The work of female human rights defenders in Guatemala is fundamental to social change in the country, according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Despite the important role in society that women and women human rights defenders play in the country, their situation has become increasingly risky. This is what peace observer Emil Wenlöf writes in an analysis on Utvecklingsmagasinet.
During the first half of 2021, the number of hate-based murders of women and girls committed by men in Guatemala reached new levels - 395 murders, compared to 332 during the same period in 2020. This represents an increase of 18.9 percent, according to statistics from Guatemala's Ombudsman for Human Rights.
The Guatemalan Human Rights Organization UDEFEGUA, which compiles statistics on attacks on human rights defenders and civil society organizations in Guatemala, has also highlighted that the past six months have been one of the most violent periods since they began registering attacks more than 20 years ago. So far this year, 551 attacks on human rights defenders and civil society organizations have been documented. 232 of them, ie 34 percent, were aimed at women human rights defenders.
At the same time, UDEFEGUA illuminated in its annual report from 2020 that female participation in grassroots organizations has increased significantly in recent years. This has led to increased attacks on specifically female human rights defenders, who today are some of the most vulnerable human rights defenders in Guatemala.
The voices of women human rights defenders
Maria Hernandez, Domitila Diaz and Angelica Choc are three women human rights defenders in Guatemala who have lived in various ways under threat and structural violence. They have all had international accompaniment of peace observers from Swedish Fellowship of Reconciliation in the last ten years. Swedish Fellowship of Reconciliation has been active in the country for over 20 years. The support provided by the observers will increase the room for maneuver for human rights defenders and human rights organizations.
- Previously, no one ever listened to us women when we expressed our concerns or the problems we experienced. Now it has changed, now we know that our voices are heard, says Maria Hernandez.
She reflects on what her involvement has given her and the other women participating in the peaceful resistance movement of the Ixquisi micro-region, where they are protesting against the construction of three hydropower plants.
- We have just started this fight and we do not intend to stop, we have always said that we will continue no matter what, she continues.
For several women human rights defenders, the commitment means not only participation in organizations or grassroots movements, but also a new way of working as a woman in society and in daily life.
- "We women stand up to say 'stop', because it is we who suffer with our children, in our homes and in our communities," says Angelica Choc, human rights defender from the indigenous group Maya Q'eqchi ', who lives in the northeast part of Guatemala.
Angelica Choc is grateful that she has been involved in the fight for land and land rights, because it has also given her security and pride in her role and strength to continue to demand justice. She also feels proud to be an indigenous woman because not all indigenous women are heard - the majority are excluded from society and the legal system.
- As a defender, my job and my responsibility is to ensure the rights of other vulnerable women, whose voices are not heard. They need me to work for them, to fight for them, to fight together, she says.
Pandemics and tropical storms complicate the situation of women
Despite the increased female participation in civil society, the situation of women has been limited in recent years. The Covid-19 pandemic has paralyzed Guatemala since the spring of 2020, and the tropical storms that swept across the country in November of that year caused great damage and made life difficult for many people.
According to Maria Hernández, the pandemic has left its mark on the number of women actively participating in the movement. The great distances between the societies and the changed living conditions make it difficult to have time to gather.
- At present, the pandemic limits us when it comes to performing many of our activities and it has also greatly affected our situation as women. Now, for example, we can not meet and it has affected us in different ways, says Maria Hernández.
Domitila Diaz is the coordinator of one of the local human rights defenders' organizations in the village of Capucal Chaguiton in the state of Zacapa in eastern Guatemala. The area is affected by large social gaps, high levels of malnutrition and land conflicts with companies in the mining and agricultural industries.
Domitilia Diaz has nine children and emphasizes that her participation in her rights has created better conditions for her children's education. She says that these conditions have now been affected by the closure. When the pandemic came, the schools were closed, which has placed a great responsibility on the parents, and especially on the women, to support the children in their teaching.
Angélica Choc, who lives in one of the departments worst affected by Hurricanes Eta and Iota, points out that the pandemic, the national shutdown and the storms had a strong impact on women's economic independence. But she and women in her village came together and supported each other, and by working together in the common cultivation plots, they were able to get through the difficulties.
- It was a big reduction in our income, with the closure of the market, but we were able to survive on the little we had in our homes. We learn to live with this virus and we learn to protect ourselves.
In the stories of women human rights defenders, women appear as actors in change and peacemakers. They testify to their conviction that the way to achieve a more just and democratic society is to raise their voices and stand up for their rights through peaceful action.
All three insist that they will not stop fighting for their rights, despite the resistance, violence and difficulties they face. The hope is that even more women will join to continue to drive positive change in Guatemala.