The fact that it was International Women’s Day when someone chose to break into the offices of Sector de Mujeres is not lost on anyone who is paying attention. That Friday, March 8, as they were preparing to protest escalating violence and state violence in Guatemala, members of Sector de Mujeres arrived to a ransacked office, with awards for their peace and women’s rights either stolen or destroyed along with their computers and files. The March 8 protest commemorated the deaths two years earlier of 41 teenage girls who burned to death while locked in a room at a state-run shelter.
Sector de Mujeres, a Grassroots International partner, is a collective of 30 organizations across Guatemala with a mission to stand up for women’s rights and strengthen the feminist movement in the country.
According to a statement about the crime from Sector De Mujeres:
Es una manifestación clara de violencia patriarchal estatal que agredió nuestra casa-territorio y nos despojó de nuestros bienes e información importante para la lucha que realizamos.
It is a clear manifestation of state patriarchal violence that attacked us in our home-territory and robbed us of the tools and important information that help us realize our work.
This news comes at a time when the government of Guatemala is in the final stages of passing two laws that are a direct affront to human rights defenders in Guatemala, past and present.
One law – Iniciativa 5257, which would amend the Law on Non-Governmental Organizations for Development – threatens nonprofit organizations like Sector de Mujeres with having their doors closed if the Ministry of Interior finds them disturbing the peace or if the government interprets that they are engaging in activity that is not explicitly stated in their incorporation papers.
This motion dangerously and blatantly aims to limit freedom of expression of human rights defenders and obstruct social movements. With its newfound discretionary power, the Ministry of internal Affairs could, without a check to its decision, shut down any civil organization that it deems to go against the “law and public order,” including acts of protest or demonstrations against human rights abuses. This would be nothing more than another attempt at criminalizing and delegitimizing the civil rights community in an environment where there have been a recorded 493 attacks against human rights defenders in Guatemala in the last 15 years (most of which target indigenous groups).
Human rights defenders and civil organizations in Guatemala are facing attacks from multiple angles in part as backlash against their successful mobilization to convict high ranking military officials for their crimes against Indigenous People during the civil war in the late 70s through the 90s.
These gains are now facing an impending threat by a second law, Iniciativa 5377, that is also moving down the legislation pipeline. Ignoring declarations from the United Nations, the InterAmerican Court on Human Rights and US Representatives. Iniciativa 5377, known as the “amending the National Reconciliation Law,” would extend impunity to convicted military officials and many more perpetrators of crimes against humanity (i.e. genocide, torture, and enforced disappearance) as soon as this week.
Under the guise of bringing the country back together and “letting go of the past,” the expanded National Reconciliation law could set free those who have been convicted of conflict-era atrocities; release anyone currently in pre-trial detention; block any future court cases on the matter; and allow ex-military men who raped and repeatedly assaulted indigenous women to roam free and potentially retaliate against those who sought justice in the first place.
Under the guise of bringing the country back together and “letting go of the past,” the expanded National Reconciliation law could set free those who have been convicted of conflict-era atrocities.
Both initiatives have passed the second of three debates in Congress, where a motion to have the Constitutional Court review the motions was denied.
Human rights groups and civil society organizations consider these two pending laws to be part of a slow-motion coup from Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales and certain members of Congress who want to stifle and criminalize their opposition prior to the impending elections. Yet movement groups are banding together to stand firmly against these bold and targeted attempts.
Among the leaders in opposing these measures and organizing for justice and human rights in Guatemala is the Asamblea Social y Popular, or the Social and Popular Assembly, a grantee of Grassroots International.
The Social and Popular Assembly is a strategic platform where indigenous peasants, feminist groups and other politically-aligned organizations join forces to make collective demands for social change. Both of our partners in Guatemala (the Peasant Unity Committee and Sector de Mujeres) are part of The Assembly whose collective demands have included the resignation of past President Otto Perez Molina, fundamental election and political party reforms and convening a multi-ethnic and multi-sectoral Constitutional Assembly. Here they make another demand:
Pero la voz de las mujeres no se puede callar, porque nos merecemos un país donde se promueva la igualdad de derechos, lucha constante de la Alianza Política Sector de Mujeres… Nos Solidarizamos con esta organización, miembro de la Asamblea Social y Popular, y a las autoridades correspondientes exigimos que investiguen este y otros casos que son formas sistemáticas de ejercer violencia en contra de las mujeres. – Asamblea Social y Popular
“But the voice of women cannot be silenced, because we deserve a country where equal rights are promoted, the constant struggle of Sector de Mujeres…. We are in solidarity with this organization, a member of the Asamblea Social y Popular. And to the respective authorities, we demand that they investigate this and other cases that are systematically exercising violence against women.” – The Social and Popular Assembly
In light of this political context, Sector de Mujeres stands stronger than ever. In their words:
Nuestra lucha continuará, hoy más que nunca. Acompañadas de los movimientos sociales, pueblos originarios, y las organizaciones del movimiento de mujeres y feminista, exigimos a la comunidad internacional intensificar su vigilancia sobre los derechos humanos en el país, acompañarnos en nuestra lucha para evitar una restauración autoritaria y la perpetuación de los poderes facticos. Nos unimos a todas y todos los defensores de derechos humanos que están siendo amenazados, perseguidos en nuestro país, nos solidarizamos con esa lucha que es nuestra y reafirmamos hoy más que nunca nuestra convicción por alcanzar una vida libre y plena para las mujeres
Seguiremos recordando a las niñas del Hogar que no fue seguro, porque las autoridades permitieron los femicidios de Estado, de 41 niñas adolescentes, ocurridos el 8 de marzo del 2017, para que los horrores de esas muertes sean reconocidos por la sociedad, y los culpables sean condenados.
Our struggle will continue, today more than ever. Accompanied by social movements, indigenous peoples, and women’s and feminist movement organizations, we call on the international community to intensify its vigilance over human rights in the country, accompany us in our struggle to avoid an authoritarian restoration and the perpetuation of external powers. We join all and all human rights defenders who are being threatened, persecuted in our country, we stand in solidarity with that struggle that is ours and we reaffirm today more than ever our conviction to achieve a free and full life for women.
We will continue to remind the children of the home that it was not safe because the authorities allowed the state femicides of 41 adolescent girls on March 8, 2017, so that the horrors of these deaths are recognized by society and the guilty are condemned.