Outreach visit to Guatemala

Urgent Action Fund

15 May 2020

"The fight itself moves us. We are many. I am not alone."

From November 25 to December 5, 2019 we visited four cities in Guatemala: Guatemala City, Santiago Sacatepequez, Panajachel and Quetzaltenango. During this visit we met with more than 80 activists from 58 women’s rights and feminists organizations and collectives from different regions of the country. We decided to visit Guatemala with the purpose of deepening our knowledge around the context, as we were receiving very few Rapid Response Grants application, taking into account the country’s current situation around corruption and Human Rights violations. Data about violence against women is on the rise, and the election of a far right and corrupt candidate for president also prompted us to go to Guatemala during this time.

We would like to thank all the allied organizations that met with us during this visit, we will be close despite the distance, and continue to monitor these realities and support the feminist and Women Human Rights Defenders in Guatemala.

In this article we share the main topics that activists and defenders shared during our meetings, their analyses of the context, as well as their perspectives on care, how they protect themselves and sustain their resistance and struggles.

Violence against women and girls

According to UN Women, Guatemala is one of the countries with "the highest rate of violent deaths of women". Between January and September 2019, 300 women were victims of femicide according to data from GGM- Grupo Guatemalteco de Mujeres (Guatemalan Women Group). In addition to the risk of femicide, sexual violence is a major threat to women and girls in Guatemala. Of every ten cases of sexual violence reported to the Public Ministry in 2019, five are against children and teenagers. Women with disabilities are more vulnerable in this regard because there are no accessible mechanisms to facilitate filing an accusation. Furthermore, a member of Observatorio de Salud Sexual y Reproductiva(Observatory for Sexual and Reproductive Health) share that they have accompanied girls with mental disabilities who are pregnant after being raped, whose cases have been treated as a "psychiatric problem" and therefore have not received comprehensive care.

Violence against girls is also reflected in a very high number of pregnancies. Just between January and November 2019, the Ministry of Public Health and Social Assistance reported 1,892 cases of pregnancy in girls under 14 years of age. It is urgent to develop measures to address and counter this reality, because despites various petitions and bills, the country still does not have a comprehensive protection system for girls. The fire in the girls home Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción was international news in 2017: 56 girls and teenagers "were locked up as punishment by order of President Jimmy Morales after protesting the abuse and ill-treatment that they experienced there". This case shows the precariousness of children’s care institutions and the institutional violence against girls in the country. "This is a social problem and must be addressed from there. (…) We should be discussing the indifference towards girls in this country”, shared an advocate during a meeting. Despite international pressure on the Morales government at the time, various bills that women and feminists submitted to achieve comprehensive protection for girls in the country have been ignored.

It should also be noted that the Guatemalan State cut the budget for Comprehensive Support Centers for Women Survivors of Violence (Centro de Apoyo Integral para Mujeres Sobrevivientes de Violencia, CAIMUS) that provide shelter and accompaniment for women survivors, leaving such spaces without funds to pay their workers and maintain the facilities, which has had a large impact on the lives of women.

Trafficking is an issue of great concern for organizations that operate CAIMUS centers. Central American migrant women are deceived or kidnapped by trafficking networks present throughout Central America. Several organizations we met provide support to these women and have received threats for reporting trafficking cases, as there is a network of corruption among governments, human trafficking networks and drug trafficking. Threats to organizations who support, advocate and denounce crimes are highly recurrent, rising their level of vulnerability and the risk for WHRDs and activists. Many survivors of trafficking are trans women fleeing Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua due to persecution in their countries. It is important to emphasize that few CAIMUS receive trans women survivors, despite the high level of violence they suffer. Fundación Sobrevivientes (Survivors Foundation), one of the few that provides specific care for trans women victims of gender violence, reported a considerable increase in the number of cases they received last year. According to the organization Redmmutrans, trans women migrants and victims of trafficking arrive to Guatemala in very serious emotional and physical conditions, and face many abuses during their journey and during their stay in Guatemala. Most trans women live in very precarious conditions and without basic livelihoods.

Mayan women and defense of the territory

Mayan women in Guatemala have historically resisted and fought for their rights as indigenous women, for their territories, and for respect for their ancestry. Almost half of the Guatemalan population is indigenous Maya, who suffer structural racism, discrimination and various forms of violence on a daily basis. Many Mayan women do not speak Spanish and public institutions do not have qualified interpreters, since cultural and language diversity is not a government priority beyond its use for tourism. Racism in Guatemala is embodied in the population, in State policies and sadly within the human rights movements as well. Besides, it is worrying that the criminalization and persecution against indigenous women defenders has increased – some have had to leave their territories and even go into exile. as Also, as members of Mamá Maquín mentioned, sexual violence is one of the most widely used tactics against activists defending land and territories.

Many indigenous and Campesinas activists, as well as human rights organizations with whom we met, share the same reflection on the State of Siege imposed in September 2019 in 21 municipalities, which is that it was used to map and locate communities defending their lands. There were raids and searches, and as soon as the State of Siegewas over, several defenders were illegally arrested on allegations of logging and conspiracy to commit crimes. It is important to mention that in Guatemala judicial processes are normally delayed and inefficient serving political interests, a strategy that has huge impact on defenders unjustly criminalized.

The importance of healing and care practices from the Mayan worldview

The return of militarization, corruption, and escalating violence against women and indigenous communities during Jimmy Morales' presidency has made many people feel that they are returning to the past. As noted by one defender, many indigenous women victims and survivors of sexual violence have had episodes of post-traumatic stress as they relive the anguish and terror of years in armed conflict. Mayan women healing practices and collective healing processes sustain activists and their resistance. The Red de Sanadoras Mayas (Network of Mayan Women Healers), the women of Tzúninija´, and Colectivo Kaqla (Kaqla Collective), are some of the most recognized among the women's movement in Guatemala, as well as at the regional level. "The fight itself moves us. We are many. I am not alone,” shared a Mayan activist. Support among women provides a solid base to their movements, and despite differences and distancing between many women's organizations, the power of coming together is undeniable.

Political and socio-economic challenges for 2020

At the end of 2019, there was plenty of concern about the electoral victory of Giammattei, who previously directed the penitentiary system and participated in the extrajudicial killing of seven prisoners. Additionally, Giammattei's cabinet has well-known links with large-land owners and extractive companies. So far in 2020, the militarization of territories belonging to communities in resistance has increased, which is also a major concern today during the COVID-19 pandemic.

During his early years of government, Jimmy Morales began a discrediting process against the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG for it’s name in spanish) which ended up in his decision to not renew its mandate in 2019. His government promoted profound distrust towards international cooperation and international mechanisms and Giammattei has continued this tendency. As a result, organizations are facing major barriers to access international funds . These barriers will continue to expand if the worrisome “NGO Law”, Law Initiative 5257 (Iniciativa de Ley 5257), sanctioned under Decree Law 4-2020 (Decreto Ley 4-2020), is approved when legislative acts are resumed after the pandemic. Its entry into force was suspended in March by the Guatemalan Constitutional Court thanks to a legal recourse filed by various civil society organizations and human rights defenders.

We will continue to monitor these issues in Guatemala, as well as the actions taken by activists and civil society organizations, and to support in any way we can to face the attacks on Human Rights in this country.

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