Guatemala’s Women During the Long War: “Treated Worse than Animals”
During the war, during the genocide committed against the Mayan people,
the suffering of women due to the conquerors' patriarchal patterns was beyond words.
So much pain and humiliation has been transforming into a new consciousness
and forging a new leadership role among Guatemalan women.
Pilar Yoldi, Yolanda Aguilar and Claudia Estrada
Close to two hundred thousand dead and disappeared, one million displaced, over four hundred villages destroyed, two hundred thousand children orphaned and forty thousand women widowed. These are some of the horrifying consequences of 36 years of civil war in Guatemala from 1960 through 1996. What these numbers do not reflect, however, are the thousands of women who were killed, tortured or humiliated at the hands of the Guatemalan Army and state security apparatus.
A first attempt at this difficult analysis was carried out by the research team of the Catholic Church-sponsored Project for the Recuperation of the Historic Memory (REMHI). The REMHI report was presented to the public on April 26, 1998. Two days later the report's coordinator, Bishop Juan Gerardi, was assassinated under circumstances that the Guatemalan justice system has yet to clarify, in a country where impunity still reigns.
Specific violence against womenWhen the project was initiated, it was not the REMHI's intention to conduct a concrete analysis of the war's repercussions on women. But three years of work and the compilation of over six thousand testimonies, many of them from women, put the issue of violence directed specifically against women, and its effects on both the dead and those who survived, on the agenda.
According to the report, 90% of the war's victims were men. Half of the testimonies taken during the elaboration of the report were from women, but as they told their stories they did not specifically focus on their experience as women. Nor did most of them consider themselves victims. Instead, they basically denounced events that affected members of their families. In an attempt to put an end to this obvious invisibility, in which the women were unable to recognize their own victimization, our team conducted specific interviews with key female informants and organized collective interviews in the regions most affected by the war, in order to increase understanding of the effects of the war's violence on women's lives and on their participation in society.
The final document, “Confronting the Pain: From Violence to the Affirmation of Women,” analyzes the impact of violence on Guatemalan women, the ways in which they reacted to traumatic events and the leading role they played in maintaining the social fabric destroyed by the violence. The women shared the experiences of their communities, groups or families. But they also suffered specific forms of violence, reacting in different ways on certain occasions, redefining their role as women, and assuming a leading role in the recovery of the family and the community.
We uncovered the objectives of the most important forms of violence against women, especially massacres, rape, torture and humiliation. And we looked at some of the ways in which women stood up to the violence and its consequences under very difficult circumstances—often alone or in charge of their families. Women who saved the lives of relatives and members of their communities deserve recognition. Additionally, we must not forget that the first people to organize themselves to look for their relatives, publicize acts of violence and put pressure on the authorities were Guatemalan women. They were the force behind organizations such as the Mutual Support Group, the National Coordinating Committee of Guatemalan Widows, and Relatives of the Guatemalan Disappeared. From individuals searching for their relatives, they grew into organized groups, opening spaces in society for the search for the disappeared and the acknowledgement of the truth.
Genocide of the Mayan peopleNot only men, but women, children and the elderly were seriously affected by the horror, death, torture and degradation. And while the majority of reported victims were men, the differences diminished in collective acts of violence, such as massacres. Women were killed in 60% of the massacres studied and children in 40%, as the indiscriminate murder of children was seen as a way of destroying communities. Later investigations conducted by the United Nations' Historical Clarification Committee—a product of the peace accords whose final report was made public on February 25, 1999—use such acts as confirmation that genocide was committed against the Mayan people during the war in Guatemala: “Between 1981 and 1983, in certain areas of the country, agents of the Guatemalan State committed acts of genocide against groups of Mayan people. It reached the point of the massive extermination of unarmed Mayan communities they considered connected to guerrilla groups, including women, children and the elderly, and the application of methods whose cruelty horrifies the moral conscience of the civilized world.”
“Partners of guerrilla fighters”While for the most part women were the survivors, and had to deal with the consequences of violence on their families and communities under very precarious conditions, particular forms of violence were also developed for specific use against women. The testimonies collected by REMHI tell of soldiers arriving in villages to search for guerrilla collaborators, for example, and the viciousness with which they attacked women when they found no collaborators: “The soldiers told them: ‘If your husbands don't show up, look for another in town. There are so many men there, you'll be able to find a good one. On the other hand, your husbands belong to guerrilla groups and they’re armed.’ They gave one woman urine to drink, and when she refused to drink it, they said to her: `So you are the wives of guerrilla fighters?’” (Baja Verapaz, T 544)
One of the cruelest ways of pressuring women was violence against their children. The torture and murder of children in front of their mothers was used as an instrument of psychological terror. Accounts of savagery directed at pregnant women and their unborn children are particularly horrifying:
“One woman who was eight months pregnant had her belly cut open. They took out the unborn fetus and played with it like a ball. Then they cut off one of her breasts and left it hanging from a tree.” (Barillas, Huehuetenango, T 06335)
“What they would do with pregnant women was cut open their stomachs, take out the fetus, and just throw it into the trees.” (Interview 0165)
The cruel sequence of the massacresOf the 422 massacres documented by the REMHI, many refer to a specific way of proceeding against women. These massacres were not spontaneous acts of violence against a community. They were well planned and executed in a highly organized way. The general sequence of events for the “killing work” was to first do away with all the men. Women were separated out, to be used later on. First they would be forced to cook for their victimizers. Later they would be humiliated by being made to dance or line up to be raped before being killed:
“The army came and told them: ‘Maybe we won't kill you, but each of you must bring us a chicken. There are twelve men and twelve of you women, so go get us twelve chickens for lunch.’ The women quickly left and brought back the chickens they had at home. Then the massacre began: if the son did what the soldiers wanted and the father did not, the son had to kill the father. And if it was the son who didn't do what the soldiers wanted, then it was the father that had to murder his son. Afterwards a pot was put into the fire with the twelve chickens. Then the soldiers forced the wives of the murdered men to prepare a good lunch, after having killed the twelve men. They tortured and murdered these men and then brought some gasoline. When they finished burning the bodies, they applauded and began to eat.” (Quiché, T 2811)
Physical and psychological rapeIn the endless list of degradations, humiliation and torture suffered by women, the crime of rape is particularly prominent. The testimonies collected by the REMHI include 185 specific accusations of rape.
In a number of cases, rape was the cause of death. There were also sexual torture and sexual slavery, which included repeated rape of the victim. However, far more cases of rape are mentioned in the accounts of violence. In one out of every six massacres, rape was part and parcel of the modus operandi of the soldiers and members of the so-called Civil Self Defense Patrols:
“Six soldiers raped a woman in front of her husband [a friend of the testifier]. Rape by members of the army was very common. The wife and daughter of another man [also an acquaintance of the testifier] were raped by 30 soldiers.” (Chajul, T. 7906)
“One day I managed to escape, and from where I was hiding, I saw a woman. They shot her and she fell. All of the soldiers took off their knapsacks and dragged her along the ground like a dog. They raped and murdered her. Then a helicopter landed, and those men also took their turns with her.” (Nebaj, Quiché, T 11724)
To fully comprehend the significance of these charges, it is important to remember that very few denunciations of rape are reported in comparison to other violent acts such as torture and murder. This is due to the feelings of guilt and shame caused by this particular form of violence. If studies about rape in the western world surmise that only one out of every five cases are actually reported, we can imagine that the number of unreported rapes must be much higher among the Mayan women in Guatemala: “I was the only one who knew, because I was sure that if I told other people they would say that I brought it on myself. Because I was so ashamed, it was better to keep it to myself. I didn't tell anybody, not even my children.” (San Miguel Chicaj, Baja Verapaz, 1982, Case 5057)
Rape was a common form of torture for women. But it was not the only one used for debasing and violating them. Atrocious practices consisting of extreme sexual torture, including mutilation, were also used to murder women: “They found the mother dead, face down and naked from the waist down. They had cut open her mouth and taken out her intestines and her body was covered with blood. It was different with my sister. They cut off her breasts. All we could do was pick up her body and bury her.” (Vicalamá, Nebaj, Quiché, T 11713)
Women were part of the plunder of war, and raping them was a way of demonstrating power. It became an expression of victory, a way of thoroughly humiliating the conquered and punishing whole villages, debasing those who were considered the weakest according to patriarchal standards. In other cases, army officers considered rape as a means of humiliating and eliminating “the mothers of future guerrilla fighters.” Rape was also offered as a bargaining chip—a way women could stay alive.
In hundreds of different ways, violence directed against women acquired the characteristics of genocide in the sense that it was an attack on the social fiber of the communities. The aim was to exterminate the women and children of many communities, as a way of killing off future generations and the continued transmission of culture.
Consequences of degradationActs of violence against women are described in the testimonies gathered by the REMHI, but very few references are made to the actual experiences of women who suffered such abuse. It is likely that these omissions are largely due to the difficulty women have speaking about a subject they consider to be a personal stigma.
The traumatic physical and psychological effects of rape are not only felt by the individual victim. Along with the feelings of personal shame and alienation from their families that women suffer, it is quite common for husbands, brothers and fathers to feel responsible for the rape of a relative, impotent in the face of a tragedy they could not prevent. The cultural and religious values attributed to “purity” and sexual intimacy provoke very strong reactions not only on the part of the actual victim, but among family members as well. The resignation, withdrawal and sense of guilt that afflict rape victims increase their pain and the burden of being left orphaned or widowed, thus inhibiting them from taking action. And while injured or murdered men and women are viewed as heroes or martyrs, there is no comparable status for women who have been raped. Their experience is similar to that of the families of the “disappeared”: their suffering is never fully validated.
Starting over: Widowed and aloneIn addition to the huge personal and emotional load that the women had to deal with, many of them had to face changes not only in their daily lives but also in their social role. As already mentioned, women were the first to organize to search for their relatives, to publicize what had happened or to pressure the authorities. At the same time, they had to protect the lives of those who remained in order to guarantee their own and their family's survival. All of this on top of the huge emotional drain of the consequences of being exposed to violence: loneliness, a sense of being overwhelmed and low self-esteem.
During the years of armed conflict, women put their traditional roles aside, becoming the backbone of their families and communities. As the breadwinners on whom their family's survival depended, women were responsible for supporting and caring for the children, old people and the sick. Often, this was assumed while being forced to move to other communities, fleeing to the mountains or finding refuge in Mexico with children and relatives.
Many of the women who became widowed or found themselves “single” again, took on the challenge of keeping their families going without the love and support of their men. According to our data, widows are still one of the groups most in need of support: “I was left like a bird on a barren branch.” (Malacatán, San Marcos, T 08674)
Protagonists with authorityThe emergency situation induced many women to take leading public roles in their communities and in society in general, as they moved into activities that had been traditionally denied them.
Many of the traditional concepts about women's role and behavior have changed as a result of the war and the violence that destroyed the fabric of the community, and also as a result of many women's growing consciousness about their dependent condition: “I had to flee to the mountains, taking my grandchildren and my son, who was later killed, with me. My time is currently devoted to making nets and lassos, and growing maize together with my two grandchildren who were orphaned by the war.” (El Juleque, Santa Ana Petén, 1982, T 01791)
In other cases, the difficult situations they experienced have helped women recognize themselves as heads of the family with deserved authority. This re-evaluation of their condition shows their strength in responding to the consequences of violence. The enormous difficulties provided the opportunity for many women to develop self-esteem. Facing up to experiences of extreme violence and dealing with the effects of violent events has meant that, in addition to a greater self-affirmation as women, clearer demands and new ways to struggle for their dignity, many women now also have a greater social conscience: “We no longer want to live in the past. Our dead suffered enough. If we don't rise up, there will only be more suffering. If we don't recognize the importance of this, we'll never work it out. In order to defend ourselves and understand that what was done to us was wrong, we must study. We suffer because we can't read and write.” (1986, Salamá, T 3090)
Looking for loved onesThe search for disappeared relatives has been one of the most anguishing experiences that resulted from the political repression in Guatemala. It is a struggle that was particularly initiated and led by women. The endless doubt about what happened, where their relatives might be, the pain of not knowing if they are dead or alive or if it is possible to find them, are some of the infinite questions asked by those who, day after day, traveled all roads and looked everywhere possible in the hope of finding their loved ones.
The cost and sacrifice of these women's untiring struggle cannot be weighed or measured. When they understood that they had nothing left to lose, and that if they did nothing they would lose even more, they committed themselves to search. They found their strength in the courage that they attributed to the victims.
In this search, women demonstrated an enormous capacity for overcoming discouragement, recovering from pain and involving themselves in new endeavors: “The pain was so great that I think we didn't even realize what we were doing. All we knew was that we had to rescue our loved ones. We needed to rescue them. The only thing we thought about was the other person who, according to us, was being tortured. We had to do anything and everything to save them.” (Interview 015)
Searching became the only alternative they had for confronting the army and challenging the reign of terror caused by the disappearances. And it became the most powerful manifestation of the struggle for human rights during the worst years of the armed conflict. Mothers, wives, daughters and sisters of the disappeared were the first who dared to challenge the institutionalized violence plaguing the country.
Recovering their voicesNever before had women been considered important in the political life of the country. But in the struggle's most crucial hour, it was women who provided infinite examples of courage, perseverance and hope.
These efforts took on an organized expression in the beginning of the 1970s. The first Committees of Relatives of the Disappeared were made up of mothers and relatives who took action and raised charges on both the national and international levels. With the birth of the Mutual Support Group in 1984, the search for the disappeared became the principal organized effort in the struggle for human rights during the war's hardest years. Guatemalan society, still terrorized by repression, found its voice in the voices of the women who protested in the streets demanding the return of their relatives, and also demanding the justice that many others were too afraid to express.
Later, the evolution of the political situation and the emergence of different perspectives on the struggle for human rights brought about the appearance of new groups like the Relatives of Guatemalan Disappeared. Specific actions were also evolving. What began with mutual support and making accusations grew to encompass the investigation of massacres, being present at exhumations, and the demand for justice and compensation.
The hour of recognitionSome women became leaders of the struggle for human rights and their voices were raised in the international arena, exposing the situation in Guatemala. They struggled, and continue to struggle, against impunity, and for the rights of all: Rigoberta Menchú, Helen Mack and Rosalina Tuyuc are the most well known.
Other groups like the National Coordinating Committee of Guatemalan Widows have highlighted the importance of the problems faced by widows, one of the largest social sectors affected by the violence. They raised issues that went beyond the search for their relatives: the struggle against the militarization of the countryside and, especially, against forced recruitment. Processes of organization and reflection were also carried out among refugee women, focusing on their own particular circumstances. And a great number of other women have participated in broader social and political organizations.
The convergence of forces of women from varying social movements with women affected by the war revitalized many groups, contributing to the greater social recognition of their demands. Women, who for so long were invisible to society, must now be acknowledged as agents of change along this painful road. It is time that their contributions be respected and valued as examples of dignity and defenders of life.
Pilar Yoldi, Yolanda Aguilar and Claudia Estrada are members of the report team of Guatemala's 1988 Project for the Recuperation of the Historic Memory (REMHI).