Dozens of artists, students, and creative types recently poured into the gray, windowless concrete building that houses Guatemala City’s Attorney General’s Office. Once inside, the scarf-wearing, tennis-shoe clad newcomers crowded the two small elevators where attorneys in suits hopped in and out of each floor, curiously touching shoulders with the visitors. On the fourth floor the doors opened onto an empty space where four rows of plastic chairs surrounded a stage with two overturned desks. The rows were soon filled by attorneys, many of them women, holding case files and pens in their hands while the visitors scampered over—many never having set foot in the building.
All were there to watch "The justice that dwells within me"—a play directed by Argentine Marco Canale and coordinated by the Spanish Cooperation in Guatemala, the Cultural Center of Spain in Guatemala and the Coordinator of the Modernization of the Justice.
It tells the story of Esperanza Adelma Cifuentes; she is a survivor of domestic violence whose husband tried to kill her and left her with one arm. It also tells the story of 14-year-old Eva, who witnessed the violence perpetrated against her mother; Roberto Díaz Gomar, who works in the judiciary and fails to understand the need for a Femicide Act; and Donna Lucia, a Mayan woman who hears the blows her neighbor receives across the wall of her house. Other scenes show the cycle of abuse and the reaction to it in the larger judicial process.
The play gave a face to the numbers: the Guatemalan bureaucracy that seldom convicts and the blame and distrust put on a victim in a quickly changing post-conflict society where violence is the norm. But the reality remains bleak for women in Guatemala where femicide—defined as the violent death of a woman by virtue of her gender—is a growing problem.
This year there are so far 579 femicides (369 with firearms, 43 with knives, 132 by strangulation and 21 dismembered), according to the Instituto Nacional de Ciencias Forenses de Guatemala (INACIF), the independent entity responsible for expert forensic services and research in Guatemala City. With a population close to 14 million, the nation registered more than 4,000 violent murders of women from 2000 to 2008; an estimated 98 percent of the cases remain in impunity, reported the national newspaper Prensa Libre in February 2009. The violence in Guatemala surpassed that of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and Guatemala holds the unfortunate rank as second to Russia in violence perpetrated against women.
On April 9, 2008, the Guatemalan congress passed a law, Decree 22-2008, against femicide and other forms of violence (including torturing, mutilating, raping, killing, or beating) against women. The law legally recognized femicide as a punishable crime. It identifies four types of violence against women including femicide, physical/sexual, psychological, and economic violence.
The law was a step in the right direction. Still, in 2010 there were few convictions. In fact, there were only 127 convictions in cases involving female violence even though 46,000 complaints were filed to the national police, reports Fundacion Sobrevivientes, a Guatemalan nonprofit led by women’s rights crusader Norma Cruz. Domestic violence is a leading factor in cases of femicide, but many authorities refuse to implement the Domestic Violence Law (Decree 97- 96).
A report by the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission, Guatemala Femicide Law: Progress Against Impunity, details the governmental organizations created to combat violence against women and raise awareness. This includes the Presidential Secretariat for Women (SEPREM) and the National Coordinator for the Prevention of Domestic Violence Against Women (CONAPREVI). The Commission’s report traces the origins of the violence against women to Guatemala‘s 36- year internal armed conflict when the Guatemalan army, paramilitary (civilian defense patrols) and police used violence against women as a weapon of war. “Thousands of men were trained to commit acts of gendered violence and subsequently reintegrated into society,” the report states.
But the challenge isn’t just in enforcing the law; it’s in the conservative and traditional social fabric of Guatemalan norms. These practices clash with the changing role of women in an increasingly modern context where more women are joining the workforce and taking on roles outside the home.
Justices of Guatemala’s Constitutional Court recently heard the arguments presented by attorney Romeo Silverio Gonzalez (in an action filed by three lawyers) around the unconstitutionality of three articles—crimes are of public action, the criminalization of violence against women and the establishment of economic violence—of the Law Against Femicide. These articles, they claimed, were unconstitutional because they violated the private matters of married life. The attorney general and chief of the Attorney General’s Office, Claudia Paz y Paz, stated that the articles could not be unconstitutional because they protected women's rights.
A group of women stood outside in the rain to protest outside the court. It is these voices that must be heard if Guatemala is to fully mature into a society that respects the rights of all its people. People must be educated about the rights and the state must enforce those rights.
*Kara Andrade is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. She is a Central American-based freelance journalist who has worked as a multimedia producer and photojournalist for Agence France-Presse, Associated Press, San Jose Mercury News, and Oakland Tribune, among other publications.