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Aftermath: Women and

Gender Issues in
Postconflict Guatemala


Virginia Garrard–Burnett

Working Paper No. 311

September 2000

Center for Development Information and Evaluation

U.S. Agency for International Development

Preface iii

Introduction iv

1. The Country Context and Nature of the Conflict 1

2. The Effects of Violence on Women:

Tristeza and the Embodiment of Suffering 5
Physical and Social Ramifications .............................................................................. 5
Sexual Violence ................................................................................................. 5
The Mourning Process ..................................................................................... 6
The Loss of Social Status .................................................................................. 7
Increased Use of Alcohol ................................................................................. 8
Domestic Abuse and a Culture of Violence.................................................... 9
The Economic Aftermath........................................................................................... 10
The Gendered Experience of Exile ........................................................................... 11
Civilian Security in Rural and Urban Society ......................................................... 13

3. Women in the Political Arena 14

4. Lessons and Recommendations 18

References 20

A S PART OF ITS ongoing studies on the re-

habilitation and reconstruction of societ-
ies ravaged by civil wars, USAID’s Center for
The purpose of the assessment was to generate
a body of empirically grounded knowledge that
could inform the policy and programmatic in-
Development Information and Evaluation terventions of USAID and other international do-
(CDIE) undertook a multicountry assessment of nor agencies.
gender issues in postconflict societies. The as-
sessment concentrated on three sets of ques- sent research teams to Bosnia and
tions: Herzegovina, Cambodia, El Salvador, Georgia,
Guatemala, and Rwanda. These teams con-
n What has been the impact of intrastate con- ducted in-depth interviews with key infor-
flicts on women? How did these conflicts mants, reviewed literature, and conducted field-
affect their economic, social, and political work. They prepared comprehensive reports,
roles and responsibilities? What are the which were reviewed by USAID and outside
major problems and challenges facing scholars.
women in these societies?
This paper, written by Virginia Garrard–
n What types of women’s organizations have Burnett, explains the effects that Guatemala’s
emerged during the postconflict era to ad- political violence of the early 1980s had on
dress the challenges women face and to pro- women and on gender issues in the country. I
mote gender equality? What types of activi- am grateful to the author for her insightful
ties do they undertake? What has been their analysis.
overall impact on the empowerment of
women? What factors affect their perfor- —KRISHNA KUMAR
mance and impact? Senior Social Scientist

n What has been the nature and emphasis of

assistance provided by USAID and other do-
nor agencies to women’s organizations?
What are some of the major problem areas
in international assistance?

T HIS REPORT addresses the effects armed struggle, and includes a discussion of
the Guatemalan army’s counterinsurgency
Guatemala’s political violence of the early
1980s had on women and gender issues in the strategies. Section 2 addresses the physical, psy-
country. Although Guatemala’s struggle lasted chological, and social impact of the attenuated
from 1960 to 1996, making it one of the longest violence on women and family. The third sec-
uninterrupted civil wars in Latin America, the tion examines the economic and political inter-
violence between 1981 and 1984 was particu- section of political violence and gender, with
an exploration of the gendered experiences of
larly intense. Thus, the aftermath of this period
is the primary (though by no means the exclu- internal displacement and exile, and the impli-
sive) subject of this study. cations of those experiences on gendered and
feminist policy. The paper concludes with a se-
The paper consists of four sections. The first ries of observations and recommendations for
section is a historical overview of Guatemala’s future policy in this area.
1. The Country Context
And Nature of the Conflict

G UATEMALA is a country of paradox. Its

stunning physical beauty has provided
a backdrop for some of the most horrific hu-
clearly evidenced by a political modus operandi
that systematically and intentionally 1) closed
off political space to political and social move-
man rights violations in the Western Hemi- ments that in any way challenged the status quo,
sphere. Guatemala is the only nation in Latin 2) promoted a system of multiple social exclu-
America with an Indian majority, but its indig- sions, 3) shrank the balance of power between
enous population, the Maya, has historically the legislative and judicial branches of the gov-
been the object of a virulent racism that has left ernment to the benefit of the military/execu-
the Maya with some of the lowest social indica- tive branch, and, most important, 4) used re-
tors in the hemisphere. Power in the country is pression as a substitute for law ( CEH 1999, 1–3).
vested in a small elite primarily of European
origin and in the ladinos, a term that applies both The philosophical underpinning of these prac-
to persons of mixed Indian–European descent tices was the Doctrine of National Security
and to acculturated indigenous people. Guate- (DSN), which formed part of the anti-Soviet
mala has historically been the richest nation in strategy of the United States in Latin America.
Central America in terms of economic and natu- The U.S. government provided strategic, mili-
ral resources. But decades of political struggle tary, and diplomatic support to the government
have severely retarded its economic advance- of Guatemala throughout 1960–96, with the
ment during the second half of the 20th cen- brief exception of the period of the Carter ad-
tury. ministration, when the United States withdrew
official support to Guatemala on the basis of its
In 1954, the leftist and democratically elected human rights record. During that period, how-
president of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz, was ever, the United States sent military aid to the
overthrown in a coup by the National Libera- Guatemalan government through proxy na-
tion Movement (or MLN), a stridently anticom- tions.
munist movement trained and funded by the
Central Intelligence Agency. The Arbenz over- During the armed confrontation, the state’s con-
throw and the 1962 rise of the armed opposi- cept of the “internal enemy,” intrinsic to the DSN,
tion set the stage for the tragic drama that has
became increasingly inclusive (CEH, 3). The
become Guatemala’s contemporary history, scope of this identification is evident in figures
marked by the motifs of military government, derived in two human rights reports published
Marxist armed struggle, and three generations in Guatemala in 1999 and 1998 for the Com-
of political violence.
mission for Historical Clarification (CEH) and
the Catholic Church–sponsored Recuperation of
After 1954, the Guatemalan state became mili-
tarized and highly exclusionary. Employing the Historical Memory (REHMI) project, respectively.
rhetoric of anticommunism thought justified by CEH concluded that state forces and paramili-
an armed guerrilla movement that enjoyed tary groups were responsible for 93 percent of
some support from Cuba, the state manifested the violations documented over the course of
a strongly antidemocratic nature. This was the war, while REHMI charged the security forces
with 89 percent of the atrocities committed. CEH Ríos Montt took power in a coup in March 1982
estimates that some 200,000 people died or were and was himself overthrown in August 1983.
disappeared during the confrontation; of these, From the late 1970s, the guerrillas had a sub-
83 percent were Maya, and about 25 percent stantial presence in certain parts of the country
were women (CEH 1999, 1; Oficina de Derechos and were thought to have significant links to
Humanos 1998). (See figure 1.) Cuba, Nicaragua’s Sandinistas, and El
Salvador’s Farabundo Martí National Libera-
Although Guatemala’s struggle lasted 36 years tion Front. The army also believed that the
and repression characterized the entire era, the popular resistance enjoyed support among the

Figure 1. Political Killings Between 1960

And 1994, by Gender of Victims

Number of named violations






type and severity of violence applied against indigenous population. The exigencies of this
the population varied over time. The era may situation elicited the different governments’
be summarized as in box 1. wholesale assault, patterned after the Maoist
axiom to “drain the sea in which the fish swim,”
One focal point of this study is the most con- which devastated the largely indigenous high-
centrated period of violence, 1978–85, a time lands. By 1983, the army had routed the armed
that still leaves in the country a strong imprint resistance (the Guatemalan National Revolu-
of terror and its repercussions. State repression tionary Unity, URNG) and, by its own count, had
and violence accelerated sharply during 1981– eliminated 440 indigenous villages entirely. An
82, corresponding to the scorched earth cam- estimated 20,000 Guatemalans died violently
paign inaugurated by Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt. during 1981–83, upwards of 80 percent of whom
This period is referred to simply as la violencia were Maya (WOLA 1984, v; Bell 1999).
(the violence).

Box 1. Chronology of the Violence

1962–70: Operations primarily in the eastern (ladino) part of the country, Guatemala City, and the southern

1971–77: Repression more selective and geographically dispersed; primarily aimed at community and
union leaders, teachers, catechists, and students.

1978–85: The most violent and bloody period of the confrontation. Military operations were concentrated in
the (primarily indigenous) departments of El Quiché, Huehuetenango, Chimaltenango, Alta Verapaz, and
Baja Verapaz, as well as the southern coast and the capital.

1986–96: Repression on a selective basis, primarily against the Communities of Populations in Resistance.

Source: CEH 1999, 6

Ríos Montt’s campaign was so effective from tried to rebuild their lives in the wake of the
the state’s perspective that it is referred to as onslaught.
“the Guatemalan solution” in Latin American
military circles. Indeed, the human costs of this In 1985, the Guatemalan army determined that
tragic period were extraordinarily high. Esti- the armed opposition was sufficiently weak-
mates of the number of people displaced dur- ened to permit a return to civilian government.
ing la violencia range from 500,000 to 1.5 mil- (There was also strong international pressure
lion, including both those who were displaced to do so.) In 1986, Vinicio Cerezo of the Chris-
internally and those who sought refuge abroad. tian Democratic Party was inaugurated presi-
dent, the first civilian elected in a genuine and
The variation in these figures reflects the chang- free election since the early 1950s, when Arbenz
ing nature of displacement. About 150,000 was elected president. Also in 1986, the Legis-
people sought safety in Mexico. Of these, almost lative Assembly held new elections and promul-
a third settled in refugee camps and were given gated a new constitution. Although Cerezo and
refugee status by the United Nations High Com- his successors were limited in their autonomy
missioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Another 50,000 from the army, the civilian executive branch of
lived as refugees dispersed (almost invisibly) government has steadily gained power in the
throughout Chiapas, while the remainder country since 1986.
settled in Mexico City or other Mexican towns.
People also fled (though in far fewer numbers) “My father said, ‘Let’s go, today we have to leave
to Belize and Honduras, as well as to the United because [the army will] take everyone away.’ But
States and Canada. Some internally displaced my brothers were in Huehuetenango and my
people hid in the mountains, where many be- mother did not want to go. My mother said, ‘If
you want to go alone, go, but I am not going; I’m
came part of the Communities of Populations going to stay with my children. When they arrive,
in Resistance, estimated at 40,000. Others sought who are they going to find? Here I stay. If they kill
the relative anonymity and safety of the city, me, they kill me with my children.’”
thus contributing to large indigenous migra-
— Informant from San Pedro Necta,
tions to the capital ( CEH 1999). By far, however, Huehuetenango, 1982 (Oficina de Derechos
the majority of the war’s victims remained in Humanos 1998, v. 1, 149)
their villages within Guatemala, where they

In December 1996, after 10 years of hard nego- accords set high standards for the transition to
tiations and with the essential involvement of democracy, for social reconciliation, and for a
the international community and civil society just and equitable civil society. It remains to be
sectors, the Guatemala government and the seen how deeply the ambitious mandates of the
URNG signed the Peace Accords, thereby offi- the agreement will become embedded in the
cially ending the country’s 36-year civil war. The governing ethos of Guatemalan society.

2. The Effects of Violence on Women:
Tristeza and the Embodiment Of Suffering

Physical and Social The REHMI report compiled a list of psycho-

physical and emotional ailments that continued
Ramifications to plague witnesses and victims of state-spon-

sored violence up to two decades after the acts
ECAUSE MOST of the protagonists in themselves. These included sensations of sad-
Guatemala’s armed conflict were men, ness, feelings of injustice and helplessness, pro-
most of the victims of state violence were also longed mourning, psychosomatic problems,
men. As noted earlier, the CEH investigation re- eating disorders (specifically hunger), and feel-
vealed that about 25 percent of the direct vic- ings of isolation and loneliness (Oficina de
tims of human rights violations and acts of vio- Derechos Humanos 1998, v. 1, 3).
lence were women. They were raped, tortured,
and killed, sometimes because of their ideals Tristeza is also manifested in more amorphous
and political or social participation, but also in physical ills, such as “mournful heart” (duelo
massacres or other indiscriminate actions. Thou- del corazón) and sleep disturbances from night-
sands of women were widowed and thus be- mares and other types of compelling dreams.
came the sole breadwinners for their children. In the case of Maya victims in particular, dis-
And because of the destruction of their homes turbing dreams have a special significance, be-
and crops under the scorched earth policy, they cause dreams are considered a form of commu-
often assumed this role without material re- nication with one’s ancestors and are a rich res-
sources (Bell 1999, chapter 15, 1). ervoir for cultural interpretation (Oficina de
Derechos Humanos 1998, v. 1, 45–47).
The psychosocial effects of the conflict have had
lasting repercussions well beyond the immedi-
ate emergency of la violencia. As anthropolo- Many perpetrators considered rape to be
gist Linda Green states, “Women’s bodies have something “natural,” of little importance, in the
become repositories of the painful experiences exercise of violence against women and
they have been unable to articulate as a result
not only of being silenced but also because of Source: Oficina de Derechos Humanos
the nonnarratability of atrocious experiences.” 1998, v. 2, 212
(Green 1994, 247) Women who witnessed vio-
lence or lost family members continue to suffer
psychological and physical ailments, or
tristeza—literally the embodiment of suffering, Sexual Violence
or suffering incorporated. Common are physi-
cal ailments such as chronic headaches, gastri- Sexual violence was a common strategy of the
tis, chest pains, visual problems, and respira- counterinsurgency forces in the early 1980s, as
tory infections and psychological manifesta- women were threatened, kidnapped, raped,
tions such as recurring dreams and nightmares, and tortured by the military. As M. Brinton
sadness, and depression ( PRONICE 1998, 54–55). Lykes notes, “Under conditions of . . . state-
sponsored violence, violence against women general, are also more likely to be sharp, impa-
takes on additional dimensions of horror,” a tient, and abusive toward their children, thus
quality the Guatemalan army apparently un- passing to the next generation the indirect con-
derstood all too well (Lykes and others 1993, sequences of the violence they suffered (Utz
527). 2000).

In his study of the violence in the Ixcán, Jesuit The Mourning Process
priest Ricardo Falla observes that when women
were captured and raped by soldiers, they were In psychological terms, the mourning for a dis-
often forced to cook and clean for them after- appeared person is more attenuated than the
ward. In at least one case, soldiers, fresh from mourning for a person known to be dead, even
the bloodlust of a massacre, forced the surviv- when the latter died violently. By the same to-
ing young women of the village to strip and ken, the process of grief is more pronounced
dance for them; they then raped them (Oficina and extended over a victim of violent death than
de Derechos Humanos 1998, v. 2, 213–14). This it is when a person dies of natural causes. Thus,
kind of sexually enforced servitude humiliated the process of mourning for the disappeared
and broke women down both emotionally and and the enduring reaction to the violence, in a
physically. By invading their work, their homes, distinctly Mayan, if not explicitly gendered,
and their bodies, the military was able to dem- sense, have to do with the indeterminate dis-
onstrate that it fully dominated even the most position of the remains of victims.
intimate spheres of the women’s worlds (Falla
1992, 132). Within the Maya “cosmovision,” even among
orthodox Catholics and Protestants, there is an
Rape is a source of “silent suffering” that sol- ongoing relationship with the dead (Colby
diers used as a specific weapon of war against 1981). For survivors, this essential relationship
Maya women. The guilt and shame of rape vic- cannot be realized fully until the lost relative is
tims, compounded by Maya and Latin cultural known without doubt to be dead and the re-
mores, prevents women from seeking help for mains of the loved one are put to rest properly,
the tristeza brought about by the assaults in a place where they can be honored. Under
(PRONICE 1998, 54–55). In many cases, women this cosmovision, without according the dead
suffer chronic gynecological problems as a con- their proper status, survivors are unable to es-
sequence of their rapes, for which they are re- tablish the postlife relations with loved ones
luctant or unable to seek treatment (Tuyuc 2000). essential to maintaining family and community
Although much of the current human rights
work in Guatemala specifically seeks to end the In particular, women report ongoing and im-
shroud of silence surrounding the years of vio- perative dreams of lost fathers and husbands
lence and horror, rape is almost never discussed from which they cannot find relief until the
openly. Even the Catholic Church’s comprehen- bodies are located and given proper burials
sive REHMI report does not address the topic in (anon. priest 2000). Such apparitions constitute
great length or detail. Church and mental health a disturbing presence for survivors. In one
workers, however, report that rape victims con- observer’s words, “The armed forces literally
tinue to feel shame and fear recrimination from expelled people from the world of the living,
their families and communities. As a result, they but as death was not expelled, the spirits can-
are more likely than other types of victims to not be disposed of—they form a new sort of
feel isolated and withdrawn from everyday life. patrol, becoming another terrifying presence,
Rape victims, like female victims of violence in persecuting the living. . . .” (Zur 1998, 224.) Be-

cause of such issues, the process of exhumation widows into a new, highly marginalized social
and proper ritualized reburial is particularly space within their own communities, ostracized
important (Oficina de Derechos Humanos 1998, from their traditional networks of kinship and
v. 1, 31). other forms of social organization (Winch 1999,

The violence also isolated many women from

A Maya campesino [a peasant, countryman, or
farmer] was asked why he had not sought refuge their adult sons, who were called up to serve in
in Mexico. His answer was, “Because my father the civil patrols or the army, or who decided to
died. They killed him here, and I can’t leave him serve as orejas (literally, “ears”) for the military.
here alone. And I leave him cigarettes and guaro In addition, many adult sons disappeared from
[cane liquor, to honor him in death]…. It’s
their communities; they were thought either to
important to do, because he enjoyed them and
that way he will be content.” have joined the guerrillas, abandoned their
families to live abroad, or been killed by the
Source: PRONICE 1999, 42 security forces. In such cases, the sons’ status
served to further isolate their mothers within
the community at large (Camey 2000, 32–33).

The Loss of Social Status In some locations, the effects of the violence
were so pervasive as to leave “cities of women,”
The cultural impact of survival has had addi-
tional implications. Maya society, like Guate-
malan society in general, tends to be extremely “I loved my son very much, but I was afraid of
patriarchal, with religious brotherhoods, coun- him sometimes because he was a spy (oreja) for
the army. Finally, [the guerrillas] killed him.”
cils of (male) elders, and kinship networks
forming the settings of local power and iden- — Kaqchikel mother, San Martín Jilotepéque
tity. In making the transition from wife to (Camey 2000, 33)
widow, women lost their status relative to their
husbands. Maya widows sometimes also lost
their places within the local hierarchies of kin-
ship, which complicated issues of patrilineal villages in which adult males were effectively
land ownership and exacerbated legal difficul- absent ( OIM 1999, cuadro 3–B). (See table 1.) Al-
ties tied to women’s rightful ownership of titles though the effects of such a gender vacuum of
to land. Women whose husbands have disap- men were mainly deleterious, the situation did,
peared and whose deaths are not registered in in some instances, help promote the opening of
town records encounter particular trouble ob- new political space to fill the void left by the
taining title to their husbands’ plots of land collapse of traditional male-dominated venues
(EAFG 1995, 287–88). of power and authority. Generally, these took
the form of widows’ organizations and coop-
In traditional Maya society, widows normally eratives that addressed some of the economic
have a sanctioned status within the community, and social needs of Maya women who were
where they enjoy respect and support. How- marginalized not only within Guatemalan so-
ever, the complex and seemingly arbitrary na- ciety at large, but also within their own com-
ture of the violence stigmatized many war wid- munities.
ows, who, as a result, did not receive the eco-
nomic and emotional help they needed from Beyond the traumas brought on by life as a
their villages and extended families. This forced single woman in a society with strictly defined

rough estimate, they nonetheless point to the
Table 1. Number of Widows per
low incidence of remarriage among women
Village in Three Municipalities
widowed by the public violence. The reasons
In El Quiche
behind the low rate of remarriage are both stra-
Municipality Families Widows tegic and circumstantial. Some women do not
remarry because they do not wish to subordi-
San Miguel Uspantán 824 220
San Andrés Sajcabajá 222 25 nate themselves to a new husband. Many oth-
San Gaspar Chajul 825 212 ers cannot find suitable and willing mates
among a pool of men so greatly reduced by kill-
Source: USAID-financed OIM 1999, cuadros 3–A
ings and disappearances (Tuyuc 2000).
and 3–B, 28–29

Increased Use of Alcohol

gender roles, women in Guatemala continue to The use and misuse of alcohol are common in
suffer the long-term effects of la violencia in rural Guatemala. Drunkenness is a customary,
family life. Those whose husbands returned even sanctioned, component of the traditional
from the guerrilla forces, abroad, or (particu- fiesta system, which dates to the 16th century.
larly) military service suffer the double burden However, the excessive use of alcohol outside
of dealing with male family members who also traditional venues has increased in the wake of
are affected by trauma and must readapt to life the violence of the early 1980s. This is equally
within the family. Wives and husbands must true both of witnesses to violence and perpe-
readjust the gender roles of their day-to-day trators of it—that is, men who have served in
lives. More often than not, a woman who ran the civil patrols, the army, or the guerrilla forces.
the household single-handedly while in exile A study conducted for the Guatemalan army
or in the immediate aftermath of the war finds shows that upwards of 50 percent of cashiered
herself demoted to the previous status quo soldiers become full-blown alcoholics (Nájera
when she remarries or her husband returns. 1998, 67).

The majority of Guatemalan widows do not, In addition, male witnesses or victims of vio-
however, remarry. Rosalina Tuyuc of lence are more likely than nonvictims or females
CONAVIGUA estimates that only 10 to 15 of the to drink heavily to try to dull the emotional and
widows of the 14,000 members of that national psychological aftermath of their ordeals or to
organization have formally remarried, although help them confront tense or fearful situations
more women, reflecting the national pattern, (Oficina de Derechos Humanos 1998, v. 1, 49).
have entered into informal consensual unions The increase in male alcoholism has resulted in
with men. While Tuyuc’s figures are only a a concomitant rise in family violence, with an
increased incidence of wife or child abuse
among male victims of political violence.
“They killed my husband. I was left behind,
suffering like a little girl. I didn’t know how to
manage money or work, nor did I know how to Among Maya women, alcoholism was uncom-
provide for the family. See, the life of a woman is mon before the violence. However, anthropolo-
among men, and the life of a woman alone with gists have noted that by the 1990s, “regular
children is hard. I was left like a bird on dry drinking to escape grief and other suffering
[had become] fairly common among women.”
— Widow from Malacatán, San Marcos (Oficina In addition, REHMI reports that the incidence of
de Derechos Humanos 1998, v. 1, 227) alcohol abuse among women has increased sig-
nificantly since the early 1980s (Zur 1998, 212).

In 1998, the U.S. State Department’s Human
“During our time of repression, it became Rights Report identified intrafamily violence,
customary to drink [alcohol] so that we didn’t feel and particularly violence against women, as a
fear, but many came to like it and still haven’t
stopped. [Now] it isn’t even considered
serious human rights problem in Guatemala.
shameful.” In the late 1990s, USAID/Guatemala initiated
support of some women’s organizations that
— Widow in Caserío Pachay, Las Lomas, San champion women’s rights in the face of abuse
Martín Jilotepéque, Chimaltenango (Camey,
2000, 27)
(Asociación Mujeres Vamos Adelante 1999, 1 of
attachment 2). Despite such efforts, however,
family violence and sexual violence against
women, inasmuch as they are direct by-prod-
ucts of war, nevertheless remain “silent crimes”
that lie outside current models of healing and
Domestic Abuse and a Culture of Violence recovery (Nájera, 69).

Guatemala has no statistical base that keeps data One serious issue that must be addressed is that
on violent acts against women, nor is there one many of the effects of violence are long term
that measures violence among the families of and hold the potential to be passed from one
men who have been part of the armed forces, generation to the next. Anthropologist Robert
the security forces, or the armed opposition. Carmack has termed this a “culture of violence,”
Nevertheless, there does seem to be a clear, if a social construction in which violence, mani-
anecdotal, correlation between military service fested over a long period of time, conditions
and the incidence of family violence (Nájera both individual and group behavior and be-
1998, 7). In December 1996, Guatemala promul- comes normative; in simple terms, violence
gated a strongly worded law against family vio- begets violence (Carmack 1988). As a pervasive
lence. It defined a man’s violence against his social construction, the culture of violence may
female partner as a violation of her human continue to dictate behavior long after the po-
rights and called for “whatever methods of pro- litical violence that engendered it has ceased to
tection are necessary to protect a woman’s right exist.
to live in security and dignity.” (“Reflexión
sobre la Tema ‘Mujer y Derechos Humanos’” The manifestations of the culture of violence are
[n.d.], 15.) particularly evident in family behavior—in
abuse, beating, spousal rape, and alcoholism—
Despite this de jure guarantee of women’s rights which even the perpetrators and the victims
within the legal or consensual family, certain themselves may not understand to be the em-
cultural constraints prevent these decrees from bedded consequence of years of civil violence.
having any teeth. There is a prevailing concep- In this regard, a gendered response is clearly
tion among ladinos and Maya alike that women called for, not only for women but also for men
are, at some level, the property of men. There to receive the training and counseling they need
also exists the stereotype (hardly unique to the to cease abusive lifestyles before they pass them
Guatemalan milieu) that women who provoke to their sons and daughters. In an unrelentingly
aggression from their husbands or compañeros machista (possessing characteristics of ma-
bring it on themselves, and that the aggressors chismo) society, such lessons will not come eas-
should feel no responsibility toward the victims. ily. Indeed, given that most adults in Guatemala
This view legitimizes violence against women, grew up in the aberrant climate of armed
even in the eyes of law enforcement officials struggle and institutionalized repression, the
(“Reflexión sobre la Tema ‘Mujer y Derechos task of social reconciliation in postconflict soci-
Humanos’” [n.d.], 14). ety is unusually challenging.
One of the enduring aspects of the violence of on “men’s labor” in addition to their traditional
the early 1980s is distrust within some nuclear tasks of tending small livestock, child care,
families. The Guatemalan army encouraged housework, and weaving, which is both a
children to inform on family members, and ill- source of income and vested with cultural and
feeling remains among family factions that sup- spiritual value for the Maya people (OIM 1999,
ported one or another partisan faction during 38).
the war. The distrust, hate, envy, and disinte-
gration of cultural unity that resulted from the In the years since the violence, women heads
period of violence continue to have a deleteri- of household have attempted to branch out into
ous effect on nuclear- and extended-family re- commercial agricultural production, with lim-
lations (Camey 2000, 27). ited success. This includes the cultivation of
coffee on a small scale and the production of
A second long-term effect of the violence is evi- nontraditional agricultural crops, such as veg-
dent among the children (many who are now etables and cardamom.
young adults) who were direct and indirect vic-
tims of the war. Although this issue is outside
The expansion of agriculture under woman-
the scope of this study, the long-term effects of
headed households has aggravated tensions
childhood trauma, social upheaval, displace-
over traditional patrilineal land conveyances
ment, hunger, embedded fear, and wounded
and ownership patterns. Though women are
parenting have clear implications for
permitted by law to hold title to land, they have
Guatemala’s young women and men today.
This is especially true for children who lost not
only close family members, but also their eth-
nic identity, community affiliation, and spiri- “[After my husband was killed] I did not know how
tual grounding. Among women and men alike, to get on with life; they left me with four children,
this is a population that is potentially at great two girls and two boys. How it hurt me to see
risk (PRONICE 1999). them, how they grew into men and women. I had
to race back and forth to work in the field and the
kitchen, and my children were so small. They
The Economic Aftermath went with me and saw me suffer, and they did
too. In the end, I worked a hell of a lot [yo trabajé
un chingo] to get through those days.”
The rural, primarily indigenous women who
were left behind faced nearly insurmountable — Widow, Malacatán, San Marcos (Oficina de
obstacles in reestablishing lives for themselves Derechos Humanos 1998, v. 1, 224)
and their surviving families without their hus-
bands and other male family members. Their
economic plight was paramount. The scorched
earth policy, by design, destroyed principal
crops, and the small livestock the families not done so conventionally, and their access to
owned were often lost, stolen, or killed. Because legal title is hampered by custom, widespread
the division of labor in Maya society dictates illiteracy, and ignorance of the law. Moreover,
that men are responsible for cultivating corn and many women, and widows in particular, lack
other subsistence crops and for perennially mi- access to credit because of the requirement that
grating to the southern coast for seasonal labor, fathers or husbands cosign loans. Although
women were forced to absorb the costs of hir- some community initiatives are addressing this
ing men outside the family to help them tend issue, it remains a serious problem, particularly
their fields or assume the job themselves (Zur in areas where women make up the great ma-
1998, 127–37). In the latter scenario, women took jority of the population (Waugh 1998, 5).

Even when women can borrow money and gain rights. Many also learned Spanish for the first
clear title to their land and plant nonsubsistence time, along with the basic ability to read and
crops, the impact on the household of these new write. Although Spanish is an essential tool for
forms of production is mixed. Studies show that communication and empowerment, it is also a
when a woman-headed household begins to weapon of assimilation. Refugee women often
engage in coffee production, greater demands express the well-founded fear that their chil-
are placed on the woman’s time and labor. In dren will lose their indigenous languages, tra-
addition, nontraditional agriculture places a ditions, and identities as indigenous people
greater burden on women’s time than tradi- (REHMI 1998, v. 1, 127; Tuyuc 2000). In the Mexi-
tional agriculture, although it also earns more can camps, refugee women also worked to-
cash (Irwin 1993, 17). gether in small-scale production projects,
through which they earned income and built
Though the majority of Guatemalan women self-esteem, along with a modicum of leverage
continue to live in rural areas, the civil violence within family life (REHMI 1998, v. 1, 127; Tuyuc
and the worsening of rural poverty in the war’s 2000).
wake in the early 1980s promoted migration to
the city, a pattern that continues today. In 1990, In 1990, the first formal association, Mamá
just over 39 percent of Guatemalan women lived Maquin (named after a highly respected Q’eqchí
and worked in urban areas, compared with less women killed in the infamous Panzós massa-
than 37 percent of men ( FLASCO 1999). The vast cre in 1978), was established to organize female
majority of female urban migrants are em- Guatemalan refugees in the three Mexican states
ployed in domestic work and, to a lesser ex- where they lived. The objective of Mamá
tent, the service industries. However, within the Maquin was to go beyond organizing women
past 10 years, young urban female migrants on a project-by-project basis and to analyze their
have been increasingly likely to find employ- status as women within their families and com-
ment in maquiladoras, foreign or domestically munities. By 1993, there were three such orga-
owned factories that produce textiles, paper nizations: Mamá Maquin, Madre Tierra, and
items, and other commercial products (CALDH Nueva Unión, which later took the name
1998, 22–23). Ixmucané. All three sought to address issues
specific to women and their families upon their
The Gendered Experience repatriation to Guatemala.
Of Exile
Many families learned hard lessons of gender
equity during the years of exile in refugee
During 1981–83 a total of 46,000 Guatemalans
camps in Mexico. Women were aggressively
were registered and received refugee aid from
offered training and empowerment through the
the government of Mexico and the UNHCR. good auspices of international aid organiza-
People from many different Maya and ladino tions. However, because their husbands failed
cultural backgrounds were brought together in to receive similar training and because of the
the refugee camps. There, many also had for dictates of the context, the women tended to be
the first time the means and support to become relegated to a subordinate status upon their
organized and access to training, education, families’ return to Guatemala.
health care, and human rights (PSC n.d., 1–3).
The expectation was that women would bring
Some specific training went to women, who the new experiences and skills they had ac-
participated in courses on literacy, reproductive quired as refugees back with them to Guate-
health, human rights, and women’s educational mala. After the resettlement of refugees com-

menced in the late 1980s, however, it became their experience of exile is demonstrably dif-
clear that the gender training in the refugee ferent from that of the external refugees, the
camps in Mexico became lost in the process of pattern of reintegration and the resubjugation
reintegration. Upon resettlement, women lost of women into subordinate domestic roles upon
touch with one another and could no longer reintegration appear similar to those of the re-
depend on one another for motivation and sup- turnees from Mexico. Thus, despite a largely
port. Moreover, the commitment to reconstruct- positive experience of increased gender parity
ing their lives tended to take up the retornadas’ in exile, men and women alike tended to revert
(returnees’) time and relegate them to conven- to the status quo division of labor and power
tional domestic chores (Consejería 2000). when their lives were recontextualized in their
former villages or elsewhere in resettlement.
This same pattern seems the case in families that
went into internal exile and became part of the A “hidden” category of refugees is the thou-
Communities of Populations in Resistance. The sands of indigenous women who sought ref-
CPRs were made up of peasant families that fled uge from political violence in the anonymity of
their homes in the early 1980s and established the city. Although many are still identifiable as
covert, mobile communities in the remote ar-
eas of northern El Quiché, specifically in the
Ixcán region, and in the Petén. Part of the Gua- “The family had to flee to the capital because the
temalan population displaced by state violence, soldiers burned their house. There, [the mother]
sold vegetables to survive. Her children grew up
these internal exiles had no access to interna- with ‘capitalist’ ideas, and now they neither obey
tional relief or any legal status as refugees. In nor help their mother. If her husband, Juan, were
their efforts to elude apprehension by the army, still alive, the two of them would have given their
they formed mobile, transient settlements, lived children a good education there in the tranquility
in rudimentary shelters, and survived on for- of their cantón [village], amidst the wise old
women and the grandfathers. Juan strongly
aged foods. adhered to local traditions [era costumbrista], but
his children don’t know anything about these
things because [their father was] kidnapped.”
“The army told us, the people of the CPR/Ixcán,
that [we] weren’t people, [we] were animals, little — Q’eqchí woman, speaking of family members
bent creatures (cachos) with tails, and because who left Lemoa, El Quiché, for Guatemala City in
of that we weren’t around them, and some 1981 (REHMI 1998, v.1, 127)
people [breaking under the stress] believed it.”

— Communities of Populations in Resistance

member from Xalbal (PRONICE 1998, 92–93)

indigenous, many others have chosen

“ladinozation” as a strategy of survival. As such,
Because of the unusual hardships, life in the these women, along with other ladinas who were
Communities of Populations in Resistance ne- directly affected by the war, are “below the ra-
cessitated a breakdown of traditional divisions dar” of most local and international agencies
of labor along gender lines and of the patriar- that work for and with female victims of the
chal patterns of authority. Despite persistent war.
army assaults on the CPRs, in 1990 they began
to demand recognition as a civilian population An additional stress on families in the cities is
and an end to hostilities, which occurred in the pressure to relinquish Indian identity. Al-
1992. That year, CPR members began to reinte- though some urban migrants intentionally
grate themselves into general society. Although choose this as a strategy to avoid discrimina-

tion, for many others the loss of cultural iden- “guardian of law and order” that he retains con-
tity in the city is a highly undesirable side ef- siderable political currency in Guatemala today.
fect of displacement. The loss of culture is a
particular source of stress for women, who be- With the return to civilian government in 1986,
lieve as a result that they have failed to fulfil however, civilian security began to spiral out
their socially prescribed roles as purveyors of of control, especially as cashiered members of
tradition, culture, and identity. This sense of the former security forces entered civilian soci-
failure underscores survivors’ feelings of guilt, ety. By the mid-1990s, social statistics for civil-
shame, and isolation (PRONICE 1998). ian crimes placed Guatemala City second only
to Bogotá in numbers of murders, kidnappings,
and other violent crimes per capita among Latin
Civilian Security in Rural American cities. This period also saw a dramatic
And Urban Society rise in reported sexual crimes, including rape
and sexual assault (United Nations 1998).
Although Ríos Montt’s scorched earth policy
caused a swath of human and physical devas- Rural areas too experienced an increase in
tation so broad that many social scientists have crime, including banditry, during this period,
deemed it genocide, his regime also brought a particularly along major highways and in im-
period of enforced peace to the countryside that portant tourist centers. However, civilian crime
many Guatemalans view with some ambiva- in rural areas did not increase as dramatically
lence. The passage of Ríos Montt’s Amnesty as it did in Guatemala City between 1986 and
Law (Ley de Amnistía) in spring 1982 marked 1998 (United Nations 1998). Nevertheless, ci-
a juncture many rural Guatemalans paradoxi- vilian security continues to be a critical politi-
cally recall as a turning point, when political cal issue in Guatemala, as evidenced by the con-
violence became more targeted and less random tinuing popularity of Ríos Montt in political
and capricious (Stoll 1993). Likewise, during the polls. Security concerns also account for the
Ríos Montt administration, random urban vio- dominance of his party, the FRG (Frente
lence diminished precipitously. It is because of Republicano Guatemalteco), in the 1999 presi-
this collective memory of Ríos Montt as a dential and national assembly elections.

3. Women in the Political Arena

T HE VIOLENCE of the early 1980s pushed an

unprecedented number of Maya and
ladina women into the political arena. Over-
bands’ franchise and tend to vote as their hus-
bands instruct them.

whelmingly, the proximate cause of political The largest women’s organization in the coun-
mobilization was trauma: the loss or disappear- try, CONAVIGUA, emerged as a Maya widow
ance of a loved one, or the economic and social support group in 1988 and now claims more
exigencies of widowhood. Indeed, the most im- than 14,000 Maya and ladina members nation-
portant national and local women’s organiza- wide. GAM, a human rights organization mod-
tions have their origins in trauma. In contem- eled after the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in
porary Guatemala, human rights and gender Argentina, includes men in its activities, but its
are conflated issues in most women’s organi- membership is primarily female, and its orga-
zations. nizational prominence has catapulted one of its
surviving founders, Nineth Montenegro, into
There are proportionally a fair number of prominence as an important political player in
women serving in elected offices at the depart- the national arena. The same process has made
mental and national levels, but women are not smaller, local organizations a source of women’s
as well represented at the municipal level of empowerment toward social and political ad-
government. The data are not clear on the rea- vancement in civil society. Examples of these
son for this discrepancy, though it may corre- smaller scale organizations are forthcoming in
spond to the highly individualized reasons case studies of groups such as Kichin Konojel,
women enter politics, as described in this sec- the Association of Mayan Ixil Women, and
tion; that is to say, women’s political participa- Mamá Maquin (Zamora and Camey 2000).
tion is not sufficiently institutionalized as to be
manifested in their full mobilization at the A second avenue into politics for women has
local level. been through direct family connections; that is,

Table 2. Women Elected to Office, 1999–2000

Diputadas Governors
1999 13/113 (12 percent) 2/22 (9 percent)
2000 8/113 (7 percent) 6/22 (27 percent
Sources: and
“Participacíon cívico política de las mujeres,” 2000, photocopy, no attribution.

Table 2 shows the number of women recently a woman enters into politics because of the in-
elected to office, and the percentage of total fluence of either a prominent husband or
elected offices they hold in each category. father. In such cases, a women enters politics
largely as a proxy for a male family member
Women’s voter participation is relatively high. who was lost to trauma (such as when Nobel
In the presidential election held at the end of Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú entered
1999, women accounted for 48 percent of the politics after the deaths of her father, brothers,
votes in the first round and 35 percent in the and mother) or as an adjunct to a powerful male
second round. Nevertheless, many women view family member (such as Zury Ríos Soto, the
the right to vote as an extension of their hus- daughter of Ríos Montt, now a powerful leader
of the Legislative Assembly). In either case, the powerful diputada (representative) Ríos Soto
catalyst for political involvement is closely tied puts it, “The accords are the floor on which a
to the woman’s traditional roles as dutiful wife house can be built.” There are nearly 150 spe-
and daughter. cific accords, with hundreds of separate man-
dates. Box 2 offers an incomplete but represen-
The obvious question today is, what happens tative selection that illustrates the tone of the
when the effects of la violencia and the long civil Peace Accords’ mandates on women’s rights
and women’s roles in postconflict society.

“My father taught me how to speak.” Since 1996, the National Assembly has promul-
— Rigoberta Menchú, gated a wide spectrum of laws regarding
Nobel Peace Prize recipient women’s rights within the family, protection
against family violence, and women’s rights to
own and sell land in their own names (Irwin
1993). The Guatemala government has also en-
war dissipate? Will there be a political space
dorsed the Beijing Platform of Action and the
for women in civil society? Without trauma to
Summit of the Americas (Asociación Mujeres
expand the parameters of politics within the
Vamos Adelante 1999). There also has been
boundaries of the domestic sphere, will women
some political will to create a permanent na-
be willing to enter politics or take advantage of
tional institute of women (Instituto Nacional de
the newly opened public arena? Will women
la Mujer) to guarantee that women’s rights are
be willing to enter the public sphere if they no
a priority in future legislation and policy plan-
longer perceive politics as an extension of the
ning at the national level (Area de Derechos de
domestic sphere? Certainly, there is a political
la Mujer 1998, 10). Instead, on 22 May 2000, the
will from both outside Guatemala and, to a
Secretaría de la Mujer was created, by govern-
lesser extent, within to ensure that this will be
ment decree. Women’s organizations, however,
feel as though they have lost a battle, because a
secretaría depends directly on the executive
branch of government; an institute would have
“My case is atypical, in that I learned at the knee
of my father, and also my mother is involved in been a more autonomous entity.
politics. My father is a political leader. I
remember that when I was young, I attended Female political activists across Guatemala’s
political meetings. Many people say I am in office
because of my father, but there are many wide political spectrum remain dubious as to
the genuine political will on the part of male
políticos whose children aren’t in politics, or they
policymakers toward advancing meaningful
aren’t good politicians. I’ve always felt that I had
a vocation for public service.” legislation and social policy furthering the ad-
vancement of women, even in basic areas such
— Zury Ríos Soto
as education and women’s health (Ríos Soto
2000; Montenegro 2000; Otzoy 2000; Colom
2000). Nor do prominent female political fig-
The Peace Accords include several specific ures tend to embrace a feminist or a specifically
agreements that address the rights of women, gender-based political vision. As Montenegro,
including the establishment of the Foro cofounder of GAM, a former diputada, and, most
Nacional de la Mujer (National Forum of the recently, vice presidential candidate for the ANN
Woman) to promote women’s issues and ensure (New Nation Alliance), expressed it, “I am not
that the terms of the accords are met (Foro a feminist. . . . [T]he priority has been social
Nacional de la Mujer 1999a; Ibid. 1999b). As struggle, not simply the needs of women.”

For most of the prominent women interviewed,
gender questions are most important at the Box 2. Selections From the Peace
points where they intersect with larger concep- Accords That Address Women’s Rights
tions of social justice. Gender’s secondary place
on the agenda of priorities is evident across the Global Agreement on Human Rights
political spectrum. In the view of former
n Guarantee rights for women
n Eliminate discrimination against women
“It was strange for me to discover feminism and n Ensure women’s right to participate in civil
Islam and about all the other beliefs I had not power
known in the mountains of Chimel.”
Agreement for the Resettlement of Populations
— Rigoberta Menchú Displaced by the Armed Confrontation

n [Provide] guarantees for the resettlement of

the displaced populations. . . to place
guerrillera Yolanda Colom, “The oppression of particular emphasis on the promotion of
families headed by women, particularly
women is not separate from the revolutionary women and orphans who have been most
movement,” but is nonetheless subordinate to affected
the oppression of the poor by the dominant
class. For Montenegro, “Men have stereotypes Agreement on the Identity and Rights of
of women and women have stereotypes of men. Indigenous Peoples
There is no solidarity, but it’s the fault of the n Criminalize the sexual harassment of
system that they haven’t dropped these preju- indigenous women
dices to be able to work with one another.” Ac- n Combat the discrimination against women in
cording to Ríos Soto, women are not propor- agrarian reform
tionally active in national politics because “the
Agreement on [the] Strengthening of Civil Power
work demands discipline, and many women and the Rule of the Military in a Democratic
don’t have it.” Society

n Strengthen women’s organizations in rural and

What is important, however, is the intersection urban settings
of social reconciliation, political development,
and gender. Common points of juncture include Agreement on Socioeconomic Issues and the
such issues as human rights and, most emphati- Agrarian Reform
cally, education for girls, an issue raised by
n [Provide] equality of opportunities and
nearly every female political figure in this study. conditions, promoting women’s access to
Prominent women in politics all argue that the study, training, credit, land, and productive
woeful lag in basic education for girls is the and technological resources
single greatest source of gender inequity in n [Foster the] participation of women in
Guatemala, and as such is a critical issue that economic and social development
n Promote the elimination of all forms of
must be addressed, even at high political cost. discrimination against women
Nevertheless, even for women in politics, gen- n Recognize the undervalued contribution of
der seems a secondary category of analysis, women in all aspects of economic and social
behind ethnicity or nongendered political ide- activity, particularly [their] work in favor of
ology. improving the community

Sources: Morales Trujillo 1997; Waugh 1998, 3

Despite some promising and tangible signs of
advancement, there are a number of obstacles

that stand in the way of vindicating women in is true of the victims of the 1980s’ violence most
the wake of Guatemala’s long war. Despite the of all. However, because nearly 20 years have
pivotal Agreement on the Identity and Rights passed since the worst conflagrations of civil
of Indigenous Peoples in the Peace Accords and violence, it is important that policy also be di-
some significant social will toward correcting rected toward those women whose posttrau-
Guatemala’s deep-rooted racism, indigenous matic stress is not so apparent in contemporary
women still labor under a double stigma. This civil society.

“We are discriminated against . . . at work, in

everything . . . for being women, for being poor,
for being Indian.”

— Carmen C., a Kaqchikel Maya from San Juan

Comalapa, Chimaltenango, now living in
Guatemala City (Winch 1999, 60).

4. Lessons and Recommendations

P ROGRAMMATIC AID in Guatemala should

continue to assist those women and or-
phans who were directly affected by the vio-
these kinds of deeply ingrained problems from
a culturally appropriate perspective, USAID
should identify and support local programs that
lence of the early 1980s. USAID has an existing, work effectively in the following areas:
coherent program of support built around the
implementation of the Peace Accords. Many
projects under that program specifically sup- l Alcoholism
port the gendered needs of widows, returnees,
and other direct victims of the violence (USAID l Long-term grief and depression
1999). However, the Agency should carefully
monitor the efficacy of these projects to ensure l Conflict resolution
that other foreign monies do not overly dictate
the programmatic mandates of the projects, iso- l Family violence
late the leadership of grass-roots women’s or-
ganizations from their core membership, or gen- l Sexual crimes
erate excessive dependence by the leadership
or base on foreign money. l Poverty, especially among Maya
An important policy implication of these find-
l Cultural loss and anomie resulting
ings is that the effects of Guatemala’s conflict
from urban migration and displace-
are embedded deeply in its people. Most adults
cannot remember the time before their govern-
ment was at war with the people. The effects of
long-term state-sponsored violence must be l The various causes of the war, includ-
taken into full account in the promotion of so- ing inequity, exclusion, oppression,
cial reconciliation in civil society. To this end, lack of democracy, and inhibitions to
programmatic planning must address both the participation
direct and indirect consequences of the violence.
It is critical that USAID support programs and It is equally important that assistance programs
entities that deal with the effects of the violence be framed around gendered policies. It is also
over the long term, such as organizations that crucial that women’s issues and needs be ad-
address long-term mental health issues among dressed with great intention and with specific-
victims, personal security for women and chil- ity. Nevertheless, gender-based solutions
dren, cultural reconstruction, and conflict reso- should never be “ghettoized.”
Gender or “women’s” projects should not be
It is also essential that USAID understand the con- overemphasized at the expense of other areas
sequences of Guatemala’s violence in the broad- of need. This recommendation stems from the
est possible terms, as the violence is what complaint that women’s organizations rarely
brought to the fore many serious problems that receive funding for projects that are not overtly
confront civil society today and will continue women-specific, even when such projects have
to do so unless they are addressed decisively. clear but implicit gender implications. By the
Because it is often most effective to confront same token, there is also evidence that some
organizations have “hijacked” the rhetoric of both women and men. (The absence of men in
gender as a tactic to gain outside funding, even gender training, for example, hampered the sta-
when gender is not truly a primary or even sec- tus of women refugees upon their return to
ondary emphasis of their work (Morton 2000, Guatemala.) Although USAID /Guatemala
14). In short, great care should be taken in evalu- should take justifiable pride in its support of
ating both the implicit and the explicit gender many programs that address the immediate
implications of projects that come under con- needs of Maya war widows, it could strengthen
sideration for funding. its programmatic support in dealing with the
war’s secondary effects, particularly regarding
Gender mainstreaming is mandated within traumatized men. Until the conflict’s effects on
USAID, but, as in many other contexts, it is a men are also addressed directly, the adverse
policy that is not realized to its full potential. A situation of women can improve only incremen-
truly gendered response demands recourse for tally.

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