International Women’s Issues: Indigenous Women’s Rights in Guatemala

This week, we’re going to look at the struggle for gender equality and women’s rights for the indigenous population of Guatemala. Discrimination against indigenous women is intersectional – indigenous people as a whole face discrimination, and then again there are elements of society that specifically target women. There is a great deal being done to improve the status and standard of living for indigenous women, so hopefully this post will be more positive than some of my previous ones. I should also point out, here at the start, that while there are many people who are specialists on Central America, I am not one of them. So please, correct me or add information in the comments!

But first, some not-quite-positive background and history. Guatemala is directly south of Mexico (I realized last week, as I gave a detailed explanation of exactly where Kyrgyzstan is, that I really ought to provide more geographical reference here, though I assume more people know where Guatemala is than Kyrgyzstan.) From 1960-1996, Guatemala was embroiled in a horrific civil war, a component of which was genocide against the indigenous population. Rape was frequently and deliberately used as a tool of war, particularly the rape of indigenous women and girls. In the sixteen years since peace has been declared, the magnitude of the crimes perpetrated against the indigenous community, and indigenous women in particular, are starting to come to light. The indigenous population, the majority of whom are Mayan, comprises about 50 percent of the country’s population of almost 14 million, and faces poverty and discrimination at a much higher rate than other citizens.

A 2010 Report to the UN High Commission on Human Rights focuses on several issues for indigenous women – namely, lack of political representation, domestic violence, femicide, and a lack of substantive government activity on any of these fronts. Guatemala is a key drug trafficking point, and partially because of this, gang violence, and violence in general, is widespread. Femicide, however, is something different than general violence. It is the murder of women simply because they are women, and these murders are usually especially violent and torturous. Between 2000 and 2008, over 4,300 violent murders of women were recorded, and 98% of them remain unsolved. In 2008, the Guatamalan government passed the Law Against Femicide and Other Acts of Violence Against Women, a landmark law against the targeted murder of women. It has not had the desired effect, however, as about 1400 women were violently murdered between 2009 and 2010. Domestic violence is also common and on the rise. Indigenous women are also vastly underrepresented in the political sphere. There are reports that indigenous women do not have adequate access to reproductive and general health care, and are discriminated against within the healthcare system. The poverty felt by most of the indigenous population is, as always, worse for women than it is for men – it is a near-universal fact that when there is not enough to go around, women are the first to do without. The UNHCR states that Guatemala is not compliant with many of the international conventions it has signed in regards to women’s rights, nor its own constitution and laws when it comes to protecting indigenous women.

So if not the government, then who? The answer, it seems, is always the same. Women are standing up for their own rights, protecting themselves and their communities. And in Guatemala, they’re doing so in a major way. In my research, I have come across dozens of local organizations that work towards improving indigenous women’s rights. I can only assume that many of them are internationally funded, hence the expansive Internet presence, but hey, it’s fantastic that they’re getting themselves out there, and raising international awareness. So let’s find out what some of these women are doing to improve their lives and the lives of women in their communities, shall we?

First, let’s look at Madre. Madre is a little complicated in terms of my self-imposed “women helping themselves” mandate here, because while it is founded and run by women, American women first founded the organization (and not even in Guatemala! Madre was founded in Nicaragua, but works in a handful of countries worldwide.) So why am I including them, let alone listing them first? Because of the breadth and depth of the work that they carry out in Guatemala, and the way they partner with Guatemalan organizations. It is still incredibly important to acknowledge the general impact the global North has had on Guatemala, from colonialism to the recent civil war, and keep that in mind when looking at US/Western-lead projects. However, Madre’s partnering with local organizations shows their commitment to participatory development, so I’m still including them.

Primarily, Madre has partnered with the Barcenas Women Workers’ Committee, protecting the health and security of women working in sweatshops in Guatemala city. The activities carried out in this partnership are numerous, and range from literacy and language classes to  reproductive health services to trainings on advocacy, human rights, and labor laws. Most importantly, perhaps, they are addressing the issue of femicide, not only in their advocacy work but also by working with the local populations to see what they need to be more safe. To that end, flashlights and whistles are distributed, and they’ve created neighborhood watch groups.

Separate from that work, Madre also carries out a project in one of the poorest regions of Guatemala, home of the Ixil, an indigenous group particularly destroyed by the civil war. There, Madre works with a local NGO called Muixil, and supports them as they train local women in chicken farming. Running these small chicken farms has the double impact of both decreasing food insecurity, a major problem in the region, and creating income for women, especially widows. They are also starting a weaving cooperative, both for cultural preservation and income generation.

Speaking of weaving cooperatives, the next two organizations both see weaving as a key toward’s women’s economic empowerment. (And, of course, women’s empowerment is essential to gender equality, which is the main way to change the societal acceptability of femicide and domestic violence.) Aj Quen is an association of 800 indigenous women weavers, who have banded together to increase their productivity, share their skills and knowledge, and simply, to form a support system for each other. Women who were traumatized during the war and scared to leave their houses now travel freely because of their involvement in this association. Earning income not only improves a household’s finances, but also frequently gives women more of a say in domestic decision-making. Aj Quen, in addition to technical weaving training, teaches its members about accounting and small business skills, and there are health classes as well. Oxlajuj B’atz’, or Thirteen Threads, another weaving-centric indigenous women’s group, reaches 400 Mayan women, and does similar classes to Al Quen–healthcare, business skills, basic education, and political awareness.

When it comes to political representation, here is an interesting thing: Mayan culture afforded women far more rights in terms of political leadership and decision-making than Western culture. Part of the indigenous women’s empowerment movement focuses on drawing on this long history of greater gender equality. (Really, colonialism, is there anything you didn’t mess up? Anything?) Ahem. To that end, the Political Association of Mayan Women, formed and run by Mayan women, aims to further involve women in all levels of Guatemalan political life. They run the Indigenous Women’s Political Academy, training women to be better prepared to enter into the political sphere.

There are dozens more organizations out there, be they completely local, local yet internationally-funded, or regional/international organizations, that are seeking to improve the lives of indigenous women in Guatemala. The network of Guatemalan non-profits,, has nearly two dozen organizations listed focusing on women’s rights alone. For one of the poorest countries in the region, the NGO presence is huge. And that’s a fantastic thing. Women whose lives were destroyed by war, who are facing dire poverty and discrimination on multiple levels, need to be able to support each other, to come together and fight for shared goals, to help each other improve their lives. And in Guatemala, that’s exactly what they’re doing.

Annual Report: Guatemala 2011Guatemala: Barcenas Health and Dignity Project
Guatemala: Farming for the Future
Guatemala: Indigenous Women Denied Sexual and Reproductive Rights
Guatemala’s Femicide Law: Progress Against Impunity?
Indigenous Women and Governance in Guatemala
Indigenous Women Strengthen Leadership Skills at Guatemalan Academy
Indigenous Women Weave Incomes, Self-Confidence
Oxlajuj B’atz’ (Thirteen Threads/Trece Hilos)
Violation of Women’s Human Rights in Guatemala

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