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Indigenous Women take on a big fight in Guatemala

May 2010

Last week, I met with representatives from the National Women’s Commission of the Via Campesina – Guatemala. The Commission comprises women from four different peasant and indigenous organizations. As I entered the small office, I quickly recognized familiar faces from my last meeting with them in 2009, except for one young woman sitting in the corner with an open notebook: Julieta. The new National Coordinator for Women of our partner the National Coordination of Indigenous People’s and Campesinos (CONIC), Julieta is a soft-spoken leader facing the enormous task of coordinating rural women from 475 Mayan communities. The courage and political skills of individuals, such as Julieta, are all the more impressive considering the fact they are up against formidable challenges – old and new – with minimal resources and support.

After introductions, I learned that Emilia, the general coordinator of the National Coalition of Guatemalan Widows (CONAVIGUA), was unable to participate in the meeting. Instead, she had the difficult task of announcing the assassination of a colleague, a reality that has become frighteningly common in Guatemala and throughout the region.

Evelinda Miranda, a 25-year-old Mayan community organizer, had been killed the day before in an ambush. Evelinda and seven other community representatives were attacked as they returned from a meeting with congressmen to discuss tensions between the government and local communities. Evelinda was one of the leaders in the negotiation process to solve the conflict. The case, according to my colleagues here, grew into a conflict because the government neglected the complaints from families in San Marcos, a community in northwest Guatemala, about the scandalous increase in the electricity fees. Without any response from the government, communities started boycotting the electrical company and began interrupting the electrical service.

Evelinda’s death dominated our conversation. The women of the Via Campesina wanted to talk about solutions to the growing repression and threats to “human right defenders.” These front-line community organizers are being unjustly targeted for defending indigenous communities’ territorial rights against the invasion of transnational operations. Seneida, the national secretary of the women’s sector of the Committee for Campesino Unity (CUC), put it this way: “In Guatemala, people are being prevented from defending their rights. But we women will continue speaking up, demanding an end to the violence, the repression and evictions from our land.”

The women of the Via Campesina – Guatemala have denounced the national government for neglecting the results of 40 community referendums, each demanding the immediate halt to mining and agribusiness operations in their native indigenous territory. These transnational companies hope to confuse or sedate communities with false promises of development. In fact, however, foreign investments in mining, hydro-power dams and agribusinesses threaten to uproot families from their native land and destroy local environments, all without the full and informed consent of local communities.

Women representatives of the Via Campesina – Guatemala are leading the way for an overall change in the development policies for Guatemala.

Their first step is to overcome challenges in male-dominated decision-making spaces in their own organizations, as well as society at large. For instance, women leaders often find it difficult to participate actively in decisions when high ranking male colleagues offer little recognition or support for their work. Outside of their organizations, journalists often prefer to interview men than women, thus preventing female organizers from expressing their views and perspectives to a broader audience.

Women of the Via Campesina – Guatemala have set high goals for themselves. For Irene Barrientos, another member of CUC, “the frustration we, women of CUC, feel is the same as women from CONIC. We use different methods in our struggle, but we understand that our suffering is the same when our land is being taken away. We are united against social programs that offer crumbs instead of our rights. The handouts that the government offers end up in the hands of the men, instead of benefiting us all.”

To advance their coordinated work, the National Women’s Commission organized two workshops in different areas. The results were immediate. Other women showed interest in participating in learning exchanges and wanted to organize together in their communities as women, regardless of  their ethnic group or organizational affiliation.

Boosted by their energy, the National Commission has put forward a work plan to address the following issues:

  • Immediate enforcement of Article 169 of the International Labor Organization. Women of Via Campesina – Guatemala are demanding that the government of Guatemala, as signatory of the ILO Convention, cease all mining operations in indigenous territories. They have organized marches and workshops to educate other women about their territorial rights. 
  • Better schools and universal quality health care. They are demanding quality education and health care for all. 
  • Protection of Creole seeds as a heritage of humankind. Mayan representatives are working to stop the erosion of biodiversity created by commercial seeds and the growing monopolization of seeds and food production by transnational corporations such as Monsanto. Via Campesina – Guatemala’s women are organizing seed saving trainings, seed banks and seed swap fairs. 
  • End to the political manipulation of communities through government handouts.
  • End of all forms of violence against women. The group is leading the implementation of the global campaign to end violence against women in the country. Guatemala has one of the highest rates of femicide in the region. Women of the Via Campesina – Guatemala want to end all forms of violence against women – from domestic violence to human rights violations to threats against economic, cultural and social rights.

It is worth noting that other women’s organizations in Mesoamerica are working together to push forward those same demands. The courage and determination of the women of the Via Campesina – Guatemala is impressive. They are an inspiration for all of us who believe in social justice.



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