the struggle for a life without violence
It’s been 3 months since I first saw the banner Nunca Mas! in Chihuahua, Mexico with photos of women gone missing, then found violated and dead. Mexico felt safe, but the more I traveled south, the more posters I saw, the more stories I read. The zine, Femicidio, reports that more than 340 women in Juarez City alone have been brutally murdered since 1993—right next to El Paso, TX, the third safest city in the US. Once I crossed the border to Guatemala, similar stories appeared of women mutilated, raped, and murdered daily. According to the feminist newspaper, La Cuerda (11/2004), in the past 2 years, more than 700 women in Guatemala have died from femicide, what Femicidio describes as the mass slaughter of women. And since 2001, 1,188 women have died from femicide (Inter-American Commission on Human Rights No. 20/04). Below is some of the information I gathered while in Guatemala for 2 1/2 months, in the hopes that you will read this and tell others, tell the government of Guatemala, tell your country, your media, that enough is enough. Ya basta.
A History of Violence•why is this happening?
The 36-year brutal war in Guatemala killed some 200,000 people, mostly indigenous. Since the Peace Accords in 1992, senseless murder has not disappeared. Most Guatemalans are afraid to walk at night, especially in Guatemala City, in fear of growing maras, gangs. On average, 2 people die a day in Guatemala City alone (La Hora, 2/2005), and the wealthy 3% own 64% of the land (Agenda Maya, 2005). Peace hasn’t exactly prevailed. Violence has bred a culture of violence, compounded by the war. According to Rigoberto Menchu, 1992 Nobel Prize winner, the assassinations of so many women is one of the echoes of the war that Guatemala lived through and that left footprints of violence and deep resentment (Entremundos, 10, 11/2004). In 2002, 184 women were killed; in 2003, 250 women; and in 2004 more than 300 women (AP, 8/28/2004). And while many murders are stranger related, more incidences of domestic violence have been reported. One third of all female homicides have been related to domestic violence. While violence affects all sectors of society, the femicides are almost always accompanied by sexual assault and/or mutilation. According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, this sends a message of terror and intimidation that women should leave public space and end their role in the development of their own country, leaving it to the perpetrators.
Most of the victims have had two things in common; they were poor and had a low social status. Most of the women were ages 18-30, but all ages have been affected (CONAPREVI). Murders have happened in rural areas and in the cities. One third of femicides related to domestic violence have happened in Guatemala City alone (AP). Boyfriends, husbands, gang members, and strangers have committed the violence. There is no conspiracy; there is no one person or group to blame for the crimes.
Vice-president Eduardo Stein says that the Guatemalan government is getting a bad rap for the statistics piling up about sexual violence. He reasons that the same level of violence exists in other Latin American countries (Prensa Libre, Lorena Seijo). The major response is that the violence is general, not misogynist. Maya, from Grupo Guatemalteco de Mujeres (GGM), said “the government is doing very little other than an investigation going on now, but it’s only in the capitol and it’s not very functional.” For indigenous women dealing with sexual violence, they are confronted with a racist penal system and little bilingual support. When women seek help, they have few places to go to. In Guatemala city, GGM has one safe house for women and in Xela, Nuevos Horizontes has one. Two shelters are hardly sufficient. Many women fear that speaking out will make matters worse for them. When women do find the courage to speak out, the investigations are usually short-changed and nothing comes of it. Lack of proof means that women must endure the recurrence of violence or retaliation.
Ni una muerte mas! Response from Guatemalan Women’s Groups
“Not even one more death!” women yelled at the National Palace of Culture this year as CONAPREVI and other groups gathered to denounce the rise in sexual violence and the government’s complacency. “Enough of good intentions and little action already!” CONAPREVI has been active in creating laws to help make women’s voices heard. They have just created a ten year plan to address sexual violence. Most of CONAPREVI has made sexual violence a public issue by raising funding for research and investigations necessary to make people believe this is a real issue. One member, Maya talked about the actions that GGM and others do. “We write about the issue, report on it, and on a governmental level CONAPREVI is helping to make laws. We also do sit-ins, demonstrations, vigils, and marches.”
When I mentioned to Maya and the women at CONAPREVI that foreigners would be interested in supporting their efforts, they were delighted. The women at CONAPREVI kept saying, “Welcome! Welcome!” and that any support would be appreciated. They seemed to especially like the idea of speaking about these issues, writing about them in the US and putting pressure on the Guatemalan government to intervene. Volunteer opportunities are open for both groups, in translating or other work. You can reach GGM at email@example.com, and CONAPREVI at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Overall, people felt that the government was ignoring sexual violence, leaving women like Maya afraid to walk alone at night; afraid her daughter won’t make it back from school or work. However, stopping at this conclusion alone leaves one a victim. I admire that despite the bureaucratic walls they are up against and a culture of misogyny, the women I spoke with are fighting together and making the media and the government listen to them. Little by little they are transforming their society into a more equitable one. I am grateful for the hard work of so many Guatemalan women and all the information they shared with me.
To Contact the US embassy in Guatemala: guatemala.usembassy.state.gov.
Please send comments to the author at kindlady76@ hotmail.com