Guatemalan Women Under Siege

Earlier this week, “Women Only” buses debuted in Guatemala City in a response to an epidemic of violence against women who have the temerity to use public transportation. Via Americas Quarterly:

Of greater metropolitan Guatemala City’s 3.5 million inhabitants, about half use the public bus system on a daily basis. According to the local Association of Urban Buses, an average of a dozen vehicles per day are attacked by armed assailants who rob passengers and regularly assault female riders. Congresswoman  Zury Ríos Sosa, who spearheaded the gender-segregated bus initiative, says the new system will protect women and enhance their safety on public transportation. Ríos has said she would also like to create a women-only taxi system similar to those already established in Mexico City and other Latin American cities.

In a searing essay in On the Issues Magazine,  Yifat Susskind, Executive Director of MADRE, argues that there is a systematic and ongoing abuse of women in Guatemala…and these abuses are best understood as a continuation of that country’s devastating civil war.

For 36 years, Guatemala was roiled by a brutal civil war that the United Nations characterized as genocide, mainly against Mayan Indigenous People. Through the years of the conflict, tens of thousands of Guatemalan women and girls were raped, tortured and murdered. These were not attacks carried out randomly; violence against women was deliberately calculated by U.S.-backed fighters to traumatize families and destroy the capacity of communities to resist and organize.

Mayan women were targeted because they are the lynchpins of their families and communities. In many instances, women were gang-raped in front of their families. Pregnant women faced specific atrocities, tortured and murdered in order to cut off the next generation of the community.

Multiple human rights investigations have found evidence that this violence against women was part of a systematic counterinsurgency strategy by the government. Over one million members of the Guatemalan army, paramilitary forces and police were trained to attack women with rape, mutilation and torture. Today’s attacks reproduce the gruesome tactics of these wartime atrocities.

Many Guatemalan feminists say that is because the perpetrators were never brought to justice once the peace accords were signed in 1996. They were simply re-absorbed into society, taking on new roles as police or in powerful criminal gangs that infiltrated many government agencies.

Susskind argues that these crimes against women ought to be considered “femicide.”

The Latin American women’s movement has given this crisis a name: femicide. It is defined by various forms of gender-based violence against women, including murder, and characterized by impunity for perpetrators and a lack of justice processes for victims. It occurs in conditions of social upheaval, armed conflict, violence between powerful rival gangs and militias, rapid economic transformation and the demise of traditional forms of state law enforcement.

Beyond Guatemala, this is a term and concept that ought to be a more central part of the lexicon of the international human rights community.