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Guatemala ranks among the most dangerous places in Latin America, especially for women. While crime and violence affects everyone, particularly community leaders, indigenous rights representatives, judges, and human rights defenders, violence against women and girls has escalated markedly in the past ten years.
In Guatemala, as is other regions such as Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and South Africa, women have been targeted simply for being women. This pattern of violence is called femicide to differentiate it from other homicide cases. Femicide is defined as the murder of a woman because of her gender. Femicide is often carried out with shocking brutality; many victims show signs of torture and mutilation.
With a population under 14 million, Guatemala registered over 4,300 violent murders of women from 2000 to 2008, and shockingly 98% of the cases remained unsolved. The majority of murders are committed by firearm in and around Guatemala City, and are preceded by rape or torture. Guatemalan activists, working to address the issue, face an uphill battle in a country with a long history of violence against women, gender inequality, and the institutionalized acceptance of impunity for offenders. The political will to address the rising violence against women was slow to materialize and took years of support and lobbying from women’s groups and discussion with the international community – including NGOs and the U.S. Congress.
April 9, 2008 marked an historic day for women and women’s rights activists as the Guatemalan congress finally passed the Law Against Femicide and Other Forms of Violence Against Women. The law codifies an expansive definition of violence against women and represents an important step in stemming the targeted and brutal murder of women. Furthermore, it serves as a model for women’s rights activists in other countries.
Yet this unique piece of legislation is not the end of the struggle for women in Guatemala. 2008 was the most violent year to date for women, with 722 violent deaths reported and many more cases of abuse. In the first two weeks of January 2009, 26 women were killed, with the number growing to 57 by the end of the month. Changes will not happen overnight; it is important to evaluate this law for its effectiveness and make suggestions for necessary changes. Rising violence serves as a reminder that the struggle to combat violence against women in Guatemala needs more support than ever.
This report investigates the history and context of femicide in Guatemala, the components of the law, and recommendations one year later.
Femicide in Context: A Culture of Violence
To understand why femicide exists in Guatemala, it is important to understand the historical, cultural and socio-political context of gender inequality, misogyny, and continued corruption and impunity.
The internal armed conflict, classified as genocide by the United Nations, contributed heavily to the legacy of violence in Guatemala, including violence against women. With torture regularly used as a military technique, the torment that women faced was of a particularly sadistic nature. Two comprehensive reports document the extent of the sexual abuses carried out against women during the war. The vast majority who suffered sexual violence were of Mayan descent (88.7%). It has been estimated that 50,000 women and girls were victims of violence.
The suffering endured by women during the internal armed conflict did not end with the signing of the Peace Accords in 1996. Organized crime, gangs, drug trafficking, and human trafficking have become part of daily life both in the capital city and also throughout the countryside. A lack of rule of law, including corruption, gender bias and impunity in law enforcement, investigations and the legal system have also had an adverse effect on women.
In “post-war” Guatemala, many retired army officers continue or have expanded their criminal operations. Narco-trafficking has increased along with poverty; it is estimated that 80% of the cocaine that arrives in the US passes through Guatemala, benefiting organized crime and corrupt state officials.
Gang operations are an increasing problem. Violence now affects all Guatemalans regardless of class, age or region. Women are often targets during violent initiation rights or as the victim of kidnapping for extortion.
Societal acceptance and perpetuation of strong gender bias and “machista” attitudes underlie violence against women in Guatemala, both on the streets and in the home. Women are increasingly becoming heads of household and have a stronger presence outside of the home, often working long hours and returning home late. These trends complicate the long-standing notion that a woman’s presence “in the streets” lessens her credibility as an “honorable” woman.
Perhaps the most overlooked element of violence against women (at least on the part of the international community) is domestic violence. Between January and August of 2008, 61% of femicides were due to domestic violence. During this same period, 45% of the 238 femicides took place at the home of the victim. Suicide among female victims of domestic violence has risen; there is little governmental support and attention.
Impunity in cases of violence against women and femicide is staggeringly high. Dr. Carlos Castresana, Commissioner of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), has identified impunity as the overwhelming factor in the femicide crisis.
Between 2005 and 2007 only 2% of 2,000 cases involving the violent deaths of women were “resolved” (some without convictions). Anabella Noriega of the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office also reported that in 2004 only one case out of 500 resulted in a conviction (a rate of .002%). Families and victims who denounce crimes against women are often faced with corrupt or indifferent police, strong gender bias, poor investigations and a dysfunctional judicial system.
The Guatemalan National Police force is understaffed, lacks training on how to approach female victims of violence, and is notoriously corrupt. Domestic violence continues to be dismissed as a “private” matter, despite legislation to the contrary, and gender bias permeates the investigative process and judicial system. In many femicide cases victims are initially dismissed as prostitutes, gang members, or criminals.
Perpetrators of violence against women operate in a climate of impunity; there is little incentive to change their behavior.
A Decade of Growing Awareness
Guatemala has taken steps to address violence against women, both with domestic laws and in its recognition of international agreements. The Penal Code did reference gender to some degree, but women’s rights advocates lobbied for additional measures that would specifically address the growing violence against women. The Law to Prevent, Sanction, and Eradicate Domestic Violence (Decree 97-96, 1996) and the Law for the Dignification and Integral Promotion of Women (Decree 7-99, 1999) preceded the Anti-Femicide Law and prepared the way for its passing.
Several organizations are also in place to help combat violence against women. The National Coordinator for the Prevention of Domestic Violence and Violence Against Women (CONAPREVI) and the Presidential Secretariat for Women (SEPREM) develop policies to combat violence against women and raise awareness about the issue. The office of the Human Rights Ombudsman (PDH) also monitors violations of women’s safety and equality. Other organizations assist female survivors of violence and families of female victims with legal aid, shelter, and therapy, including the Network of Non-Violence Against Women (REDNOVI), Survivors Foundation (Fundación Sobrevivientes), and the Women’s Sector (Sector de Mujeres), an umbrella group of women’s rights organizations. The Guatemalan Group of Women (GGM) documents violence against women in the country.
Despite these laws, violence against women continues to increase. In 2004, Guatemala had the highest number of women killed in the western hemisphere. The increased international attention on what was becoming considered a ‘femicide crisis’ helped women’s rights activists garner additional support from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, and other organizations such as the Guatemala Human Rights Commission and Amnesty International.
The Law Against Femicide
In 2008, the political will to directly address femicide finally coalesced. On April 9th, members of the Guatemalan Congress approved the Law Against Femicide and Other Forms of Violence Against Women (Decree 22-2008) with 119 out of 158 members. President Alvaro Colom signed the bill into law on May 7, 2008. The Law defines “femicide” as the “violent death of a woman by virtue of her gender, as it occurs in the context of the unequal gender relations between men and women.” identifies four types of violence against women: femicide, physical/sexual, psychological, and economic.
- Article 6: Femicide—25 to 50 year prison term
- Article 7: Violence Against Women
- Physical and sexual violence—5 to 12 year prison term in accordance with the gravity of the crime
- Psychological abuse—5 to 8 year prison term in accordance with the gravity of the crime
- Article 8: Economic Violence—5 to 8 prison year term
In addition to outlining these forms of violence, the Law Against Femicide features other provisions to better protect women and girls, such as establishing specialized judicial courts and a Crimes against Life Unit, charged with reviewing and investigating cases of gendered violence. The State also pledged 8 million Quetzales ($1 million U.S.) for the Centers of Integral Support for Female Survivors of Violence (CAIMU) under the supervision of CONAPREVI.
Analysis of the Law
A year after its successful passage, the Femicide Law has yet to be implemented fully. Specific successes should be recognized and applauded. Yet overall, the law has yet to make a marked impact on national statistics.
By criminalizing violence against women, the law reflects a gradual shift in the perception of women. The CAIMU have been providing much-needed shelter, medical care, and therapy to female victims of domestic violence and their children.
Perhaps the greatest measure of success has been the first conviction under the law. In February of 2009, Calixto Simón Cum was sentenced to five years in prison for repeated domestic violence under the law towards the mother of his children and a particular violent incident on June 2, 2008 in which he threatened her life. There is currently a second case going to trial under the law. These cases under the Anti-Femicide law should be the first of many to come.
Unfortunately, the law has not made a dent in Guatemala’s culture of violence and increasing violence against women. The number of women murdered in 2008 was higher than ever before. Many articles of the law have not been fully implemented and there has yet to be wide understanding of how and when the femicide law can be used instead of the Penal Code.
The media portrayal of femicide and violence against women continues to rely on blood, gore, nudity, and torture to sell the issue to readers more interested in photos than analysis.
SEPREM, the organization charged with developing strategies and influencing policies to protect the well being of Guatemalan women, has been criticized for focusing too much on its public image and not enough on women’s issues.
Finally, the law’s focus on prosecution – not prevention and rehabilitation – may be too narrow to create the kind of comprehensive results advocates hope for, especially with cases of domestic violence.
First and foremost, the law must be fully implemented in order to bring victimizers to justice, move towards gender equality, contribute to a paradigm shift in recognizing women’s rights, and begin to reduce violence against women in Guatemala.
The Guatemala Human Rights Commission, as well as other international organizations and women’s rights groups, have recommended several key initiatives in order to better implement the Law Against Femicide.
Comprehensive legislative and judicial reforms need to be made including full implementation of the Crimes Against Life and Physical Integrity of WomenUnit, support and collaboration with the CICIG, and increased arms regulation. There is need for support for women whose husbands are incarcerated under the law, as well as rehabilitation programs for abusers.
Greater protection is needed for survivors of violence, their children, and the families of femicide victims and expansion of services for women who are victims of violence outside the home. Funding is needed for witness protection programs and increased protection for human rights activists in order to carry out their work. Police forces should have specific training for violence against women.
A national education campaign is needed to address and educate on women’s rights and legislative tools for promoting women’s rights and seeking justice in cases of violence against women. Women’s organizations need increased funding. A shift in perceptions of gender roles and violence against women can be affected by a change in the role of the media. Programs for families of victims, especially children, are needed in greater number and availability.
The Law Against Femicide is one step towards justice for women in Guatemala. However, the safety and security of women requires increased national awareness, strong support and enforcement by the government, judicial system, and national police, and the civic participation to continue to challenge impunity, gender inequality, misogyny and violence.
Published: May 2009
Staff editor: Kelsey Alford-Jones
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