Being a woman in Guatemala isn’t easy. The small central American country has one of the highest rates of femicide in the world, with at least two women murdered every day.
Being an indigenous woman in Guatemala is even harder.
In addition to the physical, psychological and economic violence experienced by many Guatemalan women, indigenous women also face significantly higher rates of poverty, illiteracy and racial discrimination. Between 50 and 90 percent of indigenous women in rural areas cannot read or write and one in three have no access to healthcare or family planning services.
History has played a significant role.
Repressed for centuries following the Spanish conquest, indigenous people accounted for more than 80 percent of the 200,000 people killed during the Guatemalan Civil War. Between 1960 and 1996 more than 100,000 women were victims of mass rape with many indigenous women forced into sexual slavery by the military.
The legacy of that violence lives on. Successive governments have done little to deliver justice or economic power to these women, and impunity has helped to normalise sexual violence. According to UN Women, the rate of impunity for femicide remains at around 98 percent.
In the small community of San Juan Sacatepequez, 30km northwest of Guatemala City, a group of Mayan women are trying to change things.
Nestled between mountain ranges, the women of this remote town go about their day in traditional attire, known as huipil, the fabrics’ different colours and textures conveying different meanings. Down one of its cobblestoned streets, the Asociación Grupo Integral de Mujeres Sanjuaneras (AGIMS) is identifiable only by its small sign.
The association aims to eradicate all forms of violence and discrimination against indigenous women. Founded by five female community leaders in 2001, it now counts more than 400 women from 65 communities as members.
It helps female victims of violence, both historical and current, by providing support, counselling and legal assistance. It also works with state institutions to make them more gender-responsive and aware of their historical debt towards indigenous women.
In the meeting room at the heart of the office, the women gather around a large table for their weekly session and to share a lunch of pork rinds, tortillas, lamb, lemon and avocado. Despite enduring social taboos, they have learned to talk about their personal experiences as a mechanism for finding a collective voice and awakening their political consciousness.
The women range in age from their 20s to their 70s, face different challenges, and are fighting for different goals. Some say they want to end the cycle of violence within their families; others that they have political aspirations and dream of one day becoming local mayors. Almost all aspire to a better education.
They speak proudly of being indigenous Mayan women, candidly about the challenges they face, and confidently about what’s driving them to be part of a community that’s fighting for recognition. It is in this space of collective identity and community building that they believe a significant challenge to power lies.
By: Elizabeth Melimopoulos and Ali Rae