Mother and daughters

Pa’nibal: More than a shelter

It’s easy to think of Pa’nibal as a women’s shelter or a transitional home. In one sense that’s exactly what we are, but we also go beyond providing shelter to cultivating the community and practical resources that women can use to improve their day-to-day lives and their futures.

Brenda had been with her husband José for seven years. He is the father of both of her daughters, Magdi and Lorena, and had been living with Brenda in her family’s home since Brenda was a teenager. Over the last three years, José began abusing Brenda emotionally and physically. Right away Brenda began contemplating leaving José, but she faced direct opposition from her parents who she, José and their daughters still lived with. Brenda’s parents encouraged her to wait out José’s abusive behavior, and José himself wouldn’t consider separation or divorce. Brenda left José after violent altercations several times—both with and without her daughters—but none of her friends or acquaintances were certain that leaving was a viable solution, and practically speaking they weren’t in a position to support her for long. Brenda’s parents continually pressured her to return home, and she never stayed away for more than a few days.

Brenda in Class

Brenda (center) began attending in-house classes within a few days of her arrival at Pa’nibal.

At twenty-six, Brenda has completed just a few years of elementary school. Like many women in Guatemala, she has neither a basic education or any work experience outside of the home. Guatemala is very much affected by machismo (patriarchy) culture, wherein women are consigned to childrearing and housework with little opportunity for education, professional life or creative pursuits. Less than a quarter of Guatemalan girls complete the fifth grade, and nearly half of indigenous girls are married by the time they are eighteen. A 2015 survey in rural Guatemala revealed that 80% of men believe women need permission to leave their home, and 70% of women agree. In 2015 domestic violence against women was the single most reported crime in Guatemala—and yet the divorce rate in Guatemala is about 1/10th of that in the United States, and fines are levied against women (not men) who wish to remarry. For most Guatemalan women, divorce and child custody negotiation simply aren’t realistic options.

In November of last year, a particularly violent and emotionally charged episode between José and Brenda drove her to search for a more permanent solution. She had heard about Pa’nibal through the community, and called to ask what her options were. Alejandra, our Director of Operations, immediately arranged transportation for Brenda and her two daughters, and later that day the three of them arrived at Pa’nibal.

During their in-processing interview, Alejandra ascertained that Brenda had been trying to leave José for about three years. She also determined that one of the major causes of Brenda’s returns to her home and husband was a lack of support—both emotional and practical—from family and friends. Alejandra moved Brenda and her two daughters into a private room at Pa’nibal, introduced them to other residents and familiarized them with daily routines. Brenda, Magdi and Lorena had left home with little more than the clothes they were wearing. Alejandra provided them with ample clothing donated by a local sister organization, and the bedclothes and personal hygiene items that Pa’nibal makes available to each resident. With meals, accommodations, laundry, and all of the basic necessities taken care of, Brenda, Magdi and Lorena never had to think about how they would get by, how long they could manage to stay away, or whether or not they were unfairly imposing on friends or neighbors.


Brenda, Magda and Lorena (left couch) as well as other Pa’nibal residents, discuss the problems they’re facing—and potential next steps— with Alejandra & Carolina (foreground).

Within a couple of days Brenda had begun joining weekly group therapy sessions, as well as private sessions with a volunteer psychiatrist focused on recognizing and processing emotions, and, more specifically, anger management. She participated in group discussions wherein Pa’nibal staff discuss practical options and first steps towards solutions to the various complicated issues our residents face. Brenda also began attending a weekly dancing class offered by a local hip-hop artist and an English class taught by an American volunteer.

Meanwhile Alejandra began working through Brenda’s case from the other end. She visited Brenda’s parents every week and encouraged them to think through the effect of Brenda’s relationship with José on her own wellbeing, and on her ability to provide a healthy environment for her daughters. Alejandra also spoke with José about Brenda’s legal right to separation, and her right to pursue her own life and a positive upbringing for her girls. She made it clear that Brenda could—and would—pursue legal action with the assistance of Pa’nibal, a course of action even Brenda would never have thought possible.

About a week after Brenda first arrived at Pa’nibal, Alejandra presented her case to the municipal Justice of the Peace. She brokered a temporary custody agreement between Brenda and José allowing them both to spend time with Magdi and Lorena during Brenda’s residency at Pa’nibal. Transportation was arranged for the two girls to visit their father every weekend, then return to Brenda at Pa’nibal each Monday.

Brenda talking with other residents

Brenda (white shirt) talks with other residents. Pa’nibal residents face unique but often similar challenges in their lives.

After a few more weeks, several conversations with Brenda’s parents and several meetings with José, Brenda’s case was officially heard before the municipal court. With the court’s oversight Brenda and José settled on separation, shared custody for their girls and weekly alimony to help support Magdi and Lorena—a settlement Brenda hadn’t considered a possibility during three years of abuse. José left Brenda’s parents’ home at their request, and Brenda decided to move back into her family home along with Magdi and Lorena.

Just over a month after Brenda’s arrival at Pa’nibal, she was back at her parents’ home. This time wasn’t like the others, though. Brenda now had concrete—and legally mediated—measures in place to help her move beyond her abusive relationship and pursue a healthier, more stable life. Brenda still attends group and personal therapy sessions weekly at Pa’nibal as well as the occasional dance or English class. She also knows that when she’s ready, we’re prepared to help her enroll in vocational training and search for long-term work.

Brenda’s ability to take positive steps in her life is founded in the practical resources that Pa’nibal—through donors like you—offers every one of our residents. Disrupting the cycle of abuse and creating long term options starts with a bed, three meals daily and a secure home. But it doesn’t end there, it takes persistent advocacy, knowledge of the local legal systems and the support of experienced, passionate social workers to create lasting change.

Pa’nibal is the only long-term shelter and transitional home in Sacatepéquez, the Guatemalan department (state) out of which we operate. Without Pa’nibal many women like Brenda trapped in abusive relationships or worse simply don’t have options.

Your support makes what we do possible. A contribution of $100 monthly covers all the basic costs of one resident — meals, a bed, a safe place. Any amount makes a difference.

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