Realizing Children’s Rights in Guatemala
Guatemala suffers from widespread poverty, child malnutrition, and violence stemming from a long history of civil conflict and political unrest. Inadequate government investment in public services means that children do not have reliable access to education and health services. Given that the country is facing a series of grave human security, socioeconomic and health challenges, children’s rights find themselves at the bottom of the country’s priority list. Poverty-driven desperation and institutional failings mean that Guatemalan children are constantly exposed to violence, forced labour, exploitation and abuse, exacerbated by a lack of opportunities.
Population: 16.58 million
Pop. ages 0-14: 33.34%
Life expectancy: 74 years
Under-5 mortality rate: 23.6‰
Guatemala at a glance
The Republic of Guatemala (República de Guatemala) is a country located in Central America. To the northwest, Guatemala shares a border with Mexico, to the northeast with Belize and to the southeast with Honduras and El Salvador. Along the coastline, to the east is the Gulf of Honduras and to the south the Pacific Ocean (Griffith et al, 2021).
Guatemala is a country rich in its indigenous culture and history. There are two main ethnic groups, the Maya and Ladinos, who make up a majority of the Indian population. Other ethnic groups include the Xinca, predominantly in the south, and the Garífuna who are mostly of mixed African and Caribbean descent and living in the northeastern towns of Livingston and Puerto Barrios (Griffith et al, 2021).
In the 1820s, after gaining independence from the Spanish, Guatemala endured a long period under authoritarian rule and a military regime. Shortly after 1954, government opposition led by a far-left guerrilla movement prompted an outbreak of civil war that lasted 36 years until the Peace Accords were signed in 1996.
The country came under the democratic rule for the first time in 1985. During the civil war, thousands of Guatemalans fled to the northern region of Petén, Mexico, Belize and the United States and over 200,000 civilians were killed (Griffith et al, 2021).
Status of children’s rights 
Guatemala has committed to several international instruments for the protection of children’s rights. In 1990, the government ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Guatemala is a member of the Organization of American States (OAS) and is bound to the Inter-American System of Human Rights.
In 1995, the government ratified the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women (also known as the Belém do Pará Convention. In 2013, as a member of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), Guatemala adopted the Montevideo Consensus on Population and Development.
The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict and the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography were both ratified in 2002. Guatemala is a party to other major international human rights instruments. In 1983 the government ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1988.
Addressing the needs of children in Guatemala
Right to education
For the majority of children in Guatemala, particularly girls, Indigenous children and children living in rural areas, access to quality education remains a challenge. One of the biggest hindrances for Indigenous children specifically is the lack of intercultural and bilingual education. According to the Guatemalan Peace Accord, educational systems must promote the use of Indigenous languages and children should be allowed to read and write in the language of their community.
However, this remains a pilot project and educational systems are still in Spanish making it discriminatory towards Indigenous children. The bilingual pilot project is only accessible to 20% of Indigenous children (Cultural Survival, 2018).
Approximately 71% of Indigenous boys and 54% of Indigenous girls are in full-time education in Guatemala. Once these children reach the age of sixteen, the education enrolment rate decreases drastically with 45% of Indigenous boys and 25% of Indigenous girls attending school. Most children drop out of school to economically support their families or because of the monolingual educational system (Cultural Survival, 2018). Heightened risk to girls’ security and cultural norms that prioritize boys’ education contributes to the high illiteracy rates among girls in Guatemala (US Department of Labour, 2020).
Despite public education being free up to grade six, there are an insufficient number of primary and secondary schools across the country. The Ministry of Education does not provide public schools with textbooks and schools do not have established programs to support children with disabilities. Across Guatemala, over 70% of secondary schools are private, requiring families to pay tuition fees. Increasing rates of poverty mean that these schools are inaccessible to many children (US Department of Labour, 2020).
Right to health
Guatemala has the highest rates of chronic malnutrition across the Latin American and Caribbean region and the fourth highest rates in the world. According to the World Food Programme (WFP), nearly half of all Guatemalan children under the age of five suffer from chronic child malnutrition, affecting one in every two children. Chronic malnutrition is twice as likely to affect Indigenous children, with eight out of every ten suffering from it (ALDEA, n.d). A 2020 study by UNICEF Guatemala identified a total of 20,924 children under the age of five suffering from acute malnutrition (Escobar, 2020).
Indigenous women face several barriers to accessing health care including discrimination, accessibility, lack of quality health care in rural areas and language barriers, with most health care professionals predominantly speaking in Spanish. Due to the lack of translators or bilingual healthcare professionals, Indigenous women are unable to communicate their symptoms and healthcare concerns (Cultural Survival, 2018).
Right to clean water and sanitation
Access to clean water and sanitation in Guatemala remains a challenge. In rural areas, 47% of the population does not have access to basic sanitation services (UNICEF, 2022). As a county subject to variable weather and climate conditions, Guatemala also suffers from periodic water shortages due to droughts as well as water sanitation challenges due to contamination (López, 2020).
Despite the abundance of rivers in Guatemala, most flowing streams are polluted with feces and metals such as lead, arsenic, chromium and cadmium (UNICEF, 2022). In 2017, the Environmental Ministry found that approximately 50% of the rivers were contaminated.
A lack of legal regulation and adequate water laws disproportionately affects the most vulnerable populations. The polluted rivers are not suitable for irrigation or human consumption and are toxic for children, with the potential to cause cancer, gastrointestinal diseases, diarrhea and damage to the heart, liver and kidneys (López, 2020).
Habitat for Humanity has been working in Guatemala since 2011 to address the country’s water and sanitation issues. Through a series of projects, the organisation has worked to implement rain-water harvest systems in parts of the country that have variable climate conditions, in order to ensure quality and clean drinking water (López, 2020).
Right to identity
Recent estimates suggest up to 10% of Guatemalans are not registered at birth, leaving nearly 1.6 million people without valid identity documents (RENAP, 2020). Without valid registration – a process managed by the Guatemalan Civil Registry Office – citizens lack access to healthcare, education, social welfare programmes and rights to ownership of assets such as land. Impoverished individuals are more likely to be unregistered than those from wealthier backgrounds (RENAP, 2020).
One of the main barriers to widespread birth registration in Guatemala is the poor circulation of reliable information on the process and its associated costs. Two further challenges impede widespread birth registration. First, parents are fined for failing to register a birth within 60 days of a child being born. This incentivises registrations, as 75% of the country’s registered births are late. Second, around 40% of the country’s births occur outside of hospitals and health centres, with only 33% of the country’s midwives eligible to approve birth reports (RENAP, 2020).
Risk factors → Country-specific challenges
Gang violence is pervasive across many Latin and Central American communities and Guatemala is no exception. In 2017, there were 942 reported cases of violent deaths of children (UNICEF, 2018). Women and girls are the most vulnerable to physical, sexual, and economic violence and femicide.
The extent of violence against women and girls hinders their access to sexual and reproductive health services. Due to this, there is an increasing rate of adolescent pregnancies. Between 2015 and 2020, the adolescent birth rate in Guatemala for girls between the ages of 15 and 19 was 77% (UNICEF, 2021). A majority of these pregnancies are being a result of sexual violence.
Guatemala is considered a source, transit and destination country for trafficking in persons. The unique geographical location of the country makes children vulnerable to trafficking. Poverty and weak legal institutions are the main enabling factors for the trafficking of Indigenous children. According to a UNICEF report, there were 48,500 victims of trafficking in Guatemala for the purposes of sexual exploitation in 2016 (UNICEF, 2016).
At the start of the trafficking chain, Guatemalan nationals’ desire to emigrate makes them prime targets for human traffickers. However, those who are able to migrate freely are not safe from danger. Guatemalan migrants are largely forced to transit Mexico en route to the US.
An IOM study of Central American migrants estimated that 80% of female migrants from the region transiting Mexico faced some form of sexual abuse (UNICEF, 2016). As such, both trafficked victims and voluntary migrants face risks of exploitation along their respective journeys.
Child trafficking has also led to the illegal adoption of vulnerable Indigenous children. In 2007, the country’s Adoption Law implemented various standards and procedures to prevent the adoption from being used as a disguise for child trafficking. Despite this, loopholes in the adoption system enable traffickers to sell children for the purpose of sexual exploitation or prostitution.
The 2015 Inter-Agency Commission Against Trafficking in Persons Protocol, the 2016 Child Protection System, the Office of the Prosecutor for Human Trafficking Offenses’ Child Pornography Unit, and the National Civil Police’s Sub-Department for Crime Prevention’s Children’s Division strive to protect children from crimes like trafficking.
They combat the organization of illegal adoptions, baby theft, and sex trafficking. Guatemala has also ratified international trafficking treaties and has passed trafficking-specific laws like the 2009 Law on Sexual Violence, Exploitation, and Trafficking in Persons. In 2011, Trafficking in persons was defined as a crime in the Guatemalan Criminal Code (Cultural Survival, 2018).
Guatemala has ratified all the key international conventions concerning child labour such as the International Labour Organization (ILO) Minimum Age Convention, 1973 (No. 138); Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No. 182); the UN CRC, Palermo Protocol on Trafficking in Persons, the UN CRC Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography and the UN CRC Optional Protocol on Armed Conflict.
However, despite the establishment of laws and regulations to protect children, gaps still exist and children in Guatemala are subjected to the worst forms of child labour, including commercial child sexual exploitation and child trafficking. Guatemala is a destination country for child sex tourism, predominantly for tourists coming from Canada, the US and Europe. Guatemalan children and migrant and refugee children are some of the most prevalent victims of sexual exploitation and sex tourism (US Department of Labour, 2020).
These children are also the most likely to engage in the worst forms of child labour, particularly in the agriculture sector: picking macadamia nuts and tea leaves, harvesting and producing palm kernels and oil, planting and harvesting coffee, sugarcane, corn, plantains and flowers. Children are also subjected to other services such as domestic work, begging, vending, shoe shining, making corn tortillas, working at restaurants, producing garments, and drug trafficking among other criminal activities (US Department of Labour, 2020).
A majority of those subjected to child labour in Guatemala are Indigenous children and children living in rural areas. These children work in dangerous conditions. For example, within the agriculture sector, children use machetes and other dangerous tools to harvest sugarcane. Children as young as five years old work in coffee plantations and are exposed to pesticides among other chemicals that are harmful to their health.
Families living in poverty often sell their children to criminal gangs, who in turn force these children to beg, perform street acts and work long hours in urban areas. Criminal gangs use social media platforms and online games to recruit children and forcibly exploit children by using them as drug couriers and dealers, committing extortion and serving as lookouts (US Department of Labour, 2020).
In 2016, approximately 26,000 unaccompanied children and 29,700 families were apprehended at the United States (US) border, many of them originating from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. These three countries, also known as the “Northern Triangle” have some of the highest murder rates in the world. Gang violence coupled with poverty has forced thousands of vulnerable children and families to flee to the US.
Once at the US border, many children are apprehended and put through uncertain and lengthy immigration court procedures (UNICEF, 2016). Between 1954 and 1996, the civil war in Guatemala caused structural, organized and political violence. Additionally, gangs such as Barrio 18 and MS-13 exert control over Guatemala City through extortion, drug trafficking and organised crime (Padilla, 2021).
Children who are deported from the US face dangerous situations. Some children are killed or raped by gang members. In 2016, 16,000 refugee and migrant children from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras were detained in Mexico. Children living along the Mexico-US border live in harsh environments, where hundreds of children are killed, kidnapped or trafficked every year (UNICEF, 2016).
Written by Vanessa Cezarita Cordeiro
Internally proofread by Aditi Partha
Cultural Survival. (2018, January). “Convention on the Rights of the Child alternative report submission: Indigenous children’s rights violations in Guatemala.” Retrieved from Cultural Survival, accessed 22 April 2022.
UNICEF. (2018, August 14). “Children returned to Central America and Mexico at heightened risk of violence, stigma and deprivation.” Retrieved from UNICEF Latin America and the Caribbean, accessed 22 April 2022.
US Department of Labour. (2020). “2020 finding on the worst forms of child labour: Guatemala.” Retrieved from United States Department of Labour Bureau of International Labour Affairs, accessed 23 April 2022.
 This article by no means purports to give a full or representative account of children’s rights in Guatemala; indeed one of many challenges is scant updated information on the children of Guatemala, much of which is unreliable, not representative, outdated or simply non-existent.