Working for change
A 55-year-old woman once resigned to a life dedicated to her husband and children advises the mayor of Guatemala's former colonial capital on local development issues.
A Maya Indian woman who had to stop wearing her traditional costume to get through high school now staunchly defends girls´ rights to wear it in the classroom. In
Guatemala women suffer extreme discrimination in one of the most conservative and “macho” countries in Latin America, but these two volunteers, and thousands like them, are gradually swinging the balance in their favour.
For 36 years, Guatemala was torn apart by a bloody civil war, which claimed 200,000 lives, and relegated gender issues to a back burner.
During the war, state security forces conducted widespread massacres of Maya Indians in suspected rebel strongholds and picked off thousands of community and political leaders through selective assassinations and “disappearances.”
In many cases women stepped in to replace their dead husbands at the forefront of organisations demanding justice. Yet these very women faced a double discrimination - being both women and Indian.
In 1997 as part of the peace accords signed by leftist rebels and the government, the National Women's Forum was set up.
Despite lack of resources, it has given once voiceless women the chance to propose fundamental changes to the country through a central co-ordinating committee of women from government and civil society.
Following surveys carried out in 1998-9, in which 35,000 women set down demands on issues ranging from economic policy to political participation, it was found that hundreds of thousands of rural women, mostly Mayas, had no personal documents or even proof of their existence.
The next steps…
The forum set about trying to remedy the situation and a nation wide campaign to enable these “invisible women” to register themselves and thus gain voting rights heavily influenced recent government legislation on the issue.
An educational reform to make the school system fairer for girls, especially Indian girls, is among the next issues on the forum’s agenda.
Yet women are aware that they still have a long way to go. Unless the other half of Guatemalan society is made to understand the benefit of sharing the load in society, recent advances could easily disintegrate.