Tuesday 27 September 2016

Fighting for justice in a country where women are educated to accept violence

Published 12/03/2016 | 02:30

Whether in fervour, with tongue firmly in cheek, or ignored entirely, International Women's Day was 'celebrated' across the globe earlier this week.

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On a day where celebrities feel 'empowered' enough to take their clothes off and critics have another 'Hallmark Day' to complain about, this year's theme, 'Pledge for Parity' is even more important to put it in perspective.

Two women are murdered on average every day in Guatemala - a country where almost 45pc of the female population experience violence in their lives and only 28 women hold a deputy position in a 158-strong Congress.

Upon arriving in Guatemala City, the government officials, advocates, and indeed the community women themselves I meet, seem almost more interested in my personal safety than speaking to me about the issues I've come to report on - the inherent fear felt by women in a machismo society, a place in which sexual violence against women is only beginning to be brought through the justice system.

Three members of the Policia accompany me on the visit to the Office of the Ombudsman where the humble, but inspiring Hilda Morales awaits me. A multiple award-winning and internationally renowned lawyer for her work in progressing human rights over the last six decades, she once shared the Amnesty International Ambassador of Conscience Award with Mary Robinson.

"Sexual violence" she replied without hesitation, when I asked what she believed was the most prevalent issue in Guatemala at present. Ms Morales outlined the ongoing battle to change mindsets and laws around these attacks to protect and empower the women who make up 52pc of the country's population. One thing that has offered some leverage in her mission has been the advent of digital communication - which is relatively widespread, considering the overall poverty of the developing country. Ms Morales believes online platforms can not only help members and benefactors of women's groups in terms of human rights knowledge and a sense of camaraderie, but is also instrumental in lobbying support on a nationwide level.

Guatemala City
Guatemala City

She highlighted the case of two military officers who were due to appear in court charged with the sexually slavery of 15 indigenous women during the country's Civil War. The day I meet her, hundreds of activists had come together to protest on the steps of the city courthouse to lobby for permission to sit in the courtroom when trial began.

A similar commitment to the investigation and prosecution of those accused of murdering women comes across when I meet Norma Cruz, Advisory Director, Fundacion Sobreviventes (Survivors' Foundation).

A tenacious and outspoken advocate, Ms Cruz's zeal stems in no small part from the fact her own daughter was a victim of sexual violence. She saw close up how: "We have a very conservative society that prefers that all be kept silent." She spoke about the much publicised case of Cristina Siekavizza, whose disappearance in Guatemala City on July 7 2011 moved Guatemalans to demand justice against the growing epidemic of femicide and domestic violence in their country.

"Men in our society believe that women belong to them, that they are objects that they acquire, and can do what they want with - and women, unfortunately, have been educated to accept that violence," she told me.

Hilda Morales and Louise Kelly in Guatemala City
Hilda Morales and Louise Kelly in Guatemala City

The strength of tradition and culture across the many principalities of Guatemala can be somewhat difficult to comprehend at times - and poverty, especially in the rural areas, only serves to reinforce the gender equality barrier. Lack of sexual and reproductive education in some families has led to a growing number of women becoming pregnant very early or very late in their reproductive cycle. Other communities insist that girls marry as young as 13 and 14 - many in arranged marriages - so that these children don't have any choice in when they start having families themselves. Even though contraception is available, it is often denied to teen girls at health centres unless they are accompanied by a man.

Tackling violence against women through hashtag activism such as #OrangeTheWorld and #Planet5050 can go a long way to highlighting issues on a global level. However, it's the smaller ground-level campaigns that are only starting to gain some positive traction that make the real difference in these women's lives.

The online lobbying Ms Morales spoke of proved overwhelmingly successful, with a packed courtroom of supporters to witness the landmark court ruling that was made at the beginning of this month. Former military commissioner Heriberto Valdez Asij was sentenced to 240 years for the forced disappearance of seven of the women's husbands and other crimes against humanity. His co-accused, Lieutenant Colonel Esteelmer Reyes, was given half that sentence for his crimes against humanity and the murder of 20-year old Dominga Cuc Coc and her two young daughters.

While their supporters shook the room with their cheers, the surviving 14 victims - aged now between 52 and 75 - quietly raised their right arms , their heads still covered in traditional embroidered shawls. Justice had been done.

This article was supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund

 

Irish Independent

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