Longing for Justice

Report from IPJ Editor Emiko Noma

 

When I first caught up with IPJ Woman PeaceMaker Luz Méndez at the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York, I gave her a hug and admired her scarf (we really like scarves around the always-chilly IPJ). It was purple, black and white, and matched beautifully with her outfit — she was distinguished as always. An hour later as I watched a film on the work she has been involved in lately, I realized her accessory was the same worn by one of the 15 indigenous women in Guatemala who made history in September of last year. More on that in a moment.

 

There is an urgency to this year’s CSW. Perhaps because of the theme: the elimination and prevention of violence against women — a topic which has finally received much more glare from the media as of late. As many as one in three women worldwide will be victims of violence in their lifetimes — an alarming statistic. The chair of the opening session we attended, hosted by UNDP and the Huariou Commission, called attention to the “unprecedented participation” in this year’s commission, including over 6,000 NGOs and their representatives in attendance. There is the urgent sense that this is the time to make change.

 

But the pressing need for change has been tempered in session after session by a longer view. All week, a quote made famous by Martin Luther King, Jr. kept ringing in my mind: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

 

Take the recent timeline of Guatemala and the work of Luz, who spoke on numerous panels, including the IPJ’s, throughout the week:

 

1960: A brutal internal armed conflict begins, hastened by the CIA-backed overthrow of a democratically elected government. Sexual violence is used as a tactic of war.

 

1996: Peace accords are signed.

 

1997: Luz leads the revival of the Unión Nacional de Mujeres Guatemaltecas (UNAMG).

 

Luz protesting violence against women, along with members of UNAMG

1999: The Historical Clarification Commission documents that 89 percent of the rapes committed during the internal armed conflict were against Mayan women.

 

2004: Several women’s organizations, including UNAMG, begin to identify and work with women survivors of sexual violence during the war. Soon, the Alianza Rompiendo el Silencío y la Impunidad is formed by UNAMG in partnership with two other organizations.[1] The alliance seeks to strengthen women’s agency through gender awareness raising and psychosocial support, as well as developing litigation strategies and providing technical support in court.

 

2009: A three-year research project aimed at building historical memory results in the first book of its kind, Tejidos que lleva el alma: Memorias de las mujeres mayas sobrevivientes de violencia sexual durante el conflicto armado,[2] or “Weavings of the Soul: Memories of Maya Women Survivors of Sexual Violence During the Armed Conflict.”

 

2010: UNAMG and partner organizations hold the Court of Conscience for Women Survivors of Sexual Violence During the Armed Conflict, a strategy to offer its participants access to “symbolic justice.”

 

And finally, in 2012, the long arc of history for 15 indigenous women kept bending toward justice. The women testified in a pre-trial hearing before the national court in Guatemala, charging that the military held them at a base and kept them for their “recreation.” The women were sexual slaves for six years. These were the first testimonies of their kind to be heard in a national court — an historic moment for the women of Guatemala and an initial step to end impunity for these kinds of crimes, but one that was years in the making.

 

For those whose lives are now being destroyed by rampant sexual violence, however, the King quote offers little consolation. As one participant remarked in a session on grassroots communities accessing justice, “If you want to make a quick change, make a law.” There is no guarantee that law will be implemented. How can these women get justice now? Is the hope of justice in the long arc of the moral universe enough?

 

(l-r) Elisabeth Rehn of Finland, IPJ Interim Executive Director Dee Aker, Luz Méndez, and IPJ Program Officer Jennifer Freeman at the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women

Throughout the week, our minds were also in Kenya, where ICC-indicted politicians were leading in the polls, where our colleague and our peacemaker from Sierra Leone monitored the election and count, and where three of our peacemakers were doing their part to keep the peace. For the victims of the 2007-8 electoral violence — and for those who experienced sexual abuse and rape as part of that period of violence — have they found any justice? When can they expect it? Can they assume they will get it if their next president and his running mate are wanted for crimes against humanity by the ICC?

 

And what does justice even mean for those survivors? “For many years sexual violence against women was the hidden dimension of the war in Guatemala,” Luz explained. “When we began to break the silence on those crimes, the group of 15 indigenous women courageously stressed, ‘We don’t want to die without getting justice.’” Justice for the indigenous women who testified was two-fold: that they could speak publicly about the crimes committed against them, and that the crimes would never happen again.
Justice means different things to different survivors, but just as long as the arc may be will be the longing for that justice. As Luz reiterates, “We all know that we still have a hard road to walk. However, it is the survivors’ tenacity, together with the alliance’s strong determination to achieve gender justice and gender equality, that is the source of our hope and strength” — which is why Luz wore the scarf of the indigenous women all week long.


[1] Equipo de Estudios Comunitarios y Acción Psicosocial (ECAP) and Mujeres Transformando el Mundo (MTM).

[2] Fulchiron, A., et al (2009). Tejidos que lleva el alma: Memorias de las mujeres mayas sobrevivientes de violencia sexual durante el conflicto armado. Equipo de Estudios Comunitarios y Acción Psicosocial, Unión Nacional de Mujeres Guatemaltecas. Guatemala: F&G Editores.

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