Guatemalan women’s struggle for justice

4 December 2006

(part of openDemocracy's '16 days against gender violence' blog series)

by Cynthia Cockburn and Yolanda Aguilar


Women’s organisations in Guatemala work amidst intimidation and the threat of violence. Offices are raided and women are killed with impunity. But women continue nonetheless to struggle. Three years ago Yolanda Aguilar, herself a survivor of violence in Guatemala's civil war, understood the importance of women speaking out about the violence they had experienced, as a step towards both healing and justice. She came up with the idea for Actoras de Cambio ("From Victims of Sexual Violence to Actors for Change") to tackle both the psychological and structural aspects of violence against women.

Working closely with Amandine Fulchiron, she formed Actoras de Cambio through a partnership between the “National Union of Guatemalan Women”, who came to provide feminist analysis and activism, and the “Community Team for Psycho-Social Action” (ECAP), who brought expertise in psychology and psychotherapy. Luz Mendez became director of the project, and over their first year, beginning 2003, they conducted extensive research across Guatemala to find women who had survived rape and other kinds of sexual brutality and encourage them to give their testimonies.

The organisation had three aims.

First, to reveal the truth about the extreme sexualised violence against women during the thirty-six years of war in Guatemala. Although the postwar enquiry by the Catholic Church, the Recovery of Guatemalan Historical Memory (REMHI) and a subsequent report by the United Nations mentioned violence against women, they had not investigated in depth, and they failed to make recommendations.

Second, to promote healing in women survivors by enabling them to come together in small local groups to tell their stories and hear those of others. At each meeting a feminist woman from the National Union and a psychologist from ECAP were present so that a unified understanding of the problem of violence against women could evolve. National meetings have also taken place, in many local languages.

Third, to achieve justice. Some cases have already begun in the Guatemalan courts and in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica. The women plan a final “Tribunal of Conscience” in 2008. This week Actoras de Cambio are publishing a book – the first research in Guatemala on legal strategies against violence against women.

Passing on the challenge to the next generation will be essential to make sure these efforts have been worthwhile. Yolanda hopes their project Actoras de Cambio will enable women to move beyond heroic confrontation with adversity to something more positively creative: designing alternatives for peace, with a prospect of social justice for all humanity.

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