Guatemalan women protest against decades of state violence | News

Guatemala City – Marcia Mendez carried a photograph of her older sister Luz Hayde around with her all day. For Mendez and many others in Guatemala, Friday marked much more than International Women’s Day.

“My sister was detained and disappeared on March 8, 1984,” Mendez told Al Jazeera.

Luz Hayde was 34 when soldiers abducted her from her Guatemala City home. She was tortured for more than 50 days, military documents later revealed. A mother of two, she was the secretary of international relations of the Guatemalan Labour Party, and dozens of its leaders were assassinated and disappeared.

The party had organised one of the country’s guerrilla forces that fought the army for decades. Over the course of the 1960-1996 armed conflict, an estimated 200,000 people were killed and 45,000 were forcibly disappeared.

A UN-backed truth commission concluded the army was responsible for 93 percent of atrocities, including acts of genocide. More than 80 percent of victims were indigenous Mayan, many of them killed in the more than 600 documented massacres. 

“The violence during that era was very intense. You were targeted even just for having a family member involved in something,” Mendez said. 

Mendez holds a photo of her sister, who was disappeared on March 8, 1984 by the Guatemalan military [Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera]

The whole family was subject to surveillance by military intelligence, according to Mendez. In 1985, the year after her sister was disappeared, her younger brother Roberto was killed.

“Police beat him and then killed him execution-style with a bullet right here,” said Mendez, pointing to the centre of her forehead.

Annual march

Mendez was among the hundreds of women who took to the streets Friday, for the annual International Women’s Day march in Guatemala City.

Transgender women, domestic workers, indigenous midwives, and members of dozens of other organisations marched behind their groups’ banners. 

A marching band plays as a group dances on stilts during the march to commemorate the International Women’s Day [Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera]

Marching bands and stilt-walkers participated in the march up a downtown pedestrian thoroughfare to the central plaza, but the overall tone of the protest was one of indignation.

The night prior to the march, unknown perpetrators broke into the office of the Sector de Mujeres. Computers were among the items stolen from the alliance of more than 30 groups working together for an inclusive national women’s movement. 

Second anniversary of youth shelter fire

Early in the morning, people gathered to commemorate the second anniversary of a fire in a state-run shelter facility. On international women’s day two years ago, 41 teenage girls burned to death and 15 others were injured, many of them with severe burns.

Several government employees, including police, are now on trial for their role in the fire. The girls were locked in a room and shelter officials waited nine minutes as the girls burned before they unlocked the door. 

“It is one case, the case of the fire. But behind it, there is a whole series of cases that remains in impunity,” said Brenda Hernandez, a feminist activist involved in the movement for justice for the girls.

Some of the victims of the March 8, 2017 fire in the Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asuncion shelter had run away from home, fleeing abuse and sexual assault by relatives. But many faced more of the same inside the shelter. 

For years, girls reported being raped and forced into prostitution inside the state-run facility, but their protests were ignored. Two years ago, they were behind a locked door because they had helped facilitate a mass escape of boys from the shelter.

“They were demanding their rights, and the state burned them!” women chanted on Friday before setting off for the central plaza. Earlier in the morning, activists laid out 41 pairs of shoes in the plaza, each with a name of one of the teenage girls killed in the fire. 

“The state is a state that has permitted the violation of women in every way,” Hernandez told Al Jazeera.

Rape as weapon of war

Guatemalans continue to clamour for justice for the Hogar Seguro fire victims. At the same time, indigenous women around the country have been fighting for justice for the use of rape as a weapon of war by military and paramilitary forces during the armed conflict. 

Piedrina Lopez is one of them. She and 35 other Maya Achi women are pursuing a court case against six men for raping them inside a military base in the early 1980s.

“I was 12 years old when they raped me,” Lopez told Al Jazeera, adding that she then had to raise her four younger brothers because their parents were both killed.

The next hearing in the trial is set for late April, but a bill making its way through Congress is putting the case in jeopardy. The legal initiative would grant broad amnesty to perpetrators of crimes against humanity during the 36-year civil war.

The bill would order the release within 24 hours of more than 30 men, most of them from the military, convicted of rape, forced disappearance, and massacres. It would also release those in custody pending trial and shut down all current and future court cases.

The amnesty bill passed the second debate Wednesday and now has just one more debate and final vote before its passage in Congress. Victims, survivors, relatives and supporters continue to protest the measure, including during the women’s march on Friday.

“We want justice for what was done to us,” said Lopez.


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