SIF Witnesses Historic Moment for Women’s Rights in Guatemala

Written by SIF Program Officer Michele Frix

From 2001 to 2011, there have been nearly 6,000 reported cases of femicide* in Guatemala. Meaning on average, one woman was murdered each day, every day, for the past ten years.

Guatemalan Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz addresses crowd present in the central plaza of Coban, Altaverapaz. For more pictures, please visit: http://ow.ly/dlLg2

On August 10, 2012, I was witness to an incredibly historic moment for Guatemala, and most importantly for the 14.3 million women living in Guatemala facing the unfortunate reality of pervasive gender-based violence. As a guest of the Guatemalan Attorney General’s Office (Ministerio Publico), I was honored to accompany Dr. Alejandro Rodriguez, Secretary of Criminal Policy (Secretario de Política Criminal) to the inauguration of the Public Prosecutor’s Office for Women (Fiscalia de la Mujer, Modelo de Atencion Integral) and the Criminal Court for Crimes of Femicide and other Forms of Violence against Women (Tribunal de Sentencia Penal de Delitos de Femicidio y otras formas de Violencia contra las Mujeres) in Coban, Guatemala in the department of Alta Verapaz.

Dr. Rodriguez and I departed Guatemala City early that morning, and while en route to Coban, we discussed the importance of specialized government agencies for women and children in Guatemala, particularly those experiencing violence. Dr. Rodriguez expressed the importance of the Attorney General’s approach to addressing both the gap in state services and extraordinarily high rates of violence against women (VAW) by providing integral attention and services for women victims, in the areas of the country with the highest rates of violence.

In addition to working to bring justice to notorious organized crime leaders and human rights abusers, Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz declared violence against women as a priority issue for the government, upon assuming office in 2010.  With support from international partners, such as the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation and the United Nations Population Fund, several governmental agencies in Guatemala have come together to more effectively reach women victims of violence and seek justice in cases of femicide. “Guatemala occupies third place in the world for murders of women. If we want to address this issue, this [the opening of the new court in Guatemala City] is a good start,” Paz y Paz stated during the inauguration of the new Criminal Court for Crimes of Femicide and VAW in Guatemala City.

Although 12 percent of all reported homicides are femicides, Guatemala’s government agencies have traditionally lacked the institutional capacity to adequately address the issues of violence against women. According to Sonia Escobedo, Presidential Secretary for Women’s Affairs, the issue of femicide in Guatemala “exceeds the capacities of the State”. In addition to lacking institutional capacity, impunity has long plagued Guatemala and allowed criminal activity to flourish. According to Escobedo, in 2010, 15,375 charges (denuncias) were filed for cases related to violence against women to the Justice Department in Guatemala (Organismo Judicial), of which 218 resulted in a ruling. In addition, 278 cases of “economic violence against women” were filed, of which only two resulted in sentencing. In other words, less than 1.5 percent of all cases related to violence against women resulted in sentencing or prosecution. This heightened degree of collaboration among government agencies builds on of the Law against Femicide and other Forms of Violence against Women (Ley contra el Femicidio y otras Formas de Violencia contra la Mujer), passed in 2008, requiring that the government provide women victims of violence and their children with the necessary legal, health and psychological services. In addition, the legislation formally penalizes violence against women, including psychological and economic violence, and defends women’s rights to family planning.

Students sported t-shirts with “El Reto: No Violencia Contra la Mujer” or “The Challenge: No Violence against Women”. For more photos of this event, please visit: http://ow.ly/dlLg2

As we pulled into the town and approached the main plaza, maneuvering through the cobble-stoned streets became difficult, due to the crowd of several thousand students and indigenous community members, which had gathered for the inauguration and to hear from high-level government officials. Students sported t-shirts with “El Reto:  No Violencia Contra la Mujer” or “The Challenge: No Violence against Women” printed on the back (complete with a bright pink, female symbol) and self-organized with large banners and signs as the crowd poured into the center park.  The audience waited patiently in the sun as the government officials took the stage and began to address the crowd – the view from the stage was expansive and inspiring. Literally thousands of women, primarily indigenous, had traveled from surrounding municipalities and villages to come and participate in this historic moment.

“As authorities we are present today to tell you that we are all taking the change to reduce and put an end to violence against women. Now that there is more presence in the state to protect women, I urge any woman that suffers from abuse to report. You will be protected, you are not alone,” shared the President of the Supreme Court, Thelma Aldana.

The inauguration of these new specialized government agencies to serve women in the Alta Verapaz Department, were announced as part of a campaign “Reto: Cobán sin violencia contra las mujeres” (Challenge:  Coban without violence against women) led by local officials with support from international partners. In addition to representatives of the Supreme Court and Judicial Department (Organismo Judicial), Leonel Chacón (Mayor of the Coban), Ronald Sierra (Governor of the Alta Verapaz Department), and Dr. Claudia Paz y Paz (Attorney General of Guatemala), also shared their support of this campaign with the attentive audience.  As Paz y Paz noted, the department of Alta Verapaz has the third highest incidence of violence against women in the country. Paz y Paz shared the following with the crowd, with the support of a Kachi interpreter:

“This is the first Department –Alta Verapaz—where we have succeeded to coordinate all of the justice institutions to diminish violence against women, which is a serious problem. You have a strong message, and that is no more violence against women. This afternoon we will inaugurate, jointly with the Supreme Court of Justice, a Femicide Tribunal and an agency of the Public Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes against Women. With these agencies we intend to provide access to justice for all women, girls and boys, and ensure that we are establishing mechanisms that can prevent and combat violence against women and sexual violence.”

Once the formal presentation concluded, Paz y Paz and her colleagues continued on to tour the new public prosecutor’s office and criminal court with local staff. Per their mission of integral and holistic attention, in addition to prosecuting attorneys and legal staff, these offices will be staffed by social workers, interpreters in various indigenous languages, doctors, psychologists and childcare takers.

In addition to her commitment to women’s rights, Paz y Paz is internationally recognized for her valiance and dedication to human rights issues and rule of law in Guatemala. She is Guatemala’s first female Attorney General, a respected criminal law specialist and judge with over 18 years of experience, and the founder of a human rights organization, the Institute for Comparative Criminal Studies of Guatemala (ICCPG). Paz y Paz and her colleagues at the AG’s office are most well-known for placing former President of Guatemala, Efrain Rios Montt, under house arrest for crimes against humanity, and sentencing four former soldiers to 6,060 years in prison for killing 201 people in the town of Dos Erres in 1982 — the first-ever prosecution for a civil war era massacre. Paz y Paz was recently recognized in Forbes magazine as one of the most powerful women in world of public policy (nominated by Melanne Verveer, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues).

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SIF is proud to support a variety of initiatives to promote women’s leadership and prevent violence against women in Guatemala, including:

Interested in related articles on violence against women in Guatemala?

 

*The term femicide in Latin America refers to the killing of women (often including rape, torture, and mutilation) and when the victim is specifically targeted because of the fact that she is a woman.  

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