New Internationalist

Femicide: Guatemala’s growing epidemic

Woman in Guatemala

Photo by DavidDennisPhotos under a CC Licence

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.

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  1. #1 tony duxbury 23 Aug 11

    I used to live in Guatemala and it's sad that most of the news is bad. A good article. There were a few women taxi drivers catering exclusively to women, but not many. The idea of buses is a better one.

  2. #2 Bob Cruickshank 23 Aug 11

    Very discouraging that this femicide is continuing. I hope and pray that Guatemala and other countries find a ’cure’ for this violence

  3. #3 pippy 23 Aug 11

    Excellent article, hugely important.

  4. #4 swaneagle harijan 30 Aug 11

    Given the escalation of rape all over the world and growing femicide, i am sadly not surprised by the increasing number of women tormented and killed in Guatemala. This is of deep interest to me as one who has been raped, having daughters and having heard so many stories of rape from m daughters' friends. I also drove the mother of one of the mutilated, raped and murdered young women of Ciudad Juarez. She told the anguishing story up to 3 times a day, which was a horror for her in itself. The killings continue and such killings spread in the US. Because women's issues are not important to most, even other women, we will see this intensify everywhere. I fear it heralds a insidious hatred that will be the downfall of all humanity. When i try talking to people about how terrible rape and abuse is in the community where i live, few respond. The perpetrators go free or are release within months of attacks against young women. It is sickening. I believe in these times of impunity for the very wealthy and killers of women, that the expendable are being eliminated. I see this as ecocide, femicide, genocide so lands and resources can be taken to continue insane profits at the cost of healthy community. Globalized death squad corporate profiteering has increased the denigration of women, children and men.

  5. #5 Axuan 13 Sep 11

    Such is the land of eternal violence, corruption and impunity.... a disgrace!

  6. #6 Isabelle F 17 Sep 11

    What happens in Guatemala is horrendous... violence everywhere, selfish attitudes and corruption, inequality and a lack of sensitivity towards the well being of others. I am Guatemalan born and raised, but decided to leave.. its a system that seems unbound to change in the short term...

  7. #7 Manuel 17 Sep 11

    Guatemala is one of the most beautiful countries I have ever been to, and its people are some of the nicest. Yes, it has a problem with violence, drugs and corruption – as do most developing countries - but this does not mean people should turn their backs on it or give up hope that things can change. Last week’s general elections had the highest turn out ever with 68% of Guatemalans going to the polls to vote. This shows that we are not all “selfish people” with “a lack of sensitivity towards the well-being of others”. We must keep fighting for the change we so desperately need. Thank you for your coverage of this area.

  8. #8 Nora Reyes 26 May 15

    I'm from Guatemala City and I'm also a survivor. I was attacked by my ex-husband in August 2013. I got so many injuries in my face being the worst one at my right eye and I lost it. I consider my self lucky; I'm a new woman since then. However the scare takes time in disappear. Femicide is common in my Country as much as men going to jail because a Judge found them guilty; jail is not a guarantee that it won't happen again. This kind of men are misogynist and they will do whatever they can to end the situation one day they started. Hitmen are available to do the dirty work. In Guatemala the Justice System is so weak that is why violence has become unstoppable. I got help in Fundacion Sobrevivientes and I am convinced they make a wonderful job with every woman. Now I'm living in New Jersey, waiting for a favorable resolution about my Asylum application. Thanks for the article, we need to be heard!

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About the author

Anna-Claire Bevan a New Internationalist contributor

Anna-Claire Bevan is a freelance journalist currently based in Guatemala City. She writes about political, environmental and social issues for magazines both in Guatemala and back home in the UK. Anna originally set up her first blog Vida Latina as a result of her travels in Latin America and frustrations at the lack of international media coverage that this area of the world receives.

Read more by Anna-Claire Bevan

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