Migration and Violence Against Women in Guatemala

Image: Mujerave collaborates with local women’s group on strengths-based consciousness raising activities.

We’re pleased to have Kody Gerkin, Author and Founder of Mujerave, to write a special feature article on the links between poverty, migration and violence against women and girls in Guatemala. 

Guatemala is one of the most dangerous places on earth to be a woman. Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, three Central American countries that share borders, all rank in the top five globally for their rates of femicide. According to Amnesty International, women are often murdered in Guatemala after being sexually assaulted. Perpetrators of these crimes operate in a country where less than four per cent of all homicides result in convictions. According to the United Nations, crimes against women in Guatemala go unpunished in more than 88% of reported cases. Guatemalan women also suffer from some of the highest rates of interfamilial violence in the world.

While violence against women in Guatemala is the focus of much research and discourse, less is said about the connection between migration and the perceived vulnerability of women in Guatemala. From January to September of 2019, one percent of Guatemala’s population migrated to the United States. According to a 2019 study by the United States Agency for International Development, 1 in 4 Guatemalans intend to migrate from Guatemala. 85% of those respondents listed the United States as their destination of choice. How do economic factors and gender-based cultural constructs influence who migrates and who is left behind in Guatemala? What are the implications for our understanding of gender-based violence and sexual assault through the juxtaposition of migration and the perceived vulnerability of women in Guatemala?

Image: A statue in a popular roundabout of a man departing home, an homage to the Guatemalan immigrant, near Totonicapán, Guatemala

My perspective on these issues is informed by over five years of living in rural Guatemala and working on gender-based sustainable development projects with indigenous communities. This began when I was a Peace Corps volunteer from 2006-2008 in the remote province of Totonicapán, Guatemala, one of the smallest and poorest departments in the country. In 2014, I moved back to Guatemala and founded the non-profit organisation Mujerave with a network of indigenous women from Totonicapán. Using a gender mainstreaming framework, Mujerave builds on the powerful contribution women have made to family and community health in indigenous Maya communities for millennia. Mujerave collaborates with the foremost experts on indigenous family well-being in Guatemala, rural women’s groups, to carry out high-impact projects to generate income and improve family health. Mujerave also provides employment for women in rural Guatemala. I am not Guatemalan, nor a woman, nor a victim of gender-based violence. I have done my best lift the voices of Guatemalans on these issues, including a victim of gender-based violence who is a board member for Mujerave in Guatemala.

Image: Author and Founder of Mujerave, Kody M. Gerkin, attends a meeting with a women’s group in Totonicapán, Guatemala

Modern migration from Guatemala – who migrates, and why?

During Guatemala’s brutal 36-year civil war, hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans fled north to escape persecution from the Guatemalan military. Indigenous Maya, roughly half of Guatemala’s population, suffered a targeted genocide that left hundreds of thousands dead or disappeared. The worst of the atrocities occurred in the early 1980s. Even after the signing of the Peace Accords in 1996, formally ending the war, security conditions in Guatemala remained abysmal. Today, safety concerns continue to motivate many Guatemalans to flee their homes and migrate to the United States.

Since the signing of the Peace Accords, however, economic concerns have come to rival security concerns as the primary motivating factor for Guatemalans to migrate. In surveys of Guatemalan immigrants along the U.S. border and of undocumented immigrants being deported, economic concerns have equaled or even surpassed the threat of violence as the impetus for making the journey. One Guatemalan immigrant, we’ll call him Marvin, said “what motivated me to emigrate was that I had land to build a house, our own house, for me and my wife and our two children,” Marvin said. “But, with the salary I earned in Guatemala, it would never be enough for me to build the home,” Marvin continued, recalling what motivated him to migrate north in 2005.

It is important to make distinctions about who migrates from Guatemala due to economic concerns—not all Guatemalans live in poverty or extreme poverty. One difference in migratory patterns exits between ladino Guatemalans, those whose blood lines can (at least in part) be traced back to Spain, and indigenous Maya, like Marvin and his family. Since the dawn of colonisation in Guatemala, lucrative farmland, political connections, and industrial might have been maintained—by force when necessary—by the ladinos.  As a result, Maya in Guatemala are among the poorest people in the Western Hemisphere. Indigenous communities increasingly rely on remittances, money sent from relatives working abroad back to their family in their country of origin, to meet their basic needs. More than ten percent of Guatemala’s economy as measured by gross domestic product is generated by remittances. While data in recent years is suggesting a “genderization” of immigration, migrants from Guatemala who migrant for economic reasons tend to be male. Women who migrate are more likely to do so with other family members, while men are more likely to migrate alone.

In my work in Southwestern Colorado with immigrants from Guatemala, most immigrants I worked with who migrated alone were, like Marvin, male and motivated to migrate because of poverty. Migrating to the United States is, for many young men, a rite of passage in Guatemala, a journey imbued with cultural merit stretching beyond mere economics. One 17-year-old immigrant from Totonicapán shared with me that it wasn’t even his decision to come to the United States. His father sat him down one day and bluntly told him it was time—it was his turn to travel to the United States and do as his father had done.

Guatemalan migration and perceived vulnerability

Do male-dominated migratory patterns heighten the perceived vulnerability of women and children who are left behind in Guatemala? To answer this question, we must explore the culture of indigenous communities in Guatemala through a gendered lens. To begin, land in rural areas is almost never owned by women. When men die, land and other resources are often transferred to the husbands’ male children or other male family members, upholding a longstanding patrilineal tradition for land and other resources in Guatemala. This is important in areas where subsistence farming is the primary source of employment—those who don’t own land are dependent on those who do. Indigenous women constitute nearly 90% of the informal economy in rural areas and seldom hold jobs in the formal economy. Women are trained to weave traditional clothing, cook, and practice small animal husbandry—all activities that can be done in or near the home. Indigenous women will, on average, attend only four years of formal schooling in Guatemala. These factors influence who eventually makes the long, difficult journey north—those who are perceived in these communities as having the potential to earn more money. Many families support or encourage migration because they assume the remittances will act as buffer between their family and extreme poverty. This means that if a family can only afford an expensive coyote to smuggle one family member across the border, it will likely be male.

Image: In rural indigenous communities in Guatemala, women remain largely relegated to traditional roles of cooking and childrearing

Other cultural and socioeconomic factors increase women’s perceived vulnerability when their husbands migrate north. When couples marry in Guatemala, it is common for them to build a house adjacent to their parents’ home, or an extra room connected to that of their parents. Often, the newlyweds join the husband’s parents on or near their farmland due to the patrilineal access to resources. When a husband migrates, women are forced to rely on their in-laws for access to basic needs like shelter and food. Within the context of extreme poverty, women are unlikely to report perpetrators to police in these situations. Doing so would essentially cut off their immediate family’s link to basic needs. Patriarchal cultural patterns ensure many family members, men and women, will strive to keep abuse a family secret. This allows would be perpetrators of interfamilial violence or sexual assault the foresight of near-guaranteed impunity.  According to Marvin, “for those of us who have to emigrate to another country, we leave our families behind, we leave them homeless in a sense, and many people take advantage of the vulnerability of family members left behind. Not just sexual assault, but in other ways, too.”

Seeking justice for gender-based violence in Guatemala

Maya women in Guatemala face what is known as three-pronged discrimination—they are indigenous, they are poor, and they are women. It is extremely rare for marginalised indigenous women to contact the police or hire a lawyer if they are a survivor of sexual assault or interfamilial violence. Take Carmen, a Guatemalan woman from Xesana, a small village in Totonicapán. Carmen married at a young age and had a son, but soon realised her husband drank too much. He began to abuse her physically, and demand sex by force. Carmen said she did not initially report her abusive husband for a variety of reasons. “Most police officers won’t do anything when you do report violence within the family…in our communities, they see it as a family problem the family needs to solve,” Carmen said. Many indigenous women, like Carmen, view the mostly male Guatemalan police force to be corrupt, inept, and lacking the resources to assist in crisis. Guatemalan police will often demand gas money to travel to remote areas to take police reports. No money for gas? Do not expect the police to arrive. Carmen also said that “it’s too easy for men who have been accused of violence to hide out,” as local police simply do not have the resources to track these perpetrators down. “Women rely on men,” Carmen continued, “they are isolated from their families…of course, some women will say they are in love and that’s why they don’t report it, because they don’t know better”. Earned through her lived experience, Carmen displayed a clear understanding of the destructive cycle of gender-based violence during our interview.

Marvin, for his part, has been trying to seek justice for his daughter, who he learned in 2018 had been sexually abused by his brother-in-law years earlier. When asked if he felt his presence in Guatemala may have prevented the abuse suffered by his daughter, Marvin’s answer was revealing. “I think that if a person wants to sexually or physically abuse a person in a situation of vulnerability, they will do it one way or another. I do think I could have avoided this situation altogether if I had not decided to emigrate to this country, but the perpetrator would have sought another victim if he felt my daughter was protected by me still living with my family in Guatemala,” Marvin said. Marvin said that “many people who are in my same position decide to leave everything as it is and not seek justice because of how frustrating and expensive the process can be”. Neither Marvin, nor other male migrants, are responsible for the victimisation of their wives and children in Guatemala. We must hold the perpetrators responsible for their actions. However, there remains value in exploring why so many women experience a perceived increase in vulnerability due to migration. These explorations can contribute to our understanding of the root causes of gender-based and interfamilial violence in Guatemala and elsewhere.

Carmen took her fight to local courts. “In the end, though the police wouldn’t do anything, I took him to local court, and they granted me a divorce and child support for our infant son,” Carmen said. She moved in with her maternal grandmother, and she raised both her son and a nephew who was left in her care by a sibling. Since then, she has worked for the local municipal Oficina de la Mujer, the Women’s Affairs Office, and five years ago, she joined Mujerave’s board of directors. Carmen’s strength and tenacity have made her an invaluable asset to Mujerave in Guatemala. Since 2015, Carmen has delivered capacity building workshops for Mujerave’s Community-Based Education Program. This gives Carmen a platform and a safe space to lead conversations and facilitate women-to-women indigenous knowledge sharing. In this role, Carmen share her experiences, shares her strength, and inspires other women to seek justice.

The Response – Next Steps

In Guatemala, there is growing support for policies that promote equitable gender-based access to political power, education, and the ownership of land. Other proportional representation democracies in Latin America have codified women’s political representation by passing legislation mandating that parties include a minimum percentage of female candidates on their ballots. In Costa Rica, for example, it is 50%. These measures could impact the root causes of sexual assault and interfamilial violence identified herein. Lobbying leaders in our home countries to support such policies abroad is a powerful tool.

Grassroots organisations like Mujerave, who are mission bound to operate through a gender-specific lens, also play a role in dismantling the patriarchy in Guatemala and beyond. Mujerave’s workshops explore the imbalance of access to resources for women in Guatemala and bring seldom discussed topics like sexism and interfamilial violence into the open.

Image: Catarina Osorio Tum leads a workshop on gender equity for Mujerave in Totonicapán, Guatemala

Image: Local women who attend three workshops and plant 15 trees are eligible to receive a Mujerave cookstove

These workshops compliment other projects Mujerave carries out as well. Take, for example, Mujerave’s Income Generating Program. These are primarily greenhouses that Mujerave builds close to the homes of the women Mujerave collaborates with. This strategy makes our greenhouses culturally appropriate spaces for women to spend time in, and they promote gender equity by increasing the share of land and income women control within the family. Combined with workshops involving men and women from participating families that explore sexism and interfamilial violence in indigenous communities, and Mujerave is transforming neighbourhoods! To read about how gender informs Mujerave’s work, refer to Mujerave’s Needs Assessment.

Image: Mujerave’s Income Generating Program was built to address gender-based income inequities in rural Guatemala

Support for Mujerave would fall under the theme of prevention, one of four intervention themes identified by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women in their 2017 report From Commitment to Action: Policies to End Violence Against Women in Latin America and the Caribbean.Other interventions in the report are categorised under the themes of care, punishment, and redress. This report serves as an excellent source for readers seeking more technical, detailed examples of laws and policies proposed in Guatemala and the region to end violence against women. The report also details the large gap between enacting laws and enforcing them. This is a critical gap that must be filled in order to create social and cultural change in the region. This report includes steps Guatemala is already taking to ensure culturally appropriate access to justice for indigenous women, like Carmen, to combat sexual assault and femicide.