A legacy of femicide addressed: The rise of women’s rights in Guatemala

By Jasmine Horsey

Just a few months ago, in January 2014, Guatemala’s vice president Roxana Baldetti left a public convention on a stretcher. Two women, enraged by Baldetti’s failed promises to improve women’s rights in Guatemala, were later identified as the culprits of the flour attack.

The attack on Baldetti was unusual, but the reason behind it—the denial of political rights and justice to women marginalized in a patriarchal system—was nothing new in Guatemala. Ravaged by a 36-year civil war that ended in 1996, the country has become infamous for its unusually high femicide rate, one of the highest in the world. Femicide—a political term defined as the killing of a woman on the basis that she is female—is something Baldetti’s campaign platform highlighted and promised to address. However, the two years that Baldetti has been in office have in fact seen a rise in the femicide rate: 6,052 were murdered in 2013 alone.

These statistics are striking given the number of cases that go unreported. Femicide in Guatemala’s cities, where drug trafficking is rife and violence between rival gangs common, sometimes reaches the public eye. But attacks that take place in the countryside largely fall under the radar. Sexual abuse has become so frequent that it is commonplace for fathers to forbid their daughters from attending school once they reach puberty, fearing sexual assault on the short walk to class. It is in rural areas that the majority of abuse takes place, and it targets the country’s most vulnerable, impoverished, and uneducated: the indigenous groups.

Banners calling for an end to femicide in Guatemala (Courtesy of Creative Commons)
Banners calling for an end to femicide in Guatemala (Courtesy of Creative Commons)

The Maya, in particular, have long been victimized. They accounted for 83 percent of the death toll during the civil war, with military groups entering villages and inciting waves of mass murders and rapes. Ingrid Castaneda, a Ph.D. candidate in Latin American History at Yale, spoke of the experience of women living in rural areas of Guatemala during the civil war. She explained, “in literature, some of the most powerful voices speaking out have been women, because of the aggression and the incredible amount of rape that happened when the military came into these small villages.” “It was almost like systematic abuse was built into the repression happening.”

Some voices have broken through in literature and testimonies, but for several reasons the majority of cases go unreported to this day. Many Maya women do not speak Spanish, so their testimonies are simply ignored by the police. Most lack the political education to know of their rights, and even if they are made aware of them, the ambiguity of the justice system prevents them from making reports. Most disheartening, the majority, hardened by years of exposure to abuse, see the process of reporting the abuse suffered as pointless. For them, abuse has become part of their everyday experience.

NGOs are beginning to change this. Thanks to international support, Guatemala now has an encouragingly large number of NGOs in operation. The pressure put on the government by certain groups, bolstered by international aid and the external pressure on Guatemala from intergovernmental organizations, has led to advances. In 2008, the Law Against Femicide and Other Forms of Violence Against Women was passed, signalling the creation of a legal framework to encourage prosecution of crimes. In the countryside, skills such as weaving and chicken farming are taught alongside lessons on healthcare, politics, and business. The Political Association of Mayan Women now runs the Indigenous Women’s Political Academy, which is not only empowering women to understand their political rights, but also giving them the chance to dream of one day making their own political changes.

Vice President Baldetti speaking at a public convention in Guatemala (Courtesy of Creative Commons).
Vice President Baldetti speaking at a public convention in Guatemala (Courtesy of Creative Commons).

Roxana Baldetti’s time in office may have been marked by empty promises, but the past decade has been a particularly fertile time for women’s rights in Guatemala. It is no longer inconceivable that the signs held up by Guatemalan women at mass protests in the capital proclaiming “¡Unidas y unidos por la justicia! Together and united for justice” will begin to effect positive change, granting women who have long been kept voiceless the power to speak, stand up for their rights, and inspire.

Jasmine Horsey ’16 is an English major in Silliman College. Contact her at jasmine.horsey@yale.edu.