Civil Society, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-GUATEMALA: Impunity Fuels Violence Against Women

Inés Benítez

GUATEMALA CITY, Nov 24 2007 (IPS) - “I still have the scar,” says Valeria Díaz, running her hand over the mark left by her husband when he beat her eight years ago. “But it’s nothing compared to what I have here,” she adds, pointing to her head, in allusion to the psychological damages left by his abuse.

“The day he beat me, our relationship ended. I left home. That was the first and last time he hit me,” the 59-year-old Guatemalan mother of three tells IPS. She had been married for 30 years.

The domestic violence complaint filed by Díaz (not her real name) was one of nearly 140,000 filed in the last seven years in Guatemala.

In that period, there have also been 6,025 reported cases of rape and 3,281 women have been murdered, according to official statistics in Guatemala, which has one of the highest homicide rates in Latin America and is the focus of concern from human rights groups because of the large number of women killed in a climate of impunity.

“Unfortunately, in Guatemala, killing a woman is like killing a fly; no importance is assigned to it,” complained local activist Hilda Morales, who argued that “the perpetrators are encouraged to continue beating, abusing and killing because they know that nothing will happen, that they won’t be punished.”

A report by the Coordinadora 25 de Noviembre, an umbrella group made up of nearly 30 local women’s organisations, said that in the last seven years, only two percent of crimes against women have been solved.

In 2006, judges handed down a total of 12 sentences, one for 60 years and the rest for 50 years. And of the few cases that are actually brought to justice, some take up to three years to make it to court.

Díaz, who went to live with her parents after her husband beat her, filed a complaint without much hope, “because our laws are not enforced.”

Although this impoverished Central American country has laws aimed at protecting women from violence and has signed international conventions on the issue, there is a “continuing lack of will to recognise and respect human rights, which translates into silence in the face of a scourge that should be classified as a crime against humanity,” says the study by the Coordinadora 25 de Noviembre.

Morales, an activist with the Network of Non-Violence Against Women, which forms part of the umbrella group, complained that in Guatemala, “domestic violence and sexual harassment, the forerunners of the current wave of murders of women, are not even classified as crimes.”

She pointed out that until last year, a law was on the books that allowed a rapist to escape charges if he married his victim, even if she was only 12 years old.

The lawyer also noted that not until the late 1990s were discriminatory laws, like one that allowed husbands to keep their wives from working outside the home, amended.

Giovana Lemus, director of the Guatemalan Women’s Group (GGM), said violence against women “is deep-rooted” in the country, based on historically unequal power relations reflected in the oppression, discrimination and subordination of women.

“The education that we receive is at fault. From a young age, women are raised to see violence as a normal part of marriage,” said Díaz, who got married at the age of 21, and believes dependence on men forces many battered women to keep silent.

For Morales, a recipient of Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience award in 2004, “a lack of confidence in the system, compounded by the economic, social and emotional dependence in which these women live and are raised, makes it very difficult for the majority of them to report the violence.”

In the first half of 2007, 287 women were killed, 10.5 percent more than in the same period of 2006, according to the Guatemalan Human Rights Ombudsman.

From January to June, a total of 2,857 homicides were committed, most of them with firearms.

Although most homicide victims are men, women victims are often killed with especial brutality, after being beaten and raped, and sometimes tortured.

Morales said that although violence against women is nothing new in Guatemala, the methods used in recent years hark back to the violence seen during the 1960-1996 civil war, when “soldiers were allowed and encouraged to commit atrocities, not only sexual crimes, but also the mutilation of female bodies.”

A 1996 peace deal ended the 36-year armed conflict between government forces and the National Guatemalan Revolutionary Unity (URNG) which left a death toll of 200,000 victims, mainly rural indigenous villagers. A United Nations-sponsored truth commission held the army responsible for over 90 percent of the killings.

“During those years, women were seen as war booty that soldiers could make use of as they pleased,” said Morales, who lamented that these crimes went unpunished.

Lemus said that in Guatemala, “social impunity” surrounds violence against women, and that there is a lack of support and compensation for victims of rape or other kinds of violence.

Non-governmental organisations put the poverty rate in this country of 13 million as high as 80 percent, although the official rate is 51 percent. A majority of the population is indigenous, and the rest are mainly of mixed-race (mestizo – indigenous and Spanish) heritage.

The records kept by the Survivors Foundation of Guatemala indicate that 10 percent of women victims of murder are killed by their husbands or partners, another 10 percent in fights with other family members or neighbours, and 80 percent by organised crime, including youth gangs.

Inefficiency and impunity are among the central causes of the problem, said U.S. anthropologist and feminist Diane Russell at a Nov. 15 conference in Guatemala that formed part of the activities in the run-up to the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, to be celebrated on Sunday.

The activist said another major factor in Guatemala is the large number of firearms – more than two million – in the hands of civilians.

A law aimed at preventing, punishing and eliminating domestic violence was passed in 1997 in Guatemala, but according to Morales it lacks teeth, and its main objective is to provide security and safety measures like restraining orders and alimony for women who file complaints, which she said is insufficient.

Díaz complained that her husband, who emigrated to the United States after beating her, has never paid spousal support – one of the security measures that courts can order in cases of domestic violence, under the 1997 law.

Morales said there are “many shortcomings” in the investigation of rape and murders of women because “there is no chain of custody of evidence, safeguarding of the crime scene, or adequate gathering of primary information that could link the assailant with the victim.”

Pending approval in Congress is a draft law on violence against women which would make “femicide” and sexual harassment a crime, and would create public policies to prevent and address the problem, such as the creation of “integral support centres” that would include temporary shelters for battered women and their children.

The term femicide was coined for misogynist or gender-motivated murders of women, sometimes accompanied by sexual violence.

The Coordinadora 25 de Noviembre and other groups around the country have organised seminars, music festivals, walks, plays and other activities to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. The activities began on Nov. 8 and will run through Nov. 29.

Díaz, who has been receiving psychological support for the emotional and physical abuse suffered at the hands of her husband, believes that to break the circle of violence against women, “it is necessary to start by educating the human being inside us.”

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