Profile of Activist Luz Mendez: Legal Case on Sexual Enslavement of Indigenous Women in Guatemala

15 Mar

Women’s rights activist from Guatemala Luz Mendez has been presenting her legal case on the sexual enslavement of women during Guatemala’s civil war at the 57th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) this month.

Luz Mendez was 15 years of age when she decided to become involved in her home country’s political course of action. Guatemala had been torn by a civil war for nine years at the time Mendez decided to no longer simply accept the status quo. “The numerous years of political oppression and the lack of liberties were the call to action for me”, Mendez explains retrospectively.

Mendez became the President of her High School’s Student Association creating “a small democracy within my school”, Mendez states. It was the year 1969 when the world was shook up by a politicized, international youth that was not willing to accept military dictatorships, questionable wars and the ongoing, and further growing, already vast economic imbalance between nations and entire continents.

Her position in high school put her in touch with many more student leaders from other schools. “That really opened my eyes and I understood how much power we have, when we organize for a good cause and start advocating for our rights.” She moved on to become a noteworthy activist, soon to establish international recognition, by participating in the peace negotiations as the only female member of the delegation of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (UNRC), contributing to the incorporation of unprecedented commitments for gender-equity in the accords. In 1996, she was the only woman representative signing the peace agreements for socioeconomic development and democratization in Guatemala.

Mendez joined this year’s CSW in order to present comprehensive details about the legal case she is trying to establish for indigenous Guatemalan women who have been victims of sexual violence during Guatemala’s civil war. It would also be the first trial of this kind brought to a national court.

The extraordinarily bloody civil war in Guatemala lasted thirty six years total, from 1960 to 1996. All this time the government was fighting left-leaning rebel groups that were supported by Mayan indigenous people. About 50,000 Guatemalans disappeared and up to 200,000 were killed or went missing. According to a UN report released in 1999, called “Guatemala: Memory of Silence”, 83 percent of those Guatemalans killed were Mayan. The Guatemalan government to this day is hesitant to acknowledge the commitment of genocide, although it has been internationally condemned in the past. According to UN resolution 260A, genocide is defined as follows: “In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life

calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group”

A truth commission that had been installed in Guatemala after the civil war and was supported by the United Nations stated that “over 80 percent of the atrocities were committed by the army”. Current Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, to the contrary of his predecessor Álvaro Colom, has also promoted the view that genocide did not take place in Guatemala. Only in 2009 the former Military Commissioner Felipe Cusanero was sentenced to receive a 150-year jail term, for the disappearance of six farmers in the years of 1982 until 1984. “This was hailed as a landmark prison sentence in Guatemala,” Reuters wrote back then.

In February this year, the news that former General and Guatemalan Head of State Jose Efrain Rios Montt would be on trial at home for the crime of genocide, found great international support and positive acknowledgement. It is the first time in history that a domestic court is sentencing a former chief-of-state for genocide. “The Rios Montt trial also marks an important development in an evolving arena of international human rights,” comments News Network Al Jazeera.

Although several international courts established in the past 20 years have prosecuted individuals involved in genocide, the events in Guatemala are exceptional because the trial has been brought “home” and also because no ranking officer of the former totalitarian Guatemalan government has been held responsible thus far. The first public hearing will be held on 19 March.

Furthermore, the brutal victimization of indigenous women in Guatemala has not been rectified in any noteworthy manner as of now. Activist Luz Mendez wants to change that. In September of last year, fifteen Guatemalan women from the indigenous q’eqchí people testified before the High Risk Court in Guatemala City, with their testimony establishing the first criminal trial for sexual slavery and rape during an armed conflict in front of a domestic court. Moreover, as it applies to indigenous women, this testimony is ultimately helping thousands of women victims all over the world.

Mendez describes in her article, “I don’t want to die without seeing justice’: Sexual Slavery During Guatemala’s Armed Conflict,” the atrocities committed against indigenous women during the civil war:

“The history of Dominga Coc made a profound impression on the enslaved women in Sepur Zarco. Dominga, a twenty year-old woman went to the military camp with her two little daughters, Anita and Hermelinda, in search of her husband who had been captured by members of the army in 1982. After arriving at the base, she was captured and raped repeatedly by soldiers in front of her husband and her daughters. After several weeks of being brutally raped, she and her daughters were forcibly disappeared. Her body was found, in early 2012, on the edge of the river and exhumed. Dominga’s husband survived. He presented the testimony in the court. The story of Dominga Coc resonated for years among the women enslaved in Sepur Zarco and became a permanent warning of what could happen to any one of them at any time.”

According to the International Indigenous Women’s Forum, a “general pattern” exists that holds for indigenous women worldwide—that they have a particular “vulnerability to sexual violence.” In areas of conflict, indigenous women have often fallen victims to abuse by members of the military and are often subject to sexual enslavement, forced pregnancy, gang-rapes, sexual mutilation and killings. The International Indigenous Women’s Forum points out that “Historically, violence against women was used as a weapon in colonial conquests of indigenous lands, but as recently as the 1980s and 1990s, 1,400 indigenous Samburu women of Kenya were raped by British soldiers on their lands. In the 1980s, indigenous women were targeted for rape as a weapon of war in Guatemala.” In the 1990s, indigenous women in Chiapas, Mexico were subject to compulsory servitude in paramilitary camps. In times of crises, indigenous women are often forced to leave their communities and search for shelters and jobs elsewhere, which results in cultural and spiritual isolation as well as their exposure to sexual trafficking and prostitution as well as exploitation as domestic workers.

Nevertheless, Mendez is optimistic about her case. “We have any reason to be,” she explains. She is naming several groups of Guatemalan society that have been teaming up and are actively supporting the process. “Not only are the survivors strong women who have been waiting for public recognition for more than a decade, but women lawyers, psychologists and last, but not least, my group the Advisers’ Council of the National Union of Guatemala Women (UNAMG) have been closely working together to try and achieve justice for Guatemala’s indigenous women.” Mendez also points out that Guatemala has undergone a shift in dealing with its own history. “The fact that Rios Montt is now standing trial is giving me a lot of hope to also achieve public recognition and justice for indigenous women in Guatemala.”

 

–Lia Petridis Maiello

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