By Patricia Macías
“We as women are socialized to be enemies with each other, to disagree. When one woman is confined to one house and another is confined to another house, half of society is hyper-segmented. This hyper-segmentation makes women unable to get together, unable to convene, unable to organize ourselves, unable to exercise our political rights. This is one of the fundamental issues and part of the essential role of women’s organizations. Women’s organizations are a community and social response to endemic gender-based violence.” This is how Mercedes Hernández, activist, feminist, human rights defender, and president of the Asociacion de Mujeres de Guatemala (AMG, Women’s Association of Guatemala), explains the importance of support and solidarity among us as women.
AMG is a feminist activist association based in Madrid, made up since its founding of Guatemalan women: migrants and refugees with and without legal status who live in Spain. They began to meet in 2006, “When we got together, it was all centered around food, because this is one of the things that one misses very much, around trading pasa chiles and guaque chiles, around trading hibiscus or refried beans… We got together to try to feel a little better, because we all came with tremendous stories behind us.” They are stories of violence that one way or another forced them to leave Guatemala behind.
Their first activities as a group were feminist dialogues involving a heterogeneous group of Guatemalan women, from students to homemakers, with a common concern: the mothers, sisters, or friends they left behind in Guatemala. “We began to speak, above all, about the violence against women and about how terrible it was to be a woman there. When we went out at night here, it was always a shock, because to return home at dawn, calmly walking in the street, is a priceless feeling; not having to look behind you when you walk alone at night is an incredible feeling. It’s rage-inducing to know that there are countries like Guatemala where public spaces don’t belong to us, and where our lives in public spaces as well as private are worth nothing, as the statistics show.”
Since AMG’s feminist frame of mind was made public, the Guatemalan embassy in Madrid has not once supported it in its activities. Its initial indifference turned into a clear declaration that AMG’s members were personae non gratae when, in 2013, AMG organized a protest in front of Madrid’s City Hall against Otto Pérez Molina, who was receiving the keys to the Spanish capital. They greeted the then-president of the Republic (now ex-president, behind bars because of the “La Línea” corruption scandal) with shouts of “genocide” and printed posters of machine guns with phrases like “These are the keys of Pérez Molina.”
AMG uses a strategy of advocacy, which means creating alliances to provoke discussions in the public sphere about specific topics. For example, AMG works for the prevention, banning, and eradication of all forms of violence against women, denouncing and making visible the femicides (in Spanish, feminicidios) committed in Guatemala and other Latin American countries. It is sometimes slow and thankless work that nonetheless gets results, like AMG’s annual course on femicide, which has been held for seven years in a row thanks to its tireless volunteers, collaborators, and donors.
AMG and many other organizations in Guatemala and the world advocate against femicide, a relatively new term that comes from the translation of the English word, which refers to the avoidable homicide of women for reasons strictly related to gender. It includes not only the cases that have to do with physical violence against women, but also the many other issues that jeopardize the ethics and health of women (like the lack or deficiency of medical assistance for female health problems) and that therefore result in a higher mortality rate for women.
Guatemala passed a law against femicide in 2008 that imposes sentences of 25 to 50 years in prison for those who murder women solely for being women and also classifies different acts of violence against women (sexual, physical, psychological, and economic violence) as crimes. This law has “enormous value because it appropriately addresses reality. In other words, it responds to the need to change norms. There is also, however, another aspect, which is application, where the law always fails. No justice system is perfect and Guatemala’s is among the most imperfect in the world, even though there have been efforts to improve it. It is in this field of application where, for example, we see reflected budgetary allotments. There is not one government in the world that is totally just in terms of public budgets, with the magnitude of the violence that women face. One of the reasons is that, in general, violence against women is not considered political violence. When feminists talk about male sexist terrorism people don’t understand that we’re talking about a power structure that perpetuates itself, or tries to perpetuate itself, through violence. We call this power structure patriarchy.”
What happens when women organize themselves and create networks of mutual support? They tear down walls of silence and impunity, like the one that is being torn down right now in Guatemala. A trial began this past February 1st for the Sepur Zarco case, which is prosecuting rapes committed in 1982 against 15 Q’eqchí Maya women on a military base located between Alta Verapaz and Izabal. This base was used as an “area of rest and recreation” for soldiers during the bloodiest years of Guatemala’s 36-year armed conflict.
It is the first trial of its kind to be held in the country, and its victims have had to wait for more than 35 years for it. Two former officers, Esteelmer Francisco Reyes Girón and Heriverto Valdez sit at the bench of the accused, facing crimes against humanity in the form of sexual violence, forced disappearance, and murder.
Mercedes Hernández is clear: “The fact that those women are seated across from the perpetrators as equals has enormous political and symbolic power. One of the most important ways that justice can deliver healing to these Maya women happens in the moment that they leave behind their status as victims to become survivors identifying the perpetrators of crimes that for their gravity offend the conscience of all humanity.” These women are showing tremendous courage by sharing their suffering and accusing their rapists in a public trial as they confront not only their attackers but also the firmly rooted power structure that is the Guatemalan military.”
Mercedes explains, “Women are changing. We are reclaiming the part of the world that rightly belongs to us, and obviously this upsets the patriarchy that is trying to force us back into the domesticity of the private domain and the home, to trap us there again so we return to being hypersegmented, and so that we don’t participate in political life. Obviously, this is happening through violence. So we must also understand today’s violence against women as a patriarchal response to new women.”
Organization and solidarity among women in the form of groups like AMG or within communities between friends or neighbors is the foundation on which we are building a society in which no girl or woman in any part of the world will suffer exclusion or violence because of her gender.