Femicide in the Aftermath of Guatemalan Civil War

Ever since I was a little girl I remember my father telling me about Guatemala with an almost mythic reverence. He had traveled to Lake Atitlan in the 1950’s as a young man with a group of archeologists to explore the rich waters filled with treasures from the ancient Mayan civilizations. He spoke not only of this beautiful country, rich and green, filled with ancient Mayan cities, but of a culture of people like no other he had ever met; warm and gracious, an intellectual culture that loved life, and loved and valued their fellow man.

In 1960 Guatemala became mired in a bloody internal armed conflict that lasted 36 years. Over 200,000 people were massacred, victims of genocide. That conflict ended in 1996, and my father decided to go back to the country he had held in his heart to see what had become of it.

Last year I had the good fortune of being able to visit my father’s adopted country, to see the ancient cities of Tikal and Antigua, two of the most beautiful cities I have ever visited. I also met many women living there, students, business women, domestic employees and other friends of my father. I soon learned of a horrific pattern of brutality: women were – and still are – being violently murdered, often tortured before they were killed. As news of this femicide started making the front page of Guatemalan and international publications, I began to ask the women, "Are you afraid here? Do you feel unsafe?" I was met with a resounding "Yes. We are all afraid. We are all unsafe."

Some of you may wonder what the term "femicide" really means. The term femicide was first introduced in 1976 by Diana Russell during her testimony at the International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women in Brussels. She used the term to refer to the killings of women for the simple fact that they are women, which, in turn, is a form of domination, power and control over all women around the world. The term "femicide" represents the most extreme expression of gender based violence, accepted both culturally and by society and most astonishingly by the State, which participates in a systematic violation of women’s human rights when its laws don’t criminalize violence against women and whereby negligence or the lack of political will results in almost total impunity for the perpetrators of such brutality.

The femicides in Guatemala are happening at a shockingly high rate. According to the Guatemalan National Civilian Police, the number of women killed has risen steeply from 303 in 2001 to 665 in 2005. So far this year, the lives of over 400 women have been claimed by this brutality. To date, over 2500 women have been killed since 2001. Exceptional cruelty and sexual violence are quite common in the killings, women’s throats are cut, they are bound, beaten, shot, and stabbed to death. Many of their bodies show signs of rape, torture, mutilation, and dismemberment. And although we often use the term women to simplify the discussion, girls as young as eight or nine have been targeted, sometimes with warnings or messages carved into their skin.

The brutal murder of a daughter, mother, or sister is barely endurable. But adding further injury and insult to the pain is the complete inadequacy of the justice system. Investigations seem to be perpetually stalled, wholly inadequate or even non-existent. The victim appears to be the focus of police who question why a woman might walk alone, wear a short skirt, or smile at a passerby. Family members do not see perpetrators punished and perpetrators continue to murder with impunity. According to Amnesty International, as of July 2006, only 2 of the femicide cases had resulted in convictions. The Guatemalan Government has made serious efforts to address this horrific problem. Those efforts have been welcomed by the international community. However, more must be done.

Guatemala is a beautiful country, rich with history, and home to extraordinary people. There is great opportunity for change and growth as the country recovers from more than three decades of conflict. But the killings must stop. A society in which women are savagely killed is deplorable. This is a human rights emergency that must be addressed immediately. As we listen to the family members of the victims and their advocates, please think about how you can work with them and with Amnesty International USA to help bring an end to the killings of women in Guatemala.

Samantha Mathis is a human rights advocate and actress who has starred in films such as Little Women and Broken Arrow. The above article is excerpted from her statement before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus on September 13, 2006. For more information please visit this web page.