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Surviving the Sexist Genocide in Guatemala

Danilo Valladares

GUATEMALA CITY, Feb 8 2011 (IPS) - “He would punch my head all the time, pull my hair, smack and kick me. And he would make me wear long sleeves to hide the bruises; even on my wedding day I had a black and blue mark on my arm,” Heidi Velásquez told IPS in Guatemala.

Heidi Velásquez holding a photo of Mindy Rodas, before her face was disfigured by her husband. Credit: Danilo Valladares/IPS

Heidi Velásquez holding a photo of Mindy Rodas, before her face was disfigured by her husband. Credit: Danilo Valladares/IPS

“That’s how your days, weeks, months and years go by until you understand the circle of violence, which starts with insults, then goes on to blows, then the ‘honeymoon’, and then silence, until it starts all over again,” she said, describing her life with her husband and attacker.

Despite everything, Velásquez, a 32-year-old mother of two, was lucky: she found the strength to seek support, and put an end to her marriage, leaving behind 12 years of violence.

In this Central American country of 14 million people, 46,000 complaints of domestic violence filed last year made it to the legal system.

But thousands of victims of gender-related killings have not survived. Between 2000 and 2010, more than 5,200 women were killed in this impoverished country, most of them shot to death, according to the police.

In terms of gender violence, that figure outshadows even Ciudad Juárez, a Mexican city on the U.S. border that is notorious for the hundreds of unsolved murders of young women, mainly factory workers, involving sadistic sexual violence since 1993. These gender-related killings, known as “femicides,” rose to 306 in 2010, according to official figures.

Guatemala is one of the most violent countries in the world, with a murder rate of 52 per 100,000 population.

Velásquez has survived her personal tragedy, but it hasn’t been easy. She has to raise her children, ages five and nine, on her own; she is seeing a psychologist; and she is involved in a legal dispute with her former husband, who is accused of misogyny, child abuse and other offences.

“I don’t regret the decision I made. Our economic situation is different, but we have enough to eat and there is love in our house. Now the atmosphere is different; we don’t feel frightened or denigrated,” she said.

The risks of putting up a legal fight are enormous, as 23-year-old Mindy Rodas tragically learned.

The young mother of a five-year-old boy had part of her face cut off with a machete by her husband Eswin López in July 2009. She miraculously survived and immediately launched a legal battle. While she was recovering in hospital, the police arrested her attacker.

But her hopes for justice died fast. Just a few days later, López was released on a judge’s order, based on a forged document that was presented, which stated that the case had been withdrawn.

Rodas did not give up, however, and sought support from non-governmental organisations and the authorities to clarify the case, while she issued a call for the fight against violence against women in the local and international media, removing the surgical mask that she typically wore to cover her disfigured face.

In February 2010, she travelled to Mexico to begin reconstructive plastic surgery. But she plunged into depression and returned to Guatemala.

On Dec. 18, her tortured, strangled body appeared in the capital, alongside the corpse of another young woman.

They thus joined the ranks of the 680 victims of femicide in Guatemala last year.

The trial opens on Jun. 16. But Mindy, as she is affectionately known by the public in Guatemala, will not be able to testify. Death caught up to her before justice did.

According to the United Nations-mandated International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), 98 percent of all murders go unsolved in Guatemala.

“I was shocked when they told me Mindy was dead,” said Velásquez, unable to stem her tears. “How sad that the laws aren’t enforced here, even when all the evidence is in, and the proof of physical violence is in plain sight.”

Norma Cruz, director of the Survivors Foundation, a women’s rights organisation based in Guatemala City, told IPS that “women should report any attack, so that it will be investigated.

“As long as the aggressor is in the house, the chances that these women will be murdered increase,” said the activist, whose foundation is providing support to Rodas’ family and to Velásquez.

But the cost of reporting the violence is high, because “many of the women have to leave their homes, friends and families to avoid being found by their partners, and they also have to deal with the post-traumatic psychological stress,” Cruz said.

Financial difficulties, therapy and legal disputes are part of the challenges that the victims have to face, “even if they receive support from family members and friends,” she added.

But the violence can take many forms, and the victims have different ways of dealing with it.

“The violence I suffered wasn’t physical, but psychological,” Telma Sarceño, 52, told IPS. “It was subtle, and you think it’s normal, and you put up with it for your children, and because you don’t want to change.

“It’s seen as normal for a woman to be under someone’s authority, there’s an idea that you have to do this and be like this because you’re a woman; we have to change this way of thinking,” she said.

With that aim, Sarceño and seven other victims of gender violence staged a play about their lives, “Las Poderosas” (roughly, the powerful ones) in 2010, to raise awareness about domestic violence.

“At first I felt afraid to show the public what I had gone through. But as time has passed, it has become more gratifying. Especially because of the life-changing message we’re putting out there,” said Sarceño, who is aware that her case is not the most severe.

Fabiola Ortiz, director of the National Coordinator for the Prevention of Domestic Violence and Violence Against Women (CONAPREVI), a government body, told IPS that “10 years ago people didn’t even believe violence against women was a problem.”

Even though “it is a very complex phenomenon linked to the unequal power relations between men and women,” Ortiz believes some progress has been made.

“Today the problem has credibility, its existence is recognised, we have a law against femicide, the institutions are creating mechanisms to tackle the issue, and women are reporting more cases,” the official said.

Ortiz explained that her work goes beyond coordinating public policies to provide assistance to victims. CONAPREVI also works to change society’s mindset, through educational and informational campaigns.

But she acknowledged that change won’t happen overnight. In the meantime, the media continue to report on the ongoing violence against women: “Alta Verapaz Reports One Rape a Day in January” read a recent headline in one local newspaper, Prensa Libre, referring to a province in northern Guatemala.

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