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Central America’s Women Fighting Oppression

September 2007

[In September 2007, Saulo Araujo, our Global Programs Assistant, is visiting our partners in Mesoamerica. He’ll be reporting back about resource rights and food sovereignty issues in the region. This is the first of a series of three articles. –Ed.]

As I waited for my flight to El Salvador on Tuesday, I decided to browse the newspapers for news about the election in Guatemala and saw a small blurb about the defeat of Rigoberta Menchu. The newspaper article reads that Rigoberta Menchu, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, received only 3% of the valid ballots in last Sunday’s presidential election in Guatemala.

As a Mayan woman, Rigoberta has faced just about every type of major loss one could. First, there was the loss of her family that was brutally murdered during the scorched-earth campaign. .. After being forced into exile in Mexico, she lost her homeland for a period of years. During that time many of her Mayan brothers and sisters came to see her as an outsider. Most recently she has seen her Mayan nation in Guatemala divided on several issues including on the elections.

Some of the acid criticism of Menchu within Guatemala is a reflection of the violence and oppression against women in Central America. Guatemala’s recent election was one of the most violent general elections in the entire continent, with 48 candidates murdered. Even though the majority of the murdered candidates were men, the wide-spread violence has impacted women as they are already financially and psychologically affected by the decisions of their husbands, sons and brothers who chose to participate in the election.

Guatemala has witnessed spiraling rates of violence against women and huge increases in the numbers of women murdered over the past couple of years – so much so that the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission pressed for a U.S. Senate Resolution to pressure Guatemalan authorities to do a better job of investigating and prosecuting these crimes. Also in nearby El Salvador murders of women have increased with 118 registered cases only in2007. (Guatemala has the highest overall murder rate of any country in the Americas.)

On my way to the regional strategic planning session of the Women of the Via Campesina in El Salvador, I wondered about the reactions of the participants to the election in Guatemala and the violence in the region.

“In my country, the lack of safety is a major concern. Women and men are being killed almost every day,” said Eva Maria, an El Salvadorian peasant leader from the Via Campesina and the Latin American Confederation of Peasant Organizations (CLOC).

Living with such a harsh reality, the women of the Via show great resistance and leadership. There were 27 women from 4 countries and different ethnic groups, including Mayans from Guatemala and Afro-descendent Garifuna women from Honduras. Over the course of two days they discussed common strategies to defend their cultural, social and economic rights and to address the continued oppression and violence.

Via Campesina women are leading several major initiatives, including the campaign for food sovereignty. Across South America, they led street demonstrations of the Via Campesina and CLOC to highlight the impacts of agribusiness concentration and industrial ethanol production on rural livelihoods. In Mesoamerica, the Via Campesina women are targeting other major issues such as Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) and the production of genetically modified crops.

“Unfortunately, our comrades from Costa Rica are not present,” lamented Wendy Cruz, an organizer from Honduras, “because they are mobilizing to block the approval of the Free Trade Agreement. As we know, CAFTA [Central America Free Trade Agreement] is not good for women, for peasants, for indigenous women.” Everyone in the room applauded in agreement.

In fact, the infamous FTAs throughout the region brought more agricultural corporations than credit lines to small-scale farmers. In Guatemala, for instance, more food has been imported than produced after two years of CAFTA. Unable to compete with agribusinesses and large mining companies, small-scale farmers are being forced to abandon their fields and many have become migrant workers in the U.S. and Canada.

In San Salvador, American fast food stores are on almost every block of the main avenues. Women peasants fear that this heavy presence of foreign capital will exacerbate the social and economic gap between rich and poor and destroy local economies. They also point out the destruction of communities, local culture and the peasant economy, and, as the women called it, “the peasant way of life.”

Given that the threats of FTAs and Genetically Modified seeds are growing in their region, food sovereignty [the right to grow food and to eat food that was grown in a way that meets communities’ needs] was presented as a central issue at the regional conference. The participants applauded after Maria, another speaker who was a peasant from Guatemala and member of the National Confederation of Peasant Organizations (CNOP), when she said, “Food sovereignty is the protection of our lifestyle and our seeds. Food Security only guarantees food to eat [today]. Food sovereignty is the guarantee of our existence.”

The electoral defeat of Rigoberta Menchu perhaps represents a missed opportunity to end the oppression against women and Mayan people in Guatemala. But, from what I saw from the women of Via Campesina, they are not too concerned with the outcome of a national presidential election.

Their fight is much larger than that.

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