By Lauren Gauthier
What does it mean to be in a leadership role? Certainly positions of power come to mind, such as political positions, high-profile community leaders, among others. A leader is a person who commands a group, organization or country. Even through political and social turmoil, the women of Guatemala have not only increased their occupation of leadership roles throughout the country, but have turned into leaders themselves by working to empower themselves and those around them. The Education in Action 2019 group had the incredible opportunity of meeting various women leaders and learning from their perspectives and experiences. In this article, I will introduce a variety of inspiring women, how they represent a new perspective and how they come to define the term leader in a tumultuous country.
The first woman leader we met in Guatemala City was Stephany Arreaga of the 8 Tijax collective. This collective of women have been working to support victims and their families of the devastating fire at a youth home named Hogar Seguro. On March 8th 2017, on International Women’s Day, 41 young girls burned to death and 15 others burned but survived at this youth home outside Guatemala City. Stephany, her mother, and a few of their friends arrived at the scene to find bodies being carried out of the building. They selflessly remained with the families during the confusion and tragedy that followed. They remained at the morgue with the families for 22 days when the body of the last girl was handed over to her family. Their instinct to arrive at the scene and help in any way they can, for women who they did not know personally, demonstrates their deep empathetic and altruistic nature. Finally, the search for justice began. Stephany has studied every case of every girl involved in this tragedy. While currently the collective only has the capacity to represent 10 cases, the rest are being handled by law agencies. Stephany and the women of the 8 Tijax represent strength and empathy in leadership. They represent a search and demand for justice in an unjust world. They became leaders as soon as they made the decision to provide aid in gruesome conditions.
The women of the CCDA (Campesino Committee of the Highlands) demonstrate a growth in political activity and leadership amongst Guatemalan women. The CCDA is a human rights committee that supports land rights for small indigenous farmers all across Guatemala. The Education in Action group was fortunate enough to meet many women involved in the CCDA, however here I will focus specifically on the following: Neydi, Lesbia and the women of the tilapia farm in Quixayà. Neydi is the daughter of Congressman Leocadio Juracan and is currently attending university. While we did not have a formal presentation from her and only had the opportunity to see her once during our visit, she made a huge impression on our group. At her university, she has attained a position on her university’s student union and is fighting for the rights of indigenous farmers. She is working to ensure they have an opportunity to sell their food on campus, instead of selling the opportunity to big corporations, despite having fellow student union members working against her. Lesbia is on the board of directors for the CCDA and has committed her life to the fight for justice for rural Guatemalans. She is a woman leader in the truest sense, as the prime focus of her advocacy is for women's rights. Women in Guatemala are constantly being subjected to harassment and there are high occurrences of domestic violence. The health and education of a woman in Guatemala are of secondary importance to those of a man. Lesbia has committed herself to the cause and empowerment of women. Neydi and Lesbia represent the voice and empowerment of women.
Another initiative of the CCDA is education of local women in the development and maintenance of a tilapia fish farm. We had the honour of meeting two women who represented 12 of a local group in Quixayà who run the fish farm. They were provided education by the CCDA and from that knowledge, they set up their own means of income. Despite people in the area not liking their autonomy and various setbacks, such as people stealing their fish, they continue to persevere and gain strength from their independence. These women represent leadership in opportunity and escaping the traditional roles forced upon them by society.
Finally, I want to introduce you to Sandra Moran, Guatemalan congresswoman and first ever LGBT person to ever occupy a seat in Congress in Guatemala. Long-time feminist and human rights and indigenous rights activist, she has brought her progressive beliefs with her to Congress. Throughout her time in leadership roles, she has received death threats and has had public campaigns against her. Her office has been broken into and searched. During our time in Guatemala, we were supposed to have had a meeting with her during our time in Guatemala City. Unfortunately as our meeting time came and she did not show up, we found out that the National Reconciliation Law, which would give amnesty to those found guilty of war crimes during Guatemala's civil war, had passed its second reading through Congress and because of this she was not able to connect with us. Her tireless work continues. She works in the trenches of Guatemalan politics and shows strength and perseverance in fighting against political corruption. Though Sandra Moran will not be seeking re-election come June, there are many women in the CCDA who will be. Congresswoman Moran represents powerful female political leadership through her high profile position as well as her progressive beliefs. She is a symbol of hope for minorities and those who have been left marginalized by society.
These women, as well as many others not mentioned, have brought about an era of new and varied perspective throughout Guatemala. They represent leadership in a variety of ways, by seeking justice through empathy, the dedication to female empowerment, embracing opportunity, and political office with powerful symbolism. Women are stepping up to occupy leadership roles, and when faced with adversity, they are crafting their own leadership opportunities. The resilience and determination of these women is truly remarkable and they are paving the way for a new era of female leadership throughout Guatemala.