“Walking with us and feeling what we feel”
By Teresia Mutuku, Communication Officer and Web Manager, World Association for Christian Communication (WACC)
Participants of the WACC-CEDEPCA workshops on feminicide
Killing a woman simply because she is a woman is a tragic phenomenon, unfathomable and beyond imagination. But this is a reality faced by hundreds of women in Guatemala and other countries in Central America.
More than 4,500 women have been killed since the year 2000 in Guatemala alone. The majority of the victims were between the ages of 16 and 30, according to the latest publication by CEDEPCA (Centro Evangélico de Estudios Pastorales en Centro América) a partner network of WACC (World Association for Christian Communication). About 700 women were killed in 2010, as feminicide continues to take its toll.
WACC President, Dennis Smith, has lived and worked in the country for over 30 years. He describes feminicide as an “extremely troubling phenomenon.”
“This year so far more than 700 women have been killed, not because they have been caught in the crossfire of widespread drug violence, nor because they have been targeted for political persecution. They have been killed because they are women,” says Smith.
In the following video excerpt, Smith explains how the killings have continued unabated and how the local media have responded.
A report by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs Research Associate (COHA) Suzana Shepard-Durini indicates that the current feminicide crusade in Guatemala “has its roots in an unjust culture that views women as objects in which to instill fear, terror and extreme submission.”
According to the report, Guatemala’s recent history involves a good deal of frustration and bitterness over past injustices which live on in succeeding generations.
“Armed groups, especially those in rival gangs, release their anger through the one aspect that unequivocally connects the generations and is far from being a stranger to this county: violence. The mode of retaliation towards the injustices that have characterized Guatemalan society has led to a steady deadly dosage of violent actions against women”. (Read the report HERE)
And in the CEDEPCA publication titled Guatemala in Context - 20th edition – February, 2010, Feminicide is defined as “a political term that describes the responsibility borne by both male perpetrators and the state, including the judicial system, for these murders, for the toleration of ongoing acts of violence, and for the failure to ensure the safety of its female citizens.”
According to the publication, Guatemala's 36-year civil war resulted in the rape, torture, and murder of tens of thousands of women. Violence against women became a weapon of war. “During the conflict thousands of men were trained to commit acts of gendered violence; they returned to civilian life without receiving any orientation that might challenge such brutal training”.
The publication further criticizes the government of Guatemala for its indifference and laxity in addressing the phenomenon. “Government officials tend to attribute violence against women to gangs…While gangs sometimes use feminicide as an initiation rite; experts note that the modus operandi of most perpetrators closely resembles the torture methods used in counter-insurgency campaigns during the war, methods that are not typical of gangs”, reports CEDEPCA.
WACC together with CEDEPCA are raising awareness about feminicide and impunity through training workshops and educating women about their legal rights and how to manage violent situations.
Several women who have participated in the workshops live in Cobán, in the province of Alta Verapaz, central Guatemala. They share their stories of struggle and hope below:
América says; “I suffered psychological, physical and emotional violence at the hands of my spouse. But now I have learned a lot and I have understood that I am worth and I can move forward and that I cannot continue to be a victim. These workshops have been a great help to me, in my personal growth and I have supported other women who are facing similar circumstances.”
Onely says “We thank God for the support WACC and CEDEPCA has given us. If it was not for their support, we would not have known the laws in our country. This has helped me personally and also my women friends who have suffered violence and did not know that it was against the law. I suffered a lot of violence in my own home and if I had known about the laws, I would have fought against the violence. Thanks to WACC and CEDEPCA I have been able to change. And also I am not as abused as I was before”.
Sandra says “The life of women here is marked by much pain, much suffering, a lot of abuse, but thanks to these workshops we have felt that we are not alone, that there are people who are holding our hands, walking with us and feeling what we feel...” (watch video below)
“We did not even know that what we were suffering was violence. We did not know that the suffering had a name. We thought it was normal life. Now we know we have the possibility of approaching the authorities and that there is a legal framework that prohibits violence against women. We are no longer ignorant”, says Sandra.
Irma says “Here in Guatemala there is a lot of violence and a lot of abuse caused by sexism and machismo. And this is not just happening in society but it is also happening within the churches. We share with our friends in the community what we have learned. Each time we have the opportunity to share with a friend who has suffered violence; we tell her that it is not necessary to crumple under the weight of violence and abuse. We tell her that she is not alone, we are there to support her and that there is a way out.”
“We also help our children to understand that it is not necessary to continue to reproduce the structures of sexism. Our girls need to understand that no one should be violated and that women and men are equal in God’s sight, that we have equal value as God’s children and also the same worth in law,” says Irma.
Leticia says: “I chose to participate in these workshops because--- I have lived in an atmosphere of violence for 16 years - psychological, verbal and sexual violence." (watch video below):
Rumualda says “Here in Guatemala, the authorities are not concerned when women are murdered or sexually violated, mistreated, or exposed to violence in their families. We are treated as if we are animals. So we came to the workshop to strengthen ourselves and share our experiences about violence. I came to hear and to learn and to support other women who have directly suffered violence.” (Watch video below):
Alicia says “When I was young, I witnessed violence at home. So that affected my relationship with my spouse. I wanted to have my own space in my marriage. I was afraid that all men were the same – the same level of violence – so I did not want to negotiate for space with my spouse. With this training I was able to learn that I had to insist on my space within the relationship. I have also learned that many women who have suffered since they were very young walk into their marriages with a certain mind set. They are not willing to negotiate their space. I have learned to liberate myself from all this baggage that I was carrying since childhood and also to help other women in our church.” (watch video below)
Flor says “It has been very difficult with my spouse…because he feels threatened when a woman is trained especially on issues of violence. He feels intimidated. We have suffered violence in this country for so long and we have internalized and naturalized the experiences of violence. So with my spouse, I had to experience strong changes within myself - subtle changes but strong - and these helped me. Now he drops me to the workshops and picks me up…”
Flor adds that “The trainings are carefully planned. We need to be tranquil and so the seminars are held in a safe place. The content is also carefully thought out. This kind of training causes us to remember things. It is very traumatic to share our experiences but CEDEPCA has understood us and respects our concerns”
The workshops coordinator, Rev. Delia Leal, expressed concern about inadequate coverage of violence against women in the local media. She criticized the media for stereotyping the murders and for failing to sensitize the population against this social phenomenon.
“The news media splash headlines such as ‘woman murdered’ and then give statistics. But a paragraph later they will condition the crime against women saying, for example, that the woman was murdered because she was out at 1 a.m or because she had a tattoo. So, although the media want to sensitize the population against this social phenomenon, they blow it up by falling into stereotypes and accusing the victims saying that it is somehow their fault that they were murdered,” says Leal. (watch video below)
However, with an increasing number of women in key editorial positions in the past few years - especially in the print media – the media are significantly challenging the stereotypes and representation of women in the news, says Smith.
“There are two major dailies; El Periódico and Prensa Libre, where there are women journalists - both as investigative reporters and also as editors. They are making it very clear in their coverage that feminicide is a social issue that reflects on the rule of law and on the dignity of the country and it needs to be far more seriously studied by the government, by the security forces and by the courts system”, says the WACC President.
According to the CEDEPCA report, the Guatemalan Congress passed a law against feminicide and other forms of violence against women in 2008, recognizing misogyny, machismo and gender bias as main reasons for gender inequality and violence against women in Guatemala. “The law provides mechanisms for eliminating violence against women but much is yet to be done”, says the report.
Shepard-Durini, in the COHA report, argues that “Guatemala needs its predictably timorous government to act more boldly when it comes to the protection of basic rights, and to be more highly involved in the advancement of women’s rights.”
WACC General Secretary, the Rev. Karin Achtelstetter, says, “I am encouraged by the women’s spirit of hope and vigor as they struggle to fight against feminicide”.
She pledged WACC’s unwavering support and collaboration with members and partner networks in the country to continue empowering women to fight all forms of violence.