Empowering Indigenous women’s organisations in Guatemala
Issues Affecting Women
8 March 2023
Photo credit: Morena Pérez Joachin
Around 14.9 million people live in Guatemala, making it the most populous country in Central America. Nearly half of the population are Indigenous peoples. There are many disparities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities in terms of employment, income, health, and education.
In particular, Indigenous women in Guatemala experience numerous forms of marginalisation. Many don’t speak Spanish, and few are active in the formal economy. They often live in the most remote and rural parts of the country with little access to mainstream services. Consequently, Indigenous women have set up their own organisations to support and empower women in their communities. However, these groups rarely attract the attention or support of international funders.
In 2017, we expanded our relationship with the Central American Women’s Fund (FCAM), which we have been supporting since 2009. FCAM, the first and only feminist fund in Central America, became our intermediary partner in Guatemala to manage a portfolio of organisations that work to reduce exploitation and trafficking, promote safe migration, and improve women’s labour rights. FCAM has a proven track record of grant-making and understands the issues our partners face. Moreover, FCAM is based in the region and better able to provide ongoing accompaniment and support.
Over the last five years, FCAM has provided our partners with opportunities for networking and peer learning, and it has also expanded this portfolio to include organisations working to support and empower Indigenous women. These organisations support Indigenous women to be better informed about their rights, and they work to build a social and political movement that is centred around their needs and demands.
This work is all the more important in light of the country’s history. Indigenous women in Guatemala are still carrying the scars from the country’s brutal 36-year civil war that officially ended in 1996. Several recent court cases have highlighted how the Guatemalan military used sexual violence as part of its strategy during the war, including near the Sepur Zarco outpost in the Polochic Valley in the northeast of the country, where Indigenous women from a small community were systematically raped and enslaved by the military for years. The 2016 Sepur Zarco decision was ground-breaking, as it was the first ever domestic criminal case that led to the conviction of two former military officers for crimes against humanity. More recently, in 2022, a Guatemalan court found five former paramilitary patrolmen guilty of raping and sexually abusing 36 Indigenous Maya Achi women during the war.
In response to these and many other abuses, Indigenous women’s organisations like Actoras de Cambio work in Indigenous communities to break the silence, transform the guilt, and promote Indigenous healing techniques to recover from violence and abuse experienced by women during the war and today. Healing techniques integrate work on the physical body with energy, emotions, and a connection with the natural world. Actoras de Cambio has built solidarity networks of survivors throughout Guatemala and works through theatre, art, dance, music, and historical memory projects to heal and strengthen survivors. Along with the demand for justice and accountability that is taking place through the court system, this healing work draws on thousands of years of history and practice to preserve and celebrate Indigenous culture and to help survivors rebuild their lives as agents of change, rather than victims of violence.
Casa Aq’ab’al is an Indigenous women’s organisation based in Sololá, Guatemala. It provides support services and shelter to women and their children experiencing violence. Like many of our partners, Casa Aq’ab’al had to pivot and expand its services to meet the increased and complex needs of women in their community during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Indigenous communities were particularly hard hit by the pandemic. Many rely on remittances from family members living and working in other parts of the county or abroad, and experienced a major reduction in this support. In addition, as Indigenous women often work in the informal sector as domestic workers or making and selling food in commercial areas, Covid-19 restrictions meant that families lost their income. Additionally, most Indigenous communities are far from hospitals and lack access to high quality healthcare. Therefore, they were especially vulnerable in terms of illness and death from Covid-19. In response, Casa Aq’ab’al pivoted its work towards more basic humanitarian and emergency support. It distributed hygiene kits and led information campaigns to explain the importance of masks and social distancing in Indigenous languages. Casa Aq’ab’al also started a community garden project for women in the community. As well as providing supplemental food to families, it is a safe outdoor space for women in the community to gather.
“Indigenous women’s organisations acted as a lifeline for women in their communities during the Covid-19 pandemic,” says Stephany Giron, programme coordinator at FCAM. “These groups were formed in response to unmet needs among women in their communities and Covid-19 was just another obstacle that they needed to face.”
Asociación Grupo Integral de Mujeres Sanjuaneras (AGIMS) is an Indigenous women’s organisation based in San Juan Sacatepéquez, which supports and empowers Indigenous women, especially those that have experienced violence. In November 2020, the Government of Guatemala announced new budget cuts to health, education, and social programming, including funding to domestic violence shelters. This would have had wide-reaching ramifications for many women in domestic violence situations, including Indigenous women. However, AGIMS reacted quickly by organising protests – many women from their community joined thousands of their fellow citizens in Guatemala City to voice their opposition to the proposed cuts. In response, the legislature suspended the final ratification process for the 2021 budget, safeguarding social programming for another year.
Despite this victory, AGIMS still faces challenges in accessing public funding, especially as the government continues to use administrative mechanisms to co-opt and limit the abilities of women’s organisations to function independently. AGIMS is continuing its work in partnership with other Indigenous and mainstream women’s rights organisations to encourage the state to uphold its responsibilities to fund domestic violence services.
“It is amazing to watch Indigenous women’s groups organising and connecting with one another,” says Katharina Samara-Wickrama, director of the Issues Affecting Women Programme. “These groups are fierce advocates for women in their communities, while working to preserve and protect their culture and unique connection to the natural world. We are learning a lot through these partnerships and are grateful to our colleagues at FCAM for making these connections possible.”
You can watch a video on the work of FCAM by clicking below:
This grant falls under Oak’s Issues Affecting Women programme (IAWP), which seeks to strengthen women’s organisations and movements, enabling them to learn from each other and work together to develop knowledge and skills, and to plan, organise and mobilise. You can find more about the IAWP programme by clicking here. You can also find more about the Central American Women’s Fund and the organisations that it supports on its website by clicking here.