A history of violence in Guatemala – soon to be history?

Tuesday, March 22, 2016 - 11:34

Coming to Guatemala, I am once again struck by amazing stories of change that are underway in a country still in transition towards justice. One of them is the incredible case of the women of Sepur Zarco, which may go down in history as the moment when Guatemalan women fought back against terrible violence - and won.

Sepur Zarco is a rural community in the Polochic valley in the North East of Guatemala. In the 1980s, during a 36-year long war which started over land reform, community leaders of the Q'eqchi community in Sepur Zarco sought legal titles to their land. The men who sought those titles were subsequently ‘disappeared’ and murdered when a state military base was established in the community. They burned their houses and animals and brought the women to the base, where they became domestic slaves who were repeatedly raped over months by military men. This is hard to read, imagine how hard it was to survive. But survive they did.

The Sepur Zarco marks the first time when violence as a weapon of war has been put on trial in the country where the crimes took place. Other cases such as that of the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda went to international courts. One factor that helped them to come to court after 25 years of silence, was the arrival on the scene of MTM, Mujeres Transformando el Mundo (Women transforming the World) a partner organisation of ActionAid in Guatemala working on cases of violence against women. Their meticulous, courageous, sensitive and patient approach to working with the women was key. The conviction of military officers earlier this month by the court brought not only justice to the women of Sepur Zarco, but to the women of Guatemala and the world.

But even in times of peace the state of violence against women in Guatemala is still shocking. In 2015, 58,000 cases were registered in the country. How many of the cases were brought to justice? The reality is very few with a judicial system which is not protecting women. Overcoming the fear to come forward and denounce violence is a difficult feat to pull off, but seeing it go nowhere is crushing, intimidating and frightening. It also sends a clear message to others: don’t bother!

Supporting women is where ActionAid Guatemala puts most of its energy. They and their partners are working all over the country to help women stand up for their rights. The Chair of AA Guatemala Anna Silvia Monzon said this week that ‘a qualitative change has happened in Guatemala: there has been a change in the situation of women’. Even in some of the most traditional communities, women are talking about the fact that they too have rights, that they can challenge the old roles assigned to them and that they can be fearless.

Meanwhile women battle to have land. 57% of Guatemala’s land is owned by 2% of the people. And 3% of the land is shared among half the population. Women are most discriminated within this deeply unequal situation. Beyond the existing land situation, still today people are being removed from their land to make way for huge plantations of palm oil and sugar that feed our food and fuel markets. Much of the palm oil ends up in the Netherlands. Meanwhile ActionAid Guatemala is working with local partners and communities to hear them out and stop their land from being taken. Beyond control of land, they have been working to bring justice to communities affected by water contamination. An ‘ecocide’ took place in La Rio Pasion last summer when a lot of industrial waste was dumped in a river Guatemalan company contaminating 100km stretch and killing all of the fish. Fighting back is a dangerous business: Rigoberto Lima, a teacher and community organiser from Rio Pasion, was shot down in front of a courthouse having started to challenge the company that polluted the river and destroyed a lot of livelihoods. This recalls the case of Berta Caceres in Honduras, and so many others in Central and South America, the most dangerous place in the world to be an environmental activist. For more on this story, take a look at the video below:

But they don’t give up. Working with women in Guatemala matters. Why? Look at the context: only 10 of the 340 mayors across the country are women. Only 0.7% of women have director or managerial level jobs. 113 in 1000 women, more than 11%, die in child birth. Girls are leaving school to become domestic workers at a young age and one in five teenagers from 15 to 19 has been pregnant (rising to one in three in some departments). Meanwhile a law on parity between men and women in politics is in circulation but facing heavy political opposition. Why?

There is still a huge imbalance of power between women and men which some are trying to challenge and others are trying to block. ActionAid Guatemala has taken sides with those women and men who choose to challenge that imbalance, to make inequality history, to make violence history, to further improve the conditions of women to improve them for all. We look forward to celebrating more stories of justice with them very soon.