This article originally appeared in The Chronicle Herald here

On International Women’s Day 2017, and in the following days, 41 girls died in the aftermath of a fire while in state care at the Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asuncion in Guatemala.

This month, they are being remembered throughout the Maritimes.

At this year’s IWD rally and march in Antigonish, the second anniversary of the tragedy, participants carried commemorative portraits of each of the 41 girls, chanting “Justice now!” They were joined by Mayra Jimenez of Ocho Tijax, a group advocating for families and survivors affected by this tragedy. Jimenez spoke in Fredericton, Sackville, Halifax, Antigonish and Tatamagouche from Feb. 28 to March 9, shedding light on the tragedy and calling for solidarity.

While the Hogar Seguro should have been a place where vulnerable children and youth were protected, that was far from the case. Minors there were routinely subjected to sexual violence, physical abuse, forced abortion, human trafficking and forced prostitution, often by staff. They also endured overcrowding and rotting food. Reports of abuse and poor conditions were public since 2013 and known by Guatemalan authorities, who failed to act.

The IWD Rally and March in Antigonish on March 8, 2019. - Stacey Gomez
The IWD Rally and March in Antigonish on March 8, 2019. – Stacey Gomez

The Guatemalan girls knew that International Women’s Day was coming up and they wanted their freedom, so they sought help from the boys in another wing of the Hogar Seguro. On March 7, 2017, 108 boys and girls made their escape. They were violently apprehended by police soon after and brought back.

In the early hours of March 8, 2017, police locked the 56 girls, aged 14 to 17, in a very small room as punishment for the attempted escape. This was done with the agreement of high-level government officials responsible for the protection of the rights of children and adolescents in the country, who held an on-site visit the evening before.

At 8:45 a.m., a fire started in the tiny room. The girls cried out for help, but police officers guarding the door didn’t let them out. The fire raged for an estimated 9.5 minutes. By the time the door was opened, 17 of the girls were already dead.

Deputy police inspector Lucinda Marroquin Carrillo, who allegedly held the key to the room, is one of 12 high-level government officials facing charges for this crime.

Jimenez and her friends immediately jumped into action, rushing to the scene, as well as to the local hospitals to help. As the death toll from this tragedy mounted, members of the group, which would later become Ocho Tijax, accompanied family members to the morgue to identify their loved ones.

In the end, only 15 of the girls survived.

Jimenez speaking at Glitter Bean Cafe in Halifax on March 3, 2019. - Stacey Gomez
Jimenez speaking at Glitter Bean Cafe in Halifax on March 3, 2019. – Stacey Gomez

Jimenez shares: “In terms of physical injuries, some of them have had their hands or legs amputated, or have suffered the loss of their ears, nose, lips and hair. Life has, without a doubt, changed for them. Some don’t have such severe physical injuries, but they all have been harmed psychologically.”

To date, there remain doubts as to how the fire began. Jimenez says, “The hypothesis by the public prosecutor’s office is that one of the girls set fire to a mattress. However, our hypothesis based on the evidence is that the fire started from the outside.”

Thus far, the legal process against the accused has been slow and marked by multiple delays. Jimenez, whose group is providing legal accompaniment in the cases of the 14 victims and survivors, notes: “In these two years, of the 12 people charged, it has so far been determined that eight will go to trial. Meanwhile, the other four haven’t even given their first statements.”

“We have lost 41 girls that could have been thinking of studying, going to a party, having a boyfriend, giving a kiss, what any adolescent could think or want,” says Jimenez. She adds, “They didn’t have that opportunity due to irresponsible people from the Guatemalan state, including the president.”

On March 7, 2017, President Jimmy Morales gave his approval to send 100 police to the Hogar Seguro.

Breaking the Silence Maritimes-Guatemala Solidarity Network (BTS), which organized Jimenez’s visit, continues calling on the Canadian government to play a proactive role in advocating for justice for this state crime.

The public can see commemorative portraits of each of the 41 girls at an art exhibit touring the Maritimes until April 1st.

This month, as we celebrate advances in gender justice and reflect on how much further we need to go, let’s remember and demand justice for the 41 girls who died in the Hogar Seguro fighting for their freedom.

Stacey Gomez is Maritimes co-ordinator of the Breaking the Silence Maritimes-Guatemala Solidarity Network based in Halifax.