Women in Resistance–analyzing sexual violence against women with Luz Mendez

Luz Mendez, President of National Union of Guatemalan Women (UNAMG) speaks to our delegation about violence against women during the Armed Conflict

After a nourishing lunch and bookstore visit at Casa de Cervantes, our delegation met with Luz Mendez, the President of the Union Nacional de Mujeres Guatemaltecas (National Union of Guatemalan Women), hereafter referred to as UNAMG, at UNAMG’s office. UNAMG is an independent feminist organization  dedicated to transforming unequal relations between women and men that exist in the public and private sector, and achieving “democratization, social justice, and respect for the rights of indigenous peoples.”

Luz kicked off our meeting with facts about the organization. UNAMG was founded in 1980, and since the end of the Armed Conflict in 1996, UNAMG has focused on investigating and documenting violence against women from a feminist perspective. The Armed Conflict refers to Guatemala’s 36 year civil war between the military and guerrilla forces.

According to Luz, the military used sexual violence against women as a lethal weapon–a weapon wielded with intent to destroy indigenous Guatemalan communities. She described two massacres that occurred during the Armed Conflict–the massacre in Alta Verapaz and the massacre in Santa Cruz del Quiche. In both massacres, the military separated women and men, and murdered all the men, and raped all the women before killing them.

Luz explained that after the Armed Conflict ended in 1996, the Guatemalan government and the guerrilla group the Revolutionary National Unity of Guatemala (URNG) established the Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH). The CEH was created to clarify the human rights violations that occurred during the Armed Conflict and preserve the historic memory of its victims.

The Commission for Historical Clarification conducted 7,200 interviews with 11,000 people, and produced a written report, Guatemala: Memoria del Silencio (Guatemala: Memory of Silence) in 1999. Yet Luz pointed out that in this landmark report, sexual violence against women, such as the rapes that occurred in the masacres in Alta Verapaz and Quiche, tended to be underreported.

UNAMG is committed to reversing this silencing by identifying female survivors from the Armed Conflict in multiple regions. UNAMG has concluded that during the Armed Conflict “rape was the result of a system of patriarchal power and used an instrument to preserve the system majority.” Although rape of women had occurred in Guatemala prior to the Armed Conflict, Luz explained that “the Armed Conflict marked an instance where sexual violence was used in a general and massive way to destroy the bodies of all females without exception, including the bodies of young girls and old women.”

Then, Luz emphasized the longevity of UNAMG’s work through a devastating example of how similar acts of violence against women continue in the present day. She related a recent incident where women who had traveled from a neighboring town for the “Feria” holiday, were gang raped on their return home from the celebration.

Luz described how in addition to documenting such incidents, UNAMG creates opportunities for women to voice their experiences in pursuit of justice. She explained that UNAMG was one of four organizations that helped convene the “Tribunal de Conciencia (Tribunal of Conscience)” in 2010 on the eighth anniversary of  the First Court of Women against sexual violence held in Tokyo, Japan.  At the Tribunal of Conscience, women who had been victims of sexual violence during the Armed Conflict shared their testimonies in a symbolic trial. In addition to personal testimonies from the women, professionals from fields ranging from Gender to Military Strategy gave expert testimony about the effects of sexual violence on the women.

I found Luz’s description of the Tribunal of Conscience fascinating, and I also enjoyed listening to the lively debate that emerged between Luz and members of the delegation regarding various dimensions of sexual violence against Guatemalan women. My fellow delegates were especially interested in exploring the legal and psychological nuances of the experiences of fifteen women who had been sexual slaves of the military during the Armed Conflict. Some of these women had shared their testimonies in the tribunal. One delegate made an apt observation these women’s experiences of traversing daily their own communities and the military compound was like “being trafficked every day.” Luz added that these women also endured “psychological torture.”

Luz was also quick to note that participating in the Tribunal of Conscience had a positive impact on these women. She stated that the lives of the women who shared their testimonies are changing as a result of their participation in the tribunal. “They feel better because they understand that they were not guilty, and they have regained their will to live, rediscovered their sense of humor. Before they were victimized, they were leaders in their communities, and now they are reconnected, and emerging as the ‘wise women’ in their communities. They are even dancing.”

Recent Reflection–One Month Afterward 

In writing this blog entry more than a month after meeting Luz, I have a renewed appreciation for UNAMG’s work to give voice to women who have suffered sexual violence. My renewed appreciation comes from a recent conversation with some members of my delegation about Latin American literature. In our conversation, delegates explained why literature from South America has received much greater global renown than literature from Central America.

In South America, people who were victims of state persecution tended to come from the elite educated classes. When they fled their home countries, they had access to forums where they could publish their stories and gain recognition for their suffering. In contrast, victims of state violence in Central American countries including Guatemala, tended to be farmers and indigenous peoples without as much formal education and readily available means to translate their experiences into stories that garnered a place in the literary cannon. When I reflected on this conversation, I saw new value in UNAMG’s work of creating a space for personal stories of suffering that tended to be overlooked on the global stage because the storyteller came from Central America, and overlooked on the local stage because the speaker was a woman.

Learn more about UNAMG 

1. National Union of Guatemalan Women. http://unamg.org/v1/ This is the official website for UNAMG, in Spanish but easily translated into English thanks to Google Chrome.

2. Tejidos que lleva el alma: Memoria de las mujeres mayas sobrevivientes de violacion sexual durante el conflicto armado. Equipo de Estudios Comunitarios y Acción Psicosocial and Unión Nacional de Mujeres Guatemaltecas. 2011. http://www.ecapguatemala.org/images/TejidosqueLlevaelAlma.pdf Luz described this report as the culmination of three years of research and work with women survivors in multiple regions. I am not sure if an English translation is available, but this report, which shines much-needed light on women’s perspectives as survivors of the Armed Conflict, represents a valuable incentive for me to improve my Spanish reading abilities.

Learn more about the massacres in Alta Verapaz and El Quiche

1. “Guatemala 1978: The Massacre at Panzos.”  International Workgroup for Indigenous Affairs. http://www.iwgia.org/iwgia_files_publications_files/0211_33Guatemala.pdf This report covers the massacre at Panzos, Alta Verapaz, which occurred in 1978.

2. “Operation Sofia: Documenting Genocide in Guatemala.” The National Security Archive. National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 297. December 2, 2009. http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB297/index.htm This electronic brief gives an overview of the genocide in Guatemala, and the NSA’s process of proving it occurred. The brief also describes the military’s “scorched earth campaign” against the Mayan communities living in El Quiche, and includes links to the comprehensive Operation Sofia archive.

 Learn more about the CEH Report

1. Truth Commissions Digital Collection. “Truth Commission: Guatemala.” United States Institute of Peace. http://www.usip.org/publications/truth-commission-guatemala This webpage provides an informative background about the Truth Commission, and includes links to the full CEH Report in Spanish and English. This webpage also summaries the report’s key findings. Among the findings: “The total number of people killed was over 200,000; 83% of the victims were Mayan and 17% were Ladino.” “In the four regions most affected by the violence, ‘agents of the state committed acts of genocide against groups of Mayan people'” (Final Report, English Version, para. 122).

Learn more about the Women’s Tribunal of Conscience

1. “Guatemalan women hold Tribunal of Conscience.” Impunity Watch News Archive. http://www.impunitywatch.org/en/publication/67 Impunity Watch provides a clear explanation of the Tribunal of Conscience, and how the combined testimonies are “evidence that sexual violence against women did not occur as isolation but instead was part of a state-directed military strategy.” This webpage also links to the four organizations–UNAMG, ECAP, MTM, and La Cuerda–that organized the tribunal.

2.”Tribunal de Conciencia.” Union Nacional de Mujeres Guatemaltecas.  http://unamg.org/v1/tribunal-de-conciencia This webpage from UNAMG’s website (in Spanish, but easily translated with the Google Chrome Browser) provides comprehensive coverage of the testimonies given during the landmark tribunal where  women gave testimony about their experiences suffering sexual violence during the Armed Conflict.

3. Ed. Azkue, Irantzu Mendia and Gloria Guzmán Orellana. Ni Olvido, Ni Silencio: Tribunal de Conciencia contra la violencia sexual hacia las mujeres durante el conflicto armado en Guatemala. UNAMG, ECAP, MTM. http://publ.hegoa.efaber.net/assets/pdfs/279/Ni_olvido,_ni_silencio.pdf?1342173748 June, 2012. UNAMG collaborated with two organizations–Equipo de Estudios Comunitarios y Acción Psicosocial (ECAP) and Mujeres Transformando el Mundo (MTM) to produce this report which documents the process of convening the tribunal along with the testimonies of women from multiple regions.

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