As hundreds of Guatemalan women marched on 8 March to commemorate International Women's Day and demand equal rights and justice, the country’s parliament was preparing to deal them an unprecedented blow.
That same evening, the Guatemalan Congress passed a bill that prohibits same-sex marriage, increases prison terms for women who have abortions and miscarriages, and bans sex education in schools. Known as the ‘law for life and family’, it also legalises homophobic speech.
The Guatemalan ombudsman, Amnesty International and several other human rights organisations denounced the bill. “Guatemala Congress is legalising institutionalised violence and discrimination against women, girls and the LGBTIQ+ community,” said Erika Guevara Rosas, Amnesty’s director for the Americas.
“This law violates the most basic human rights,” prominent Guatemalan feminist lawyer Stephanie Rodríguez told openDemocracy. “This is a nefarious bill that criminalises women because it treats abortion as a crime and threatens sexual diversity.”
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However, in an unforeseen turn of events, president Alejandro Giammattei announced two days later that he would not support the law and, if necessary, would veto it. “It violates two international conventions to which Guatemala is a signatory,” he said in a speech shared on social media. “It suffers from technical deficiencies and it violates the constitution.”
Threat to sexual and reproductive rights
The legislation represents a considerable threat to sexual and reproductive rights, and shows how evangelical anti-rights groups have penetrated positions of power. Formerly known as Bill 5272, it was drafted by a group of evangelical churches in 2017, introduced to Congress, then shelved until this year, when a conservative majority revived it.
Currently, abortion is permitted only if a woman’s life is at serious risk, and has to be approved by a doctor. The new law would see abortion require sign-off by three gynaecologists.
It would also increase the existing penalties for abortion – one to three years in prison (as established in the country’s penal code) – to five to ten years. It introduces jail terms (one to three years) for women who “attempt” to have an abortion, and even for women who are deemed “culpable” for miscarriage.
The new law would prohibit marriage and civil unions “between people of the same sex”. It would ban public and private schools from “promoting” policies or programmes that teach “non-heterosexual behaviours”, or seek to “deviate their identity according to their birth sex”.
The law also says that “no person can be criminally prosecuted for rejecting sexual diversity and gender ideology” – effectively legalising homophobia.
Although Giammattei’s new position might stop the ‘law for life and family’ for now, there is little hope that he will commit to progressive policies. In 2019, as a presidential candidate, he cemented alliances with religious and conservative groups, signing a commitment against legal abortion and equal marriage rights, proposed by the powerful Association for Life and Family (AFI).
In 2020, his government signed the anti-abortion Geneva Consensus, championed by former US president Donald Trump and endorsed by dozens of authoritarian regimes and six of the world’s least safe countries for women. (Russia joined last year, while the Biden administration withdrew from the declaration.)
Last year, Giammattei launched his own similarly named policy ‘for life and family’ that aimed to dismantle sexual and reproductive health services and rights for women and LGBTQI+ people.
On 9 March, the ultra-conservative Ibero-American Congress for Life and Family declared this tiny Central American country the ‘pro-life’ capital of Ibero-America. The president, flanked by Catholic, evangelical, Muslim and Jewish leaders, attended the ceremony at the national palace, where a ‘pro-life’ monument was unveiled.
Human rights record
Women who took part in the demonstrations on International Women’s Day denounced Guatemala’s human rights record.
Lucía, a young demonstrator who asked not to give her full name due to security concerns, told openDemocracy: “Guatemala is not a ‘pro-life’ country. Children die of malnutrition here. Girls are burned alive” – a reference to the deaths of 56 girls in a fire in a children’s home in 2017.
Guatemala is not a ‘pro-life’ country. Children die of malnutrition here. Girls are burned alive
Adolescent and child pregnancy is widespread. Last year, 70,036 girls aged 15 to 19 and 2,041 aged ten to 14 gave birth, according to the National Observatory for Reproductive Health. Many of these pregnancies are the result of sexual abuse, but abortion is not allowed in cases of rape, not even for minors. Most of these girls come from the Indigenous peoples, mostly Mayans, who make up more than 43% of the population.
"Our lives are worth nothing for this government, neither as women nor as Indigenous people," said Rosario Tujuc, a Mayan Kaqchikel from Las Libélulas, an Indigenous feminist group that took part in the 8 March demonstrations.
‘Women will fight back. We always do’
Dozens of feminist groups commemorated International Women’s Day with demonstrations across the country, a well as a farmers’ market and a music festival in Guatemala City.
Protests in the capital’s streets continued on 9 March, and several groups are calling for more demonstrations against the law and the ‘pro-life’ declaration in days to come. Younger activists like Lucía and her friends will continue to protest, though they fear criminalisation.
The Kaqchikel activist Nancy Sinto was recently prosecuted for “destruction of cultural property” after participating in a demonstration against cuts to public spending for health and education.
"The state uses [Sinto’s case] to instil fear in people, especially the youth, the new generations that have the idea of fighting for our rights,” Lucía said. “They put fear into us, but women will fight back. That is what we always do.”
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