On the 8th of March, 41 girls lost their lives at the San José Pinula state-run children’s shelter in Guatemala. The fire originated from one of the girls, who lit up a mattress as an act of protest facing the constant punishment imposed upon them (1). Indeed, the dire conditions of the facility along with the accusations of sexual abuse and mistreatment triggered a determined desire for revolt. Prior to the fire, 60 female teenagers had managed to escape but were found and severely punished for their deviant and rebellious action as they were locked up in their classroom (2). To what extent can this tragic fire of a girls’ shelter reflect the critical and endemic problem of gendered violence in Guatemala? What broader dire dynamics does this event reveal about women’s rights in this country?
Many reports and warnings had been published prior to the inferno (3) stating that the government-run shelter ought to close its facility due to rampant abuse, yet the governmental agents remained oblivious to the situation and did nothing to alter the status quo. For instance, in November, a government human rights prosecutor had filed a case with the Inter American Human Rights Commission, charging the shelter with accusations such as the “forced recruitment for human trafficking for the purpose of prostitution”(4). This tragedy has led to the convictions of three former child welfare officials for crimes of rape, suspicion of homicide and failure to fulfill their duty of extinguishing the fire.
Whereas March 8th is usually tantamount to the promotion of women’s rights and emancipation, the teenagers’ rebellious act of resistance is a vivid reminder that women still need to fight for their basic human rights, to the extent of sacrificing their own lives. In fact, this tragic situation has raised larger concerns regarding the treatment of women in Guatemala. This country of Central America has a very grim record of gender-based violence and is ranked third in the killings of women worldwide according to a 2012 Small Arms Survey (5). The practice of femicide- the purposeful killing of women by virtue of their gender- is thus rampant in Guatemala, and is constitutive of the persisting structural violence against women. As UN Women points out, approximately 10 out of every 100 000 women are killed each year in this country and at least two women are violently killed each day (6). In fact, according to the Prosecutor’s Office, it has been reported that violence against women is on the rise as a total of 262 cases of femicide were reported between april 1st 2015 and March 31st 2016 compared to 198 cases in the year prior (7).
Faced with such an alarming situation, one can only question the roots of this systemic violation of human rights and its subsequent impunity. Gendered violence is not unusual in Guatemala and has been part of a leitmotiv of the country’s history. Indeed since the civil war, that lasted from 1960 to 1996, little has been done to tackle such endemic problem. According to human rights groups, during the conflict, women were used as weapons of war and the atrocities committed were treated with impunity following the ceasefire (8). The military actors that committed horrific crimes against women were integrated back into the post-war society and its legal system which failed to recognize their wrongful acts. Justice was served for the first time in March 2016 with the prosecution of two army officers for having sexually enslaved 15 indigenous women during the conflict, the two men were convicted for crimes against humanity and sentenced to prison for life (9).
The endemic gendered violence in Guatemala can also be attributed to a misogynist and patriarchal society whereby a culture of machismo is deeply entrenched (10). As María Machicado Terán, the representative of U.N. Women in Guatemala points out, "80% of men believe that women need permission to leave the house, and 70% of women surveyed agreed". Such prevailing and degrading opinion about the status of women can only reinforce their inferior position bestowed upon them in society. In addition, the institutionalization of gendered violence in this country also stems from a lack of education of young girls and especially indigenous minorities. In fact, according to the Global Education Fund, of the 2 million children not attending school in Guatemala, the majority are indigenous girls living in rural areas.
Despite this discriminating and structural violence, there are signs that the government and the society’s mentality are slowly evolving for the better. After the signing of the Peace Accords in 1996, which legally recognized violence against women and which set an agenda to combat impunity, the judicial system has proved to be somewhat willing to address violence against women (11). For instance, since the 2008 Law against Femicide and other Forms of Violence against Women, the number of criminal complaints has significantly increased which reflects the acknowledgement of such crime- yet its results in terms of impunity remain moot. Indeed, the impunity rate in general has slowly diminished, yet in terms of femicide it still persists and is estimated at 98% (12).
Rather, it is at the grassroots level that not only mentalities can shift but where tangible and lasting change can arise. Indeed, the key to transforming the daily lives of women lies in the promotion of their education and rights at the local scale. From the 2008 Anti-Femicide Law, stemmed local organizations such as AFEDES in the state of Sacatepéquez, which developed workshops carried out by the Peace Judges, members of the police department, and education and health authorities to learn how to deal with an act of gender-based violence and its legal implications (13). In addition, AFEDES created a program to strengthen girls and women’s rights through leadership development of indigenous women and make the latter aware of their rights.
It is thus safe to say that this tragic event and death of 41 teenager girls is a reflection of broader and systemic dynamics of Guatemala- the endemic scourge of gender-based violence.
1) "Guatemala ex-minister charged over deadly shelter fire." BBC News. April 05, 2017. Accessed May 05, 2017. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-39501526.
2) Maguire, Evan. "Orphanage Fire in Guatemala Reflects Dire Regional Situation." The Daily Signal. March 27, 2017. Accessed May 05, 2017. http://dailysignal.com/2017/03/27/orphanage-fire-in-guatemala-reflects-d....
3)ALBERTO ARCE and SONIA PEREZ D. "Rape, abuse, death of girls at Guatemala home burned by fire." The Big Story. Accessed May 05, 2017. http://www.bigstory.ap.org/article/633f49bc3e2e4cdebc8f7d291d48cf8e/rape....
5) Guinan, Julie. "Guatemala: Gender-based violence at epidemic levels." CNN. April 07, 2015. Accessed May 05, 2017. http://edition.cnn.com/2015/04/02/world/iyw-guatemala-gender-violence/.
6) "Guatemala." UN Women | Americas and the Caribbean. Accessed May 05, 2017. http://lac.unwomen.org/en/donde-estamos/guatemala.
7)TeleSUR, James Cockcroft, Dr. Ramzy Baroud, Dr. Arshad M. Khan, N. Malathy, and Francis Vergunst and Julian Savulescu. "Women's Murderers Evade Justice as Femicide Surges in Guatemala." News | teleSUR English. Accessed May 05, 2017. http://www.telesurtv.net/english/news/Womens-Murderers-Evade-Justice-as-....
8)Guinan, Julie. "Guatemala: Gender-based violence at epidemic levels." CNN. April 07, 2015. Accessed May 05, 2017. http://edition.cnn.com/2015/04/02/world/iyw-guatemala-gender-violence/.
9)Lakhani, Nina. "Justice at last for Guatemalan women as military officers jailed for sexual slavery." The Guardian. March 01, 2016. Accessed May 05, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/mar/01/guatemala-sexual-slavery-s....
10) Guinan, Julie. "Guatemala: Gender-based violence at epidemic levels." CNN. April 07, 2015. Accessed May 05, 2017. http://edition.cnn.com/2015/04/02/world/iyw-guatemala-gender-violence/.
11)"Institutional Strengthening of the Office for the Defense of Indigenous Women and the Presidential Secretariat for Women at National and Local Levels." Advancing Gender Equality: Promising Practices | Increased Participation in Decision-Making | Guatemala. Accessed May 05, 2017. http://www.unwomen.org/mdgf/C/Guatemala_C.html.
12)"Guatemala." UN Women | Americas and the Caribbean. Accessed May 05, 2017. http://lac.unwomen.org/en/donde-estamos/guatemala.
13)KatZavala. "AFEDES: Grassroots Efforts of an Indigenous Women-led Organization to Stop Violence Against Women in Guatemala." World Pulse. January 21, 2015. Accessed May 05, 2017. https://www.worldpulse.com/fr/node/23185.
"Guatemala." Global Education Fund. Accessed May 05, 2017. http://www.globaleducationfund.org/guatemala/.
"Empowering Women and Girls in Guatemala." Chicago Policy Review. February 26, 2012. Accessed May 05, 2017. http://chicagopolicyreview.org/2011/11/21/empowering-women-and-girls-in-....