Celebrating International Women’s Day in Guatemala

March 8, 2012
Report from IPJ Executive Director Milburn Line


The people of San Felipe Chenla, a Mayan Ixil community in Guatemala’s Cotzal municipality, were waiting for us even though we had arrived early. The Sister Barbara Ford Peace Center and IPJ’s modest justice project in Guatemala celebrated International Women’s Day with 300 members of a village and region that has known violent conflict and discrimination all too well.


This region was one of the last to hold out against Spanish conquest in the early 1500s. When the Guatemalan Army implemented a scorched earth genocidal campaign in Mayan communities during the armed conflict (1960-1996), San Felipe was designated a “model village” — an extreme form of social control in which the Guatemalan military converted Mayan communities into concentration camps. Even today San Felipe’s residents are involved in a struggle to ensure that a local multinational hydroelectric project complies with national standards for prior consultation with the community.


Given the almost absolute impunity for crime in Guatemala, justice efforts are usually a woeful endeavor. As part of our project’s legal empowerment strategy to build grassroots connections to justice agencies, the project has worked to find ways to connect to local populations through justice festivals, programs to support Mayan restorative justice practices, public radio programs and today’s celebration in San Felipe Chenla.


Ixil women leaders addressing the community of San Felipe Chenla

Those of us who spoke in Spanish were received warmly by the community, but you could hear a pin drop during the presentations by the most inspiring members of our delegation: women leaders originally from the Ixil region, including the judge of Cotzal and the regional representative of the Presidential Commission for Human Rights, who addressed the participants directly in the Ixil language without our needs for interpretation. Together with a second female judge in nearby Nebaj, these women leaders have become part of a core group of officials working closely with our project to strengthen Mayan communities’ access to justice in northern Quiché.


Guatemalan women have long been at the forefront of efforts for peace and justice. Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchu, who spoke at USD in 2010, has probably done more than any other person to bring the world’s attention to the discrimination and genocide committed against Mayans in Guatemala. IPJ Woman PeaceMaker Luz Méndez participated in the country’s peace negotiations and has since worked to end impunity for sexual violence during the armed conflict. Helen Mack won the Right Livelihood Award, the Alternative Nobel Prize, for her efforts to obtain justice for the Guatemalan Army’s murder of her sister Myrna, an anthropologist who worked to expose the army’s mistreatment of displaced Mayan communities in the Ixil region. She has since led an initiative to reform the police.


Sister Virginia Searing, founder of the Sister Barbara Ford Peace Center, speaking at the International Women's Day celebration

Today both the vice president of Guatemala and the president of the Guatemalan Supreme Court are women. There are more than 300 female judges, and Guatemala’s first female attorney general continues to lead prosecutions of historic human rights violations and address the growing specter of crimes against women known as femicide. The challenges of gender violence and discrimination remain immense, but the efforts of women leaders in villages like San Felipe Chenla and at the highest levels of the State offer a historic opportunity to finally realize the full democratic potential of Guatemala.


Our justice project will continue to work in San Felipe Chenla on a variety of conflict issues, with a committed group of women leaders. One of the participants in this effort told us this was the first time they had celebrated International Women’s Day in San Felipe Chenla. It will not be the last.