GUATEMALA: Violence Against Women is Epidemic in Guatemala

Tuesday, February 22, 2011
PBS News Hour
Central America
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Peace Processes
Human Rights
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

In the small Latin American country of Guatemala, violence against women is a widespread problem girls deal with from a young age.

Parts of Guatemala have the highest murder rates in the world, according to the United Nations, especially along drug trafficking routes that lead from South America into the United States. The culture of violence has resulted in an epidemic of domestic violence, sexual abuse and rape, sex trafficking and femicide – the murder of women. In Guatemala, on average two women are killed every day.

“Culture of Terror” formed in decades of civil war

Guatemala is located in Central America, sandwiched between Mexico to the north and Honduras to the south. The country was colonized by the Spanish during the 16th century and became fully independent in 1839. Leadership switched hands between conservative dictators such as Rafael Carrera and more liberal presidents such as Juan Jose Arevalo who introduced a social security system and redistributed land to peasants.

The trend towards socialism in the 1950s concerned the Central Intelligence Agency in the United States, as the Cold War against Soviet communism played out in other countries around the world. In 1956, the CIA backed a military coup and the country fell into a decades-long civil war that left more than 200,000 civilians dead. During that time, the U.S. helped train Guatemala's military in counter-insurgency techniques.

In 1996 a cease fire agreement was reached between the insurgents and the military. The Archbishop's Office for Human Rights discovered that over 400 massacre were committed by the Guatemalan army.

A 1999 United Nations-sponsored report stated that government officials and the military were responsible for 93 percent of the human rights violations committed during the war, including rape, torture and murder of indigenous Mayan populations.

Responding to the report, U.S. President Bill Clinton stated that the U.S. "was wrong" to have provided support to Guatemalan military forces that took part in the brutal counter-insurgency campaign.

Male-dominated patriarchy limits women's rights

The legacy of violence from the civil war is combined with Guatemala's traditionally male-dominated society. Women do not have the right to own property and are often neglected by police and the legal system.

Although over 10,000 women report being raped or sexually assaulted in Guatemala every year, the medical organization Doctors Without Borders, predicts that the actual number is drastically higher.

“We have a history of 30 years of civil war which has not been solved,” says Mayra Rodas, psychological coordinator of Doctors Without Borders in Guatemala. The ones who suffer most from this violence are women.

“We live in a machismo and patriarchal society. Women are treated as objects which can be taken. To be a woman here is like being garbage. This is what our patients tell us," Rodas said.

The PBS NewsHour global health team recently returned from Guatemala reporting on the femicide crisis and violence against women. The Guatemala Human Rights Commission estimated that in 2008, over 700 women were violently murdered. Norma Cruz, director of the Survivors Foundation commented that women in Guatemala are afraid to report abuses by spouses or others since the perpetrators often are not punished and the women can be further victimized.

Organizations train men to prevent violence against women

International organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights First and the United Nations have encouraged the Guatemalan government to adopt laws that will protect women. In April 2008, the “Femicide Law” was passed that outlawed violence against women.

Other organizations in many countries try to change the culture that allows such behavior. Through youth related services, public service campaigns and leadership training, the DC-based Men Can Stop Rape (MCSR) attempts to empower men to redefine masculinity as a tool to prevent men's violence against women.

Stay tuned for more in-depth coverage on this issue from the PBS NewsHour global health unit.