Indigenous women are at the forefront of the fight to ensure crimes against humanity in Guatemala don’t remain unpunished. In recent years, they have made considerable progress in defending and promoting the rights of indigenous peoples, and particularly of indigenous women. The main instrument for achieving justice has been through the country’s court system where they have brought cases over human rights violations committed during Guatemala’s three-decade, brutal civil war (1960-1996). This week’s International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples is an important time to recognize the brave women that have led the efforts to secure a long-standing peace in a culture of violence and racism.
During the civil war, in the military base of Sepur Zarco, in western Guatemala, 15 indigenous Q’eqchi’ women were subject to sexual violence and sexual and domestic slavery. They were forced to serve soldiers—cook their meals and clean their clothes without pay–while being subjected to physical and sexual abuse for years.
The survivors of this unspeakable violence, however, took the process in their own hands. In 2014, Demecia Yat and some of the other survivors established an association to become plaintiffs in a judicial case. In 2016 the case reached the first conviction by a domestic court that recognized wartime sexual violence and sexual slavery as crimes against humanity. So far, the sentence is unique and serves as an example to women survivors of sexual violence in conflict zones around the world.
The violence in Sepur Zarco was hardly an isolated incident. It has been documented that the attack against women and their bodies was “generalized and systematic” across the country. Unfortunately, these similar cases remain unresolved to this day. But relentless, indigenous women continue to seek justice and by doing so bring dignity, strength and meaning to the women’s movement, to human rights organizations and to international bodies and institutions such as UN Women.
Women at the center of peace and security building
Indigenous women have not only broken the silence about the sexual violence they had to go through; they also broke with the tradition of being passive agents in the process of transitional justice. For this reason, we need to recognize their importance within the global and national agendas for the construction of peace. Policies, processes, and projects to promote social peace, must respond to their needs, concerns, demands and proposals.
In this context, the UN Women office in Guatemala is currently supporting the work of the Sepur Zarco grandmothers—as they are respectfully known—to press for the full implementation of the 18 reparation measures contained in their sentence. They have called this process “transformative reparation”—laying the foundation to ensure situations like this never happen again.
These women gathered, recently, to discuss the meaning of justice in the context of a grander vision of “the good life.” That larger concept draws from a Mayan worldview based on harmony with the world and within their communities and is tightly bound with justice.
If we are to place indigenous leaders at the core of peacebuilding efforts, we must listen to their own concepts of what justice means. That means creating policies, programs and measures that address their needs and vulnerabilities. Yet, these recent examples give UN Women the confidence to say that indigenous women’s leadership is increasingly becoming a central part in the construction of transformational justice. Their success will also have a positive effect in promoting indigenous and nonindigenous women’s access to justice, building the foundations of a society that breaks the cycle of violence against women and girls, and promoting structural changes to ensure that no one will have to go through a similar violent experience again. On this day, that’s worth celebrating.
Adriana Quiñones is the Country Representative for UN Women in Guatemala. She has a master’s degree in international peace studies at Notre Dame, and a master’s degree in international relations from John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.