Indigenous women and daughter participating in Political Education School, Guatemala
  • Indigenous women and daughter participating in Political Education School, Guatemala

My Story with Violence Against Women begins in a remote rural community in the state of Sacatepéquez, Guatemala, where I’m sitting in the house of María Jose, a 35-year-old single mother of two boys, who invited me for coffee to share her success in managing her first income-generating project. She was using a microcredit from AFEDES’ microfinance program to support her small business in selling clothes in the local market. I remember her vividly as being a dynamic, optimistic and caring woman who loved her boys fearlessly. She had left her husband because he was violent against her and she didn’t want to put up with it anymore.

In 2005, I traveled to Guatemala to volunteer with AFEDES – Women’s Association for the Development of Sacatepéquez – to gain experience on microfinance, training, community organizing and monitoring and evaluation-related activities. I had found AFEDES through IDEX (International Development Exchange), a San Francisco-based organization that supports global social justice work.

AFEDES is an indigenous women-led organization working in 16 municipalities in the Sacatepéquez province of Guatemala with over 1,000 indigenous women members, promoting their political participation and social empowerment. AFEDES focuses its programs on training on women's social, political and economic rights, civic participation, economic development and leadership education.

Through their economic development program I was assigned to visit AFEDES women members to track their progress in their income-generating project. It was through this work that I was fortunate to meet María Jose. My internship was only six months and I left Guatemala enriched and inspired by the amazing indigenous women who were taking ownership in making changes for their families and their communities.

A year later, I went back to Guatemala and visited my friends at AFEDES again and that is when I heard the shocking news. A few weeks before my arrival María Jose had disappeared and only a few days before she had been found dead at the side of a road, far away from her home. There was no official conclusion of the cause of her death, but it was clear she had become a fatal case of the increasingly rising levels of violence against women in Guatemala.

Guatemala is one of the poorest countries in Latin America. About half of the total population lives in rural areas and in poverty surviving on less than $2 a day. Guatemala’s poor are primarily rural and indigenous – 72% of the poor live in rural areas and 72% are indigenous.

Indigenous peoples have been in Guatemala for millennia and have experienced the effects of invasion and colonialism throughout their history. Violence against women and disregard of their rights, however, is one of the largest and most prevalent scourges afflicting the dignity of women in Guatemala.

The 36-year long violent armed conflict in the second half of the twentieth century, where 200,000 people were killed due to state-sponsored socio-economic, political and cultural discrimination, was also one of the clearest manifestations of violence against women in Guatemala. Indigenous women were the primary targets of all forms of human rights violations, which included systemic gender violence, ethnic discrimination and sexual violence.

After the peace accord of 1996, 40,000 military men and almost a million men from the resistance returned to civilian life in Guatemala after perpetuating violent acts on women. Unfortunately, no institutional rehabilitation program or psychosocial care has been offered to men coming back from war, which has left men without any outlet to release their anger and sentiments around their coerced involvement in the war. This has been linked to the increasing levels of violence against women.

As reported by the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission, in a period of eight years, from 2000 to 2008 (post civil war), there were 4,000 women violently murdered; from the cases reported to authorities 98 percent remain in impunity, or 98 out of 100 killers got away with murder. Early this year, La Prensa, a Guatemalan newspaper, reported 448 women were murdered in the first semester of 2011, which the UN termed ‘unprecedented’. By November of 2011 the number had increased to more than 600 women. “There still exists a wide gap between the number of cases of violence due to machismo that have been resolved by the judicial system (144 litigations) and the number of complaints reported (a total of 6,318),” the newspaper stated.

Among the small and piecemeal government efforts to reverse this trend of violence against women is the 2008 Anti-Femicide Law. This law defines femicide as the “violent death of a woman by virtue of her gender,” and allows women for the first time in Guatemalan history to press criminal charges against their perpetrators in an occurrence of domestic violence. However, families and survivors who denounce the crimes face indifference, corruption and a gender biased judicial system. Women are generally blamed for the violence inflicted against them at home or in the streets. Most Guatemalan women, especially indigenous women, are unaware of their rights and of the laws available to them in cases of domestic violence, and their communities may be underserved by police and judicial authorities who could help uphold this law.

In such a scenario, the empowerment of Guatemalan women becomes a crucial step to create a profound and lasting change in gender equality and women’s rights.

Taking all this contextual history of violence against women and the need to address this effectively to meet the needs of indigenous and urban low-income women in the state of Sacatepéquez, AFEDES developed a grassroots-led survey to assess what needed to be done to empower women and address the high levels of violence against women. It was through this participatory process that their solution drove to transition from working purely on economic development to incorporating a rights-based framework.

Starting with building a framework to understand the Anti-Femicide Law, AFEDES shifted its programs so that all stakeholders were informed and trained to take advantage of this law. Workshops were carried out with the Peace Judges, members of the police department, and education and health authorities to learn how to deal with a woman who has put a denouncement of violence committed against her. AFEDES also coordinated radio broadcasts/shows to communicate to the general public the existence of the Anti-Femicide Law and to stress the importance of women registering a claim under this law.

As many indigenous women are illiterate or are used to the traditional patriarchal norms, they did not easily recognize violence made against them, nor would they be informed of the Anti-Femicide Law if the Department of Justice were not disseminating this information amongst its judges. AFEDES developed a curriculum program for indigenous women to identify violence against women and implemented workshops with information on available government resources.

AFEDES has now become a serious advocate for women’s rights and when AFEDES accompanies a woman survivor of violence to the police to submit her case, the police will respond in a serious manner, as they know that AFEDES will track their behavior.

But the work does not stop with just AFEDES influence. AFEDES knows they need to support grassroots women leader to become more advocates and agents of social change amongst indigenous women. Thus, AFEDES developed a program strengthening girls and women’s rights through leadership development of indigenous women.

This program was called the School for Women’s Political Education, which encompasses themes such as: • Cultural identity and diversity, • Roots and tools of various forms of oppression, • Ways to understand and respond to oppression, • Human rights and women’s rights, • Political participation, • Relationships between women and local authorities, • Women and feminist movements in Guatemala, and • National and international laws supporting women.

Graduates of the political leadership program have demonstrated strong skills in community organizing, political advocacy and facilitating participatory processes to develop community solutions to address local challenges. Particularly in the women’s area of rights, participants have learned to analyze women’s cases and elaborate strategies to engage women on taking action.

In addition to the School of Women’s Political Education, a parallel program initiated by AFEDES included family members of the women participants in separate family gatherings. In these spaces, family members have increased their knowledge, cultural identity, gender awareness, and women’s organizing. As a result of these family gatherings, the contribution that women make to her family, community and country in economic, social and political ways have been visibilized to their family members.

It’s incredible for me to see how AFEDES has become a strong reputable women’s rights organizations using a grassroots holistic lens to advocate for violence against women to stop now and prevent it for happening in future generations. I am comforted in knowing that the chances for another María Jose to meet this unfair tragic death are becoming slim and in its place, empower women are developing to join the efforts to advance gender justice.

Take action! This post was submitted in response to Ending Gender-Based Violence 2012.

Comment on this Post


Sometimes, I feel the battle has just begun, one will not with levity collect the kernel fruits from the shell. It is well with women worldwide.

Olutosin Oladosu Adebowale Founder/Project Coordinator Star of Hope Transformation Centre 512 Road F Close Festac Town Lagos-Nigeria https:

Dear KatZavala, wow, thank you for sharing this holistic and historical context regarding women's rights in Guatemala. The story about Maria Jose is so powerful- from your story it is clear that she was a strong and brave woman. Your point about men not receiving psychosocial support as they return home from conflict is an interesting one. There are so many drivers of violence and inequality. AFEDES sounds like an incredible organization providing support, training and resources to women and communities in Guatemala. It is inspiring to know that such an organization exists and that so many women are doing amazing things. This gives me faith and hope. Thank you!

Querida Kat

Qué increíble es que ocurra la violencia en contra de la mujeres en nuestra región .He sido amargo testigo de que a cualquier nivel educativo o económico esto se reproduzca de manera tan natural. He luchado contra mi propia familia para terminar este antinatural ciclo de violencia, para que la generación detrás de mi no sea educada pensando que lo mínimo que puede esperar de su pareja es violencia verbal. Nunca más,hasta aquí llegamos y alzaremos la voz hasta que esto sea parte del pasado Un abrazo desde México Klaudia

Klaudia González