Invisible Women

By Patricia Macías Lopez


In Guatemala, 660 women were killed just last year, 112 more than in 2012, a frightening reality that is lived with on a daily basis. But violence against women is not only concentrated in numbers like these; rather, it occurs in many different ways and is often overlooked: rape, unwanted pregnancies, the legal plight of victims, workplace discrimination, psychological abuse, verbal abuse in the street, economic dependence or sexual harassment – these are part of a long list of transgressions.

Impunity, corruption and negligence, combined with the ineffective enforcement of laws that protect women, are key factors fueling this situation. The legal framework in Guatemala has undergone major changes in recent years. Since 1996, the only relevant legal instrument has been the “Law for the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Domestic Violence”, but this law, as its name suggests, only relates to victims of domestic violence, completely ignoring the victims of sexual violence, among others. The anti-femicide law, passed in 2008, has as its formal objective to “guarantee the life, liberty, integrity, dignity and equality of all women before the law, particularly when, due to one’s gender status in relations of power or trust, in the public or private sector, a crime is committed against a woman in terms of discriminatory practices, in terms of physical, psychological, economic violence, or acts that are disparaging to her rights.” Subsequently, the “Law against trafficking in persons”, completes the legal circle, covering sexual exploitation, including that concerning children. More recently, the “Family Planning Law” was approved after fierce fighting from organizations and women’s associations, and it went almost hand-in-hand with the “Law of safe motherhood”, both of which focussed on teenagers. As we see, the legal tools have been increasing over the last 10 years, but the question is: Are they really effective in practice? The small number of police reports compared to the high number of victims suggests that they have not.

The Association for Women’s Development K’ak’a Na’oj, “ADEMKAN,” is an organization that works in the department of Sololá; one of its missions is to offer moral and legal support to victims of domestic or sexual violence. Silvia Menchú, coordinator of the Association, commented, that “You need to create strategic, political and judicial partnerships that facilitate the negotiation for the protection of women. We need to get into the game in order to get something, however small.” If legal instruments were truly effective, the work of associations like “ADEMKAN” would not be necessary. But the woman who has been a victim of abuse or maltreatment, when she thinks of filing a complaint, she collides with a rigid patriarchal system, an administrative monster that scares her and frightens her. Victims are also unaware of the way the system operates, and thus carry the burden of social stigma without reason. Women are therefore not considered “subjects” of law, and they are abandoned by the state. When the path of the police report is blocked, psychological therapy becomes fundamental, and support groups empower the victim and prepare her for the difficult court case that lies ahead.

Basic rights such as education and health are not available to all Guatemalans, and it is these basic points that create the foundation for certain types of violence. Eunice Ramirez works at “GOJoven” in the area of sexual and reproductive health education, and one of her biggest problems “is the health issue, because there is no framework for clarity regarding issues of sexual violence, because we are talking about the fact that women cannot choose a family planning method and they are condemned to having all the children that they may have, that teenagers cannot have autonomy over their sexuality, that they cannot have comprehensive education about sexuality, and decision-making bodies are not focused on what should be the critical path of care for victims of sexual assault. ”

The Monitoring Centre for Reproductive Health (OSAR) has performed a census since 2009 of all the births attended by the network of health services for minors under 14, as these are classified as criminal offenses, identifying, for example, that in 2009, there were 40,000 attended births by girls between 10 and 14 years old, a number that rose to 54,000 in 2010. These are pregnancies that are a direct result of sexual violence. The OSAR identifies education as a key factor: the women with a higher risk of violence are those that suffer from a lack of schooling – “girls who want to continue studying, but do not have the resources to do it.”

This economic factor is also fundamental during the police report process, as many victims cannot continue with charges because of the economic cost and the difficulty of getting to their departmental centers, where the government agencies that would attend them are located. Telma Suchi, a staff member at the Monitoring Centre complains that “Even if you begin to file a complaint, the government institutions are not prepared to give a quality answer.” Include women with active participation in strategic decision-making positions; “a woman who has access to education has an improved quality of life, and this will give her children better opportunities;” “women with an important position in any institution show us the guidelines to follow the process of granting scholarships to girls and young women who cannot otherwise access higher education.” Guatemala’s population is comprised of 51% women and 49% men, but the presence of women in positions of power does not reach anywhere near these percentages, leaving one of the most vulnerable populations outside of the decision-making process.

What is essential? Awareness-raising, to make the victims visible as well as to create a really effective critical path; and, of course, education – educating girls and boys equally. Empowering future women to recognize their future and to differentiate between the types of violence inflicted on them. And raising future men in a culture of respect that begins at home, continues in the street, and ends at school. Meanwhile, thanks to the tireless work of people like Eunice, Telma, or Silvia, small but firm steps are being taken to bring down these walls of impunity that are unfortunately still a reality in Guatemala.