Beatrice’s new home

Beatrice’s parents died when she was eleven. She and her brothers, both seven years older than her, continued living in their small family home in a suburban municipality near Sacatepéquez known for difficulties with youth gangs. Beatrice stopped attending school almost immediately after her parents died for lack of money and family support.

Her older brothers, both alcoholics and physically abusive, took easily to ordering her around. Her life began to revolve around domestic chores—caring for their small home, cooking, cleaning—and avoiding her brothers as much as possible for fear of being beaten. Her brothers didn’t let her leave their house; she hardly saw the outside of her home as a young girl.

Beatrice left home soon after she turned eighteen. She had never had a job and hadn’t been to school in years. She began by staying with friends and acquaintances, but was soon living on the streets. After a couple of weeks she approached a local organization that works with disadvantaged children, Educando a los Niños, who referred her to Pa’nibal.

Beatrice makes New Year's decorations with another resident at Pa'nibal.

Beatrice makes New Year’s decorations with another resident at Pa’nibal.

In December of last year, Beatrice moved into a room at Pa’nibal. She began attending group and individual therapy sessions, attending in-house English, dance and art classes, and participating in various occasional workshops sponsored by Pa’nibal. She worked with Pa’nibal staff to outline a long term personal development plan, and within a few weeks had started a two year collegio (high school) equivalency program focused on bookkeeping. With the assistance of Pa’nibal staff, she was also able to find part-time work as a receptionist in a small hotel in town—the first paying work of her life. She works there most Saturdays and Sundays.

Beatrice spends weekdays attending school and helping with basic chores at Pa’nibal like meal preparation, cleaning up and helping out with other residents and their children. She plans to go on living at Pa’nibal until her two year education program is complete. In the meantime, she’s receiving on-the-job training in basic administration, has been able to start saving money and has even bought herself some clothes and other personal items—a first for her.

She has no desire to return to her family home or to re-establish contact with her brothers. She’d like to a be perito contador (expert accountant) and hopes to call Pa’nibal her home until she’s better equipped to start a life of her own.

Alejandra, the Director of Operations at Pa’nibal, hopes Beatrice will be a resident for a long time.

“She has everything she needs here for now,” she says, “some community, work, school. She’s learning to manage money. She has a lot of possibilities.”

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.

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.

New volunteer driven classes

Pa’nibal offers a variety of rotating classes and workshops, mostly conducted by sister organizations or volunteers from the surrounding community. When new residents arrive at Pa’nibal, it can take some time for them to become integrated into a daily schedule. In time, many residents work and attend vocational school outside of the home, as well as pursue personal development goals whether through therapy, pursuing legal justice for their situation, or through other means. New residents, however, often have a lot of time on their hands.

English class

Nicholas, a volunteer, teaches an English class to Pa’nibal residents.

In-house classes and activities help to break up that time, and offer valuable skills and recreation time in the process. Classes like English or reading can considerably contribute to residents’ job skills, while Art or even Breakdancing (our newest addition and featured photo above) help everyone to relax and have fun while learning something new.

Pa’nibal is always interested in hosting volunteers with knowledge to share. Are you an art, dance, yoga or English teacher? Do you have a different skill that you’d like to share with the women at Pa’nibal? If you’re interesting in volunteering, we’d love to talk. Get in touch to learn more.

New beds; more space

Pa’nibal operates out of a two story home with space for about twenty women and children – assuming we had the furniture and staff to support such a population. Having just moved into the home in the summer, we’re still working to furnish family rooms, dormitories and common spaces. Until last week we had just six single beds (boxspring & mattress) and three palette beds – simple wooden frames with traditional fabric or kapok stuffed pads on top of them.

Mario and beds

Mario and his helper deliver three new beds from a local furniture store.

Thanks to a recent donation, we were able to purchase three brand new beds, bringing our total capacity up to around twelve. Within days we had three new residents.

One of the great things about being a small organization is having a very concrete sense for our limitations and growth opportunities. In some cases inviting three new women to live with us at Pa’nibal is as simple as being able to afford the beds.

Much of our current furniture came from a generous donation made by the Norwegian Embassy in Guatemala City. While that was an excellent start, we’re still very much in need of a dining room table, some desks, and eventually – once we have the staff to support a larger population – even more beds.

Are you interested in helping us create more space for new residents or better furnish our classrooms or offices? Visit the donate page to learn about our current needs, or get in touch with specific questions.

Pa’nibal welcomes a new Director of Operations

Pa’nibal is excited to have Alejandra Hernández (left in the photo above) as our new Director of Operations. Alejandra is joining our team after sixteen years of social work, activism and women’s advocacy. She’s the founder of two NGOs that advocate women’s rights, Centro Comunitario EducArte and Mujeres Artesanas de Paz, is formally educated in social work, psychology and philosophy, and brings with her a substantial network of community contacts and resources.

Alejandra briefs team

Alejandra briefs the team on policies and approaches.

As Director of Operations, Alejandra will be responsible for organizing programs, classes and workshops at Pa’nibal as well making final decisions on home regulations, residency policies and allocation of general use funds. She will also organize home activities, group therapy meal schedules and more.