Open a newspaper in Guatemala and you are invariably greeted by the number of people killed the previous day (typically high) and the number of people arrested in conjunction with the crime (typically zero).
Recently, the number of females appearing in the first of these statistics has been increasing. So much so that human rights groups say Guatemala is witnessing epidemic levels of violence against women. Raped, murdered and mutilated, their bodies are dumped in rubbish bags and abandoned in public places.
The latest high-profile case is a missing mother of two, Cristina Siekavizza Molina de Barreda, who disappeared last month. Police are trying to locate the whereabouts of her husband, who fled with their children soon after the incident gained national attention. Cristina’s mother has since organized a number of marches throughout the capital, Guatemala City, to support victims of violence.
According to Amnesty International, Guatemalan women experience one of the highest levels of violence in the world; and while death rates continue to rise, convictions do not. Even Guatemala’s top law enforcer, Attorney General Claudia Paz, admits most crimes against women go unpunished:
‘The justice system hasn’t given violence cases the importance they deserve. And with violence against women, the problem is even worse,’ she says.
During the past decade, over 5,000 women and young girls have been murdered throughout the Central American nation: last year alone there were 685 targeted female killings. So far, less than four per cent of these cases have resulted in a conviction.
In December 2009, 22-year-old Mindy Rodas was violently attacked by her husband, who tried to cut off parts of her face with a machete. He was subsequently charged and sentenced – but not sent to jail. With the help of local organizations, Rodas was given assistance in Mexico to obtain extensive facial reconstruction surgery and later moved to a women’s shelter in Guatemala.
Seven months after her violent attack, Rodas left the shelter because she wanted to live closer to her community. On 18 December 2010, she was found dead in Guatemala City.
Since human rights defenders across the country regularly receive death threats demanding they drop cases, victims’ families are often too afraid for their own safety to demand a fair trial for their deceased. The state’s failure to exercise due diligence in preventing, investigating and punishing these crimes means the killers run free and the violence proliferates.
Femicide, defined as ‘the killing of females by males because they are female’, has long been a problem across Latin America, and over time the media has grown numb to the violence. Women from indigenous communities are often targeted for rape and other forms of sexual violence, torture and killings specifically because of their indigenous identity. Little is done to counter it: attacks are rarely investigated and seldom brought to trial.
Back in March, international human rights groups joined together to urge Guatemala’s authorities to take action and ensure perpetrators were brought to justice. However, so far little progress has been made.
‘Women in Guatemala are dying as a consequence of the State’s failure to protect them,’ says Sebastian Elgueta, Guatemala researcher at Amnesty International.
Female passengers are also regularly assaulted on public transport throughout the capital. To combat these attacks, public buses exclusively for women have just been introduced – covering routes throughout the city during peak hours. The line of Transurbano buses, which are decorated with pink ribbons and marked: ‘For Women Only’, have won over a lot of Guatemalan women. They say they feel safer on board them and hope the system will soon extend its hours. Congresswoman Zury Rios Montt, who spearheaded the campaign, is now pushing to implement a female-only taxi service so that women can move around the city free from sexual harassment.
NGOs such as Madre and Fundacion Sobrevivientes are also fighting back: providing women, who often lack access to basic human rights, with ways to avoid the violence. By educating them, equipping them with flashlights, enhancing their security and explaining their legal rights, they aim to reduce the number of women who fall victim to femicide in Guatemala each year.
Yet while NGOs and human rights groups can campaign for adequate policies, it is up to those who hold the power to implement effective programmes that tackle the core of the problem – pervasive poverty and legal exclusion.