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GUATEMALA: Elections Hold Out Little Hope for Women Victims of Violence

Inés Benítez

GUATEMALA CITY, Sep 7 2007 (IPS) - Although they have taken a tough stance on crime, the leading candidates for Sunday’s presidential elections in Guatemala have not specifically addressed the serious problem of violence against women, which has cost at least 322 lives so far this year, nor have they proposed concrete measures to combat it.

“They told me that if I didn’t hand over the money they’d kill me, but first they’d kill my children, my husband and my sons-in-law,” 43-year-old Sonia Rodríguez (not her real name), who has been living in the Survivors Foundation (Fundación Sobrevivientes) women’s shelter for over a week, told IPS.

According to official statistics, 603 women were murdered in 2006, 16 percent more than in 2005. Organised crime, in the shape of “maras” or youth gangs, drug trafficking mafias or human trafficking networks, are behind most of the deaths, Norma Cruz, head of the Survivors Foundation which has offered support to victims and their relatives for seven years, told IPS.

Cruz complained that while both right and left-wing parties have promised to bolster security in Guatemala, which has one of the highest per capita murder rates in the region, the proposed formulas are “simplistic” and fail to offer concrete solutions for the problem of violence against women.

Sitting in the shelter’s dining room, Rodríguez said that when she received the first phone call demanding that she pay 50,000 quetzals (around 6,600 dollars), she was working on developing social projects in the poor outlying neighbourhood where she lived. But the steady stream of threats forced the entire family to move out.

Asked in a televised debate last week about what they would to favour women and to combat “femicide” (widespread murders of women), the five leading candidates spoke of strengthening gender and ethnic equality and education, and incorporating more women into the workforce.

“But what good will greater participation do us if we are dead?” asked Cruz, whose Foundation provides assistance in more than 40 cases a day.

Records show that 10 percent of women murder victims in Guatemala are killed by their husband or partner, another 10 percent are killed in family or neighbourhood feuds, and 80 percent are the victims of organised crime.

“There is a heavy burden of hatred towards women,” said Cruz, a former guerrilla fighter who said the violence dates back to the country’s 1960-1996 armed conflict, because “the revolutionary movement demobilised, but the infrastructure of war and terror was not dismantled.”

Official figures indicate that 2,857 people were murdered in this country of 13 million, most of them by firearm, in the first half of 2007.

Although men make up a much larger proportion of the murder victims than girls and women, many of the female victims are killed with extreme cruelty, and in a grisly fashion.

In an Aug. 31 statement, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights expressed its concern over “A marked increase in organised crime, criminal activity and violence against women, a resurgence of actions against human rights defenders and the impunity that prevails”.

“It’s painful. I won’t be able to return to my house, my projects, my church, my people,” said Rodríguez, a married mother of five who has four grandchildren.

As she talked, sometimes with tears in her eyes, she kept her cell-phone nearby, in case she received a call from “the bad guys,” as she refers to them. She has added their number to her list of contacts, because she has to keep “negotiating” the amount of money she will have to pay her extortioners.

“If you don’t give them the money, they kill you,” said Rodríguez, who added that she is “not very hopeful that the police will put a stop to this,” even though she filed a complaint and the police traced the phone calls to a local prison.

Ana Gladis Ollas, the head of the Women’s Rights Section in Guatemala’s Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, told IPS that “no political party has promised to put a greater emphasis on tackling the problem of violent deaths of women.”

In Guatemala, the official poverty rate is 51 percent, but unofficial estimates put the figure closer to 80 percent. And among the indigenous majority, the rate is even higher.

IPS asked representatives of the different parties what they proposed to do to deal with the problem of violence against women.

Parliamentary Deputy Myrna Ponce of the right-wing Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), the main opposition party, said the problem has not been put on the political agenda and “is largely invisible because we (women) are seen as a minority.”

Ponce, who proposes the creation of specific courts for women, acknowledged to IPS that there have been no real efforts to tackle femicide because the problem has been turned into an “ideological issue” in an extremely “machista” or sexist society.

On Sunday, voters in Guatemala will choose between 14 presidential candidates, and will also elect a new vice president, mayors and legislators. If no presidential candidate wins over 50 percent of the votes, the two candidates who obtained the greatest number of votes in the first round will go to a Nov. 4 runoff.

The centre-left National Union of Hope (UNE), placed by the latest opinion polls only one-tenth of a percentage point behind the front-running rightwing Patriotic Party (PP), presented a draft law against femicide to Congress in June 2006, which is still pending approval.

The draft law seeks to strengthen the role of the state in the investigation of these crimes, and to provide better legal protection for women.

National women’s coordinator and UNE candidate for Congress Mauri Estrada told IPS that the issue is absent from political debate “because of lack of knowledge.” She said her plans include reforming the law on domestic violence, creating specialised prosecution services and expanding the budget of the institutions fighting the problem.

René de León, coordinator of the government programme of the PP, which promises to take an “iron-fisted” approach to crime, told IPS of their proposal to create “a dedicated task force to combat crimes against women.”

Most cases of violence against women are never investigated, and only a small fraction of those that do make it to court result in the offender being sentenced. In 2006, judges sentenced 12 people, one to 60 years in jail and the rest to 50 years. Furthermore, the legal proceedings are slow, and it can take three years for a case to come to trial.

Many crimes go unpunished because few families are willing to take the perpetrators to court, “for fear of being killed,” said Cruz.

“If a woman is raped, she feels too ashamed to report it. The system discourages her,” she said, criticising the public prosecutor’s office for recommending that rape victims come to a financial arrangement with the rapist, even when they have become pregnant by him.

The Survivors Foundation, which has a staff of 30, receives a congressional grant of 200,000 dollars a year. But this is insufficient, Cruz said, pointing out that there are only four women’s shelters in the whole of Guatemala, including hers.

The Survivors Foundation shelter can accommodate 25 people. At the moment, six people live there in addition to Rodríguez: another woman and her three children, and two teenagers, 13 and 14 years old. The eldest witnessed the murders of her boyfriend and her brother.

The house has a formidable security system, including armed guards, surveillance cameras and an electric fence. But inside the walls are painted in bright colours, and there is a sunny playroom full of children’s toys.

Rodríguez showed photos of two of her grandchildren, and said she hopes that when they grow up they won’t have to live in fear.

“They can’t do anything,” she said about the politicians who are working up to a crescendo before the elections. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to me.”

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