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The Indian women of Guatemala organize the struggle


06 / 1997

More than 60 per cent of the Guatemalan population is Mayan while the other main ethnic group is constituted by the Ladine population (of Spanish and mixed blood). The barriers of Guatemalan society still work against the Indians, with women suffering from a double discrimination, being both Indian and women. However, Indian women play an essential role in the commnunity. She is the pillar of the family, as wife, mother, and educator of her children, and she also plays an important economic role. All the women develop craft activities based on their own culture: weaving, pottery, etc.

Guatemala is the last country in Latin America to have put an end to its civil war, which has lasted thirty six years. With the signature of the "Firm and Sustainable Peace" agreement on 29 December 1996 between the URNG (Guatemalan Revolutionary Unit)and the government, democracy has been widened to encompass indigenous organizations.

However, this recent peace cannot hide the memory of years of bloody repression which, using the pretext of destroying centers of guerilla resistance, was unleashed on the country during the eighties with extreme violence against the civil rural population. The term ’death squad’ was coined in Guatemala. These squads led to the mass exile of whole communities to Mexico, the displacement of populations towards the cities or deportation to ’model towns’ under the control of the army. A consequence of this process is the fragmentation of traditional community structures and the destruction of the Indians’ social and cultural fabric. Women are at the top of the list of the victims.

No to military violence : CONAVIGUA

The conflict has widowed 45,000 women and orphaned 250,000 children. Most of the victims were from Indian communities living in the altiplano. CONAVIGUA (Committee of Guatemalan widows)was set up in 1988 to defend widows’ rights and protect women whose husbands had been killed because they were suspected of being guerillas. In less than a year, it has brought together 3,560 women, most of whom are Indians.

The organization has always been close to peasant protest movements, particularly the CUC (Peasant Unity Movement), and considered as subversive from the outset. One of the leaders of the CUC assassinated in 1979 was the father of Rigoberta Menchu, the Nobel Peace Prize winner. CONAVIGUA and Mrs. Menchu’s foundation have often led joint actions in favour of human rights. During her years in exile, Rigoberta Menchu was always welcomed in CONAVIGUA’s premises during her visits, often unauthorized by the government. CONAVIGUA’s success is both feminist and political. Feminist because in ten years, Guatemalan women have learnt to speak out and claim their rights. Political because during the last general elections in January 1996, Rosalina Tuyuc, CONAVIGUA’s founder, was elected Member of Parliament for the Democratic Front for a New Guatemala, the only party on the left, which despite being marginal, made it possible for an Indian to sit in Parliament.

CONAVIGUA’s victory also means the elimination of the military and paramilitary structures in the villages and the abolition of pressganging, measures that the government and the armed forces have undertaken to respect. However, vigilance is required, especially since CONAVIGUA is still campaigning for the completion of the inquiry by the national commission into identifying those responsible for the massacres during the years of repression.

Women ready for political combat

CONAVIGUA is historically close to the former guerillas who now want to convert themselves into a political party. This should result in conjunctural alliances at local level and encourage in-the-field the involvement of women in political life. Since the demobilization of the guerillas, (May 1997), the women involved in the armed struggle have decided to follow-up the combat in the political arena. They form a kernel of five to six hundred women, most of whom are Indians (at the last count, there were three to four thousand men in the guerilla movement), that have experimented with equality between men and women in the armed struggle. They must now organize themselves to claim parity and fight for women’s rights in a country marked by cultural male chauvinism in every community, both Mayan and Ladine.

Refusing discrimination in education: CHOLSAMAJ

The education problem in Guatemala is alarming. The illiteracy rate (80 percent)reaches 90 percent among the Mayans. The Mayan women are most affected; they make up 51 percent of the population. Organizations and community structures therefore have to make up for the failures of national education. In Latin America, it is estimated that an average of 6 percent of GNP is devoted to the education budget; this figure is from 1 to 2.4 percent in Guatemala (source: UNICEF). Nothing exists for adult education. CHOLSAMAJ was founded in 1984 by self-taught intellectuals from the Mayan Kaqchikel community. Most of this organization’s coordinators are women, reflecting the structure’s desire for openness. Its aim is to support the education effort in indigenous communities by publishing and distributing good quality works at affordable prices, by mostly indigenous authors. These tools are made available to the public by a traditional distribution network (bookshops, libraries, etc.)and in more specifically Mayan structures such as the Mayan Academy of Language and the Kaqchikel Linguistic Community. CHOLSAMAJ is the only publishing house to offer works in bilingual versions: Spanish/Mayan.

A video department is being set up and its management has been entrusted to a group of women. Its aims are to promote access to image based education, diffuse traditional knowledge and know-how in Indian communities, and organise working in a network permitting women to speak out. This department has the ambition to produce quality documentaries in the long term. A partnership has been launched with the organization ’Femmes et Changements’ in Paris, most particularly in relation with its REEV (meetings, echanges, experiences, video)program.

Yet more organizations exist in Guatemala, such as CEISAR, which brings together Ladine and Mayan women in the same project to promote health in remote villages around Antigua. They already form a very active network and are ready to participate in all the levels of civil society. The latter has decided to take up its rights to build a new Guatemala as promised by the recent peace agreements.

Key words

woman, discrimination against women, women’s organization, violence, civil war, repression, access to education, popular mobilization

, Guatemala


Original sheet in French in this data base.


Original text


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