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Violence against women rooted in conflict over land

November 18, 2016
Veiled women at court during a trial in Guatemala
Nobel Women’s Initiative

The people jammed into a Guatemalan courthouse on February 26, 2016, burst into applause as the judge convicted two military officers of the rape and sexual slavery of 15 Maya Q'eqchí women in a remote community three decades ago.

The verdict marks the first time a Guatemalan court has tried and convicted military officers for wartime sexual violence. For the women in the courtroom, whose faces were covered during the trial to protect their privacy, the victory was both legal and personal.

Women who have suffered wartime sexual violence “have to overcome much stigmatization from their societies and break the silence,” says Markus Gottsbacher, senior program specialist at IDRC. “It is a significant challenge.”

For the courageous women of the tiny community of Sepur Zarco, in northeastern Guatemala, the road to justice was long. Years passed before they were even able to talk about the trauma, with assistance from psychologists from the non-governmental organization Equipo de Estudios Comunitarios y Acción Psicosocial (ECAP).

Documenting a story of violence against women

The violence perpetrated against the Sepur Zarco women has deep roots in the country’s conflict over land. Land struggles have a long history in Guatemala, and they were at the heart of the 30-year civil conflict ending in the mid-1990s. The Guatemalan Commission for Historical Clarification estimates in its 1999 report that the conflict claimed the lives of approximately 200,000 people.

This history, the women's story, and the path to justice are documented in a sweeping IDRC-supported study led by ECAP and presented in the 2015 book Clamor for Justice: Sexual Violence, Armed Conflict and Land Dispossession. “The study has enabled us to broaden our understanding of what is happening in the communities and see the full magnitude of the ties between people being dispossessed of their land and sexual violence,” says psychologist Susana Navarro, executive director of ECAP.

The study helped ECAP, human rights, and feminist groups to raise awareness among journalists and members of the judiciary. It also provided valuable background for legal investigations.

The research revealed how land was the main issue for the communities.

Judith Erazo, psychologist and president of the board of directors of ECAP

Although the Guatemalan government and its supporters attribute the political violence of the 1980s as a fight against communism, the war largely reflected inequalities and racism in the country. This was particularly apparent regarding land rights, the main means of survival for indigenous families.

Even now, more than half of Guatemalan land is held by only 2% of landowners. According to official statistics, 45% of landowners hold only 3% of land, and despite women’s significant role in the struggle for land rights, they are particularly dispossessed and hold only 16% of the land.

Repression in the Polochic Valley

The fertile Polochic Valley, where peasant farmers had organized committees in the 1970s to seek title to the land where they worked and lived, was the target of military violence in the early 1980s.

A military base was established near the village of Sepur Zarco. Between 1981 and 1983, troops committed thousands of murders, extrajudicial executions, forced disappearances, and rapes in that area, the Guatemalan Commission for Historical Clarification reported. Soldiers also burned the victims' homes and belongings and destroyed their crops.

In 1982, troops kidnapped, tortured, and killed or “disappeared” 18 men involved in the land committees. The soldiers repeatedly raped these men’s wives and other women in front of their children.

Military officers ordered the wives of the kidnapped men to build huts beside the military base and forced them to do domestic work—cooking, cleaning and laundry—for the soldiers. The women had to provide their own supplies, including corn for the tortillas they prepared. “At the Sepur detachment, I had to work all the time and leave my children on their own, going hungry at home,” said one of the women in an interview with ECAP.

The domestic slavery was accompanied by sexual slavery. After their work shifts, groups of soldiers would rape the women repeatedly. Under constant surveillance and threat, the women had no means of escape. The domestic and sexual slavery continued until 1988, when the army left the base. But the trauma, fear, guilt, shame, and social stigmatization remained.

The long road to justice

The process that led women to seek justice gradually played out over some 15 years, Navarro says. It began with ECAP accompanying the women when their husbands' remains were exhumed, and continued as they organized and became more aware of their rights.

It involved psychological and social work with the women, so they would be strong enough to face the judicial process and take action on their own behalf, and in defense of the rights of all women.

Susana Navarro

The women eventually decided that besides redress for their husbands' torture and murders, they would seek criminal punishment for the perpetrators of the sexual violence. The road to justice began with the construction of a collective historical memory of the events and circumstances. IDRC contributed to the process by supporting ECAP’s research with Mayan women.

At a Tribunal of Conscience on wartime sexual violence, held in 2010, the women publicly denounced the violence before hundreds of people, including representatives of the judiciary and other government agencies.

Their stories put a once-taboo topic in the spotlight and paved the way for the court case that led to the conviction of former Lieutenant Colonel Esteelmer Reyes and former Military Commissioner Heriberto Valdez Asij, who were sentenced to prison terms of 120 and 240 years respectively.

But the journey did not end there. Work continues with the women and young people, including their children. It is important for youth to understand the women's stories so they can prevent future violence, Navarro and Erazo say. ECAP’s research findings are used in these efforts.

Reaching out beyond borders

As part of the work supported by the IDRC, the women have shared their stories with indigenous and peasant women in Colombia who suffered similar trauma. After hearing the Guatemalan women's stories, the Colombian women spoke not only about sexual violence against them by security forces, but also within their own families and from community leaders who should have been protecting them, Gottsbacher says.

The visit from the women of Sepur Zarco gave them the courage to speak of this. They saw that after all those years, the women had not abandoned their struggle, and despite the many obstacles, they had managed to overcome the fear and the pain.

Markus Gottsbacher

ECAP also works with other women who have suffered sexual violence because of their effort to secure land rights, including women in an area near Sepur Zarco known as Lote 8.

Women from Lote 8 allege, that they were evicted from their land in 2007 to make way for a mine, and that they were gang raped by security guards hired by the Guatemalan Nickel Company, a subsidiary of the Canadian company Hudbay Minerals. This case is now in a Canadian court.

The next step will be to look at sexual violence among women migrating northwards from Guatemala and the southern Mexican state of Chiapas in search of safety and better economic opportunities, says Erazo, who is leading this work for ECAP, also with support from IDRC.

“Violence is a daily occurrence in these women's lives,” Navarro says. “This has been going on for such a long time that people consider it natural. Studies like this provide academic grounding for the work with women that can help change that situation."

To learn more

Access to justice for indigenous and peasant women in Colombia and Guatemala

Women build peace on the memories of war

Clamor for Justice: Sexual Violence, Armed Conflict, and Land Dispossession (PDF, 4.68MB)