Gender-based violence in Guatemala

By Jessica Chaisson
outh Delegate 2018 (UNE)
Local 90023, PEI

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting our time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Lilla Watson, indigenous Australian women’s activist and scholar


Education in Action (EIA) and the Social Justice Fund are tirelessly working towards a future where men and women of all races are treated equally and living in acceptable conditions. Guatemala is a prime example of a country where there is quite a long ways to go in order to achieve this ideal.

EIA supports and works in collaboration with a number of humanitarian and environmental groups, such as Centro de Acción Legal Ambiental y Social de Guatemala (CALAS), Peasant Committee of the Highlands (Comité Campesino del Altiplano, CCDA) and Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking the Silence. In 2018, as part of the EIA delegation, we were fortunate enough to meet with representatives from these and other groups as they told their story. Stories of poverty, corruption, intimidation, disappearances, and murder.

Once such story has stuck with me since my return to Canada. This is a horror story where 56 girls, ages 13 to 16, were locked in a small room in a government run facility, as punishment for protesting the abuse and torture they were experience at the hands of staff members. While they were locked in the room, a fire was started. The doors were not opened. Forty-one girls were killed, and 15 were left with both physical, mental and emotional trauma they will suffer from for the rest of their lives.

As this case continues to be fought in the courts over a year later, many are searching for justice. Justice that Guatemalan women have been fighting decades to achieve. Violence against Women (VAW), Gender-based Violence (GBV) or Femicide, describes violence against or the murder of, women because of their gender. This often occurs in areas where women are oppressed, vulnerable, living in poverty and/or where it is state sanctioned. In Guatemala, Mayan women are particularly vulnerable as a result of indigenous racism, economic insecurity, social disparity and the fallout of a violent civil war.

History of Guatemala

Guatemala happens to be one of the largest and most industrialized country in Central America. With this, there are high levels of inequality and oppression felt by all indigenous Mayan groups. Many of them are living in extreme poverty. However, over 500 years of oppression, exploitation, and death have not eradicated the Mayan culture. In spite of all of this, they have persisted with strong traditional values and practices.

The 36-year civil war ended in 1996 when the Peace Accords were signed. During this time, over 250,000 were killed or disappeared. Millions were displaced, tortured and raped by military members. Entire villages were burnt to the ground, in an attempt to fully exterminate the community. Sexual violence was used as a weapon, mainly as state-sanctioned acts against Mayan women. Many of the perpetrators of these acts were not put on trial after the war, and in fact, remained employed by Guatemalan police and security forces. Unfortunately, the Peace Accords have not proven to be the call-to-action against this act of genocide many hoped they would be. Very few legislative changes have been passed since the war, due to corruption and little governmental support.

The effects of migration, the civil war, and an oppressive government and unsupportive polices for indigenous peoples and land access have severely affected many men and women’s ability to provide for their families. This has led to a high rate of abandonment, alcoholism, and violence within families and communities around the country.

Violence in Guatemala

Femicide, domestic violence, and sexual assault in Guatemala are related problems within the field of gender-based violence. They all stem from the same issues, a culture that often devalues women, reinforced by out-dated criminal laws and the absence of action in gender-based crimes that derives from the civil war. With the lack of support from the justice system and the government, it is not surprising many have stopped depending on the Guatemalan authorities for protection.

The effects of experiencing GBV are both physical and emotional. They may not be visible, but they are long lasting. Unplanned or complicated pregnancies, STIs, HIV and isolation from their community are only a few of the effects many women experience along with this violence. The emotional effects of GBV can be as severe as the physical effects; they include depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and panic attacks.

Today, women and girls in Guatemala, especially those in indigenous communities, continue to live with threats to their safety and security. In 2005, there were over 650 gender-based murders in Guatemala. In 2008, the Guatemalan government passed the Ley Contra el Femicidio y otras Formas de Violencia contra la Mujer (Law Against Femicide and Other Forms of Violence Against Women). Previous laws did not contain punishment for these offenders.  This ruling comprises femicide, physical, and sexual assaults as crimes and includes maximum sentences. Yet, the execution of this new law is remarkably ignored by the justice system as there is considerable corruption and prejudice against claims of VAW. In 2009, over 5,000 sexual violence claims were submitted, with only 242 convictions. And in 2011, over 20,000 cases of VAW were sent to trial, and less than 600 judgements were delivered.

VAW and GBV is a widespread problem encompassing social, public health and human rights issues and affects women of all ages and races. Though this is not an issue solely prevalent in Guatemala, this country has one of the highest rates of femicide in the world, combined with a high level of impunity for offenders.

Looking Forward

Recently, there have been some positives in terms of moving forward and towards equality for women and indigenous people in Guatemala. Organizations such as the CCDA and CALAS are helping to empower women and indigenous communities to know their rights and demand to be treated as equals. This is done through targeted training, self-employment opportunities, and supporting those who wish to become political activists.

We have also seen the arrest and prosecution of corrupt government officials tied to the civil war and acts of genocide. There have been city wide protests in solidarity with those that have been abused or displaced. The International Women’s Day march has become a powerful event that serves as a beacon of hope to all Guatemalan women. But there is still so much further to go. The instability and corruption of Guatemala’s government and legal sectors, has enabled crimes against Mayan women for far too long. Their failure to address these issues are no longer being ignored. As the conversation around equality and women empowerment continues across the world, eyes are on the Guatemalan government to raise the bar and start fighting for and supporting women’s rights and equality for all.