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Guatemala: Cristina Chiquín, Women’s Rights, and The Maya Genocide Trial of Ríos Montt
In a courtroom in Guatemala, the argument a lawyer used to justify violence against women was that it was not his defendant’s fault but “it was the women’s fault for being part of the war and getting in the army’s way”.
The lawyer was defending an infamous client —ex-general Efraín Ríos Montt — who has just been sentenced to 80 years imprisonment for crimes against humanity and genocide committed during his time as dictator from 1982 to 1983. But photojournalist Cristina Chiquín, 29, who followed closely the trial[i], explains in a phone interview that the argument used by Ríos Montt’s lawyer is an example of the prejudices that women face in Guatemala.
“In Guatemala we carry the stigma for the violence committed against us. When a woman is raped, the media says things like: she shouldn’t have been there at that time, she was wearing a mini-skirt, she was wearing sandals, or she had a tattoo; and that is reason enough to think that she deserved what happened to her,” explains Cristina, who is also an activist for women’s rights.
The crime of genocide that Ríos Montt has been convicted of was against the Ixil tribe located in the department of Quiché, north Guatemala. Ten Ixil women testified about the sexual violence that they, and many more, were subjected to. “After a community was attacked, women were taken as spoils of war to military camps where they were raped and forced to carry out domestic labour,” says Cristina.
The current president of Guatemala, Otto Pérez Molina (a.k.a. General Tito), was also an army major during the Ríos Montt dictatorship; he was implicated[ii] in the trial by a soldier who told the court that Pérez Molina gave orders to burn and pillage towns during the time of the crimes under discussion in this court case.
After Pérez Molina was mentioned in the trial, he went to Santa Maria Nebaj, a Quiché municipality mostly populated by Ixil people, to give away bags of groceries. The Indians were offended[iii] by this gesture, as they know Pérez Molina was trying to buy their silence, trying to avoid a scandal or any further implication in the court case.
“In Guatemala impunity[iv] is our daily bread. The [three decades long] civil war is over but this government uses the same military strategies to oppress people.
“The government is taking advantage of the fact that the press is focusing on the trial but there are many other things happening right now in Guatemala. Farmers and indigenous people are protesting over transnationals exploring their lands without their prior consent and the government is accusing protesters of terrorism. On the day the trial began, Ruben Herrera[v], a human rights activist, was imprisoned. He was arrested for supporting farmers and indigenous people in their fight against a Spaniard hydroelectric called Hidro Santa Cruz,” Cristina explains.
On 2 May, farmers in Santa Rosa Xalapan took to the streets to protest against the Canadian-owned Escobal silver mine. The protest turned violent; protesters claim that their actions were peaceful and that it was people in favour of the mining company who started the violence. As a consequence of this violence, Pérez Molina’s government declared a state of emergency[vi] in the area. This worries Cristina: “A state of emergency means that you lose your Constitutional rights, the army can do anything they want. Because of the atrocities done by the army during the civil war, we do not trust them, we are scared of them. Apart from this, during a state of emergency many women have miscarriages as the towns are blockaded, no one can go in or out.”
Women are the hardest hit by the fight for land rights: They have the pressure of supporting the family as many of them are single mothers; their husbands might be political prisoners or have emigrated to the US. They have to stand alone the pressure of the transnationals and the government; they suffer persecution and constant threats.
“When women fight to defend their land or their community’s land, they are discredited in many ways. For example, a woman is accused of being a witch. People in rural areas are very superstitious so an accusation like this does have a negative impact.”
Cristina works through an organisation she co-founded called Mujeres Ixchel[vii] (Ixchel women); Ixchel is a word in the Quechua language that means “god of wisdom”. She works through independent media or community media to tell the stories that the mainstream media is ignoring. “Our work is to tell untold stories. We are campaigning through cyberactivism for the defence of the territory, food sovereignty, political prisoners, and against criminalisation of women for defending their land.”
Through Mujeres Ixchel and Prensa Comunitaria[viii] (Community Press), Cristina and other activists are carrying out research and documenting everything that is happening to farmers and indigenous people.
Women in Guatemala face physical, psychological and economical violence, femicide[ix], and machismo, but the biggest battle is for land rights.