instead of going to law enforcement in Mexico out of fear of deportation, lack of trust in these officials, and the desire to avoid a complicated complaints procedure. Most only hear about the protections they are entitled to—such as a humanitarian visa or the right to seek asylum—through shelters or other migrants, she adds.
Celia never reported her abuser—women rarely do, according to an Amnesty International report. The young Guatemalan spent just over a week with her smuggler, then remained for six months working in a restaurant in Mexico after he abandoned her. When she saved up enough money, she returned to Guatemala, where she's remained to this day.
Since the assault nearly three years ago, Celia hasn't seen or heard from the man who took away her ability to sleep soundly through the night. She imagines he is roaming somewhere throughout Mexico or Central America without facing any consequences. Celia, on the other hand, cannot carry on so easily. She says she never wants to get married—both because she can't imagine getting close to someone and because she feels her worth diminished by her experience. She also has difficulty speaking about the assault; only Celia's mom and a social worker know what happened to her that night.
Although she was unable to make it to America, Celia is still determined to provide for her family. She currently works every day as a maid, making about $80 a month, and says that she still hasn't ruled out the possibility of leaving Huehuetenango for good. She may attempt again to enter the US, where she could earn more money to send back to her family.
Even if she decides to stay, one of her three brothers or two sisters might be the one to take the risk. "I think when they are older they will all look to the US for opportunities. For men, it's a little easier, but for women, it's just so tough," Celia says with a sigh, as if she is buckling under the weight of the internal burden she carries with her.