International Women’s Democracy Network member Beth Davis interviews Guatemalan women’s rights activist Mildre Yaxon, of Oxlajuj B’atz’, or Thirteen Threads, on challenges and opportunities to women’s empowerment in Guatemala.
Guatemala is currently ranked the most violent country against women in Latin America and has one of the highest rates of violence against women in the world. In 2008, 39,400 cases of domestic violence were reported and nearly 700 cases of sexual violence are reported each month. In 2010, the Public Ministry received more than 40,000 reports of violence against women, in addition to reported domestic violence cases. With less than a two percent conviction rate for sexual violence against women and only 11 people convicted for the over 5,000 femicide/feminicide cases that occurred between 2000-2009, women clearly do not have full citizenship rights in the country as they cannot adequately use the legal system and policy for their protection. There is an unequal power dynamic that favors men, both culturally and politically. This is also seen in the landscape of the country’s politics, with one of the lowest percentages of female representation in all Latin American governments. Only 14.5% of elected officials are women and these numbers are even worse for indigenous women. While roughly 20% of the country is comprised of indigenous women, they represent 3% of local candidates and 2% nationally for government office. In fact, illiterate women only regained the right to vote in 1985, which prior to was a means to suppress the vote of many indigenous women and exclude them from the most basic form of political participation.
I interviewed Mildre Yaxon, an indigenous Guatemalan woman, on her experiences working to empower women and her thoughts on women in politics in the country. I entered the discussion with my own conceptions of the machismo culture excluding women from the political arena and the difficult task of eroding this long-held social and cultural system if we are to see a change in women’s rights. However, Mildre had a much more optimistic and probable solution, which is through greater access to education and empowering young people to use their voice. While many of us might see education as solely a means to children’s economic future, it also addresses many other social issues and is a very practical step in addressing the gender disparities in highly unequal societies. It also shows the importance of women’s rights and advocacy groups to reach out to a variety of sectors. There are many organizations providing education and basic services to youth. We must begin to build a bridge between those organizations and rights based organizations to see the change we want in the future.
Interview with Mildre Yaxon:
How involved are women in politics in Guatemala?
I would say it is probably less than 1 percent but there are intentions to change this. It used to be zero. It does exist and there are women that have the ideology that they can be part of this type of decision making. Women have more opportunities now. In the past, there were women leaders but in an informal way, and the machismo did not allow them to participate formally. Now it is sometimes women that do not support female leaders and it is not part of their conscious that they should help support other women be leaders. Sometimes, instead of supporting women in politics, we criticize them and do not lift them up. The majority of the country is women so it should not be like this. There is not equilibrium in power even though we are the majority.
What do you think keeps women from being more involved?
In the past it was a lack of formal education. Many women participate in community capacity trainings but not formal education, unless they have the drive to express what they want and to work with groups of people in this area to achieve education. Their academic status hurts them from participating in formal politics. It is hard for women to be able to study. It was also the family’s decision if their daughter went to school. Now more young people are demanding education and this will change things for women.
How can we help more indigenous women excel in politics?
A lot of it is changing the family structure. We need to teach our children to make their own decisions and to pursue higher education. This does not necessarily mean that we need to raise kids to be more independent from the family because that goes against our culture. But, it is hard for our young people to move away from their families to go to university because this is not an accepted practice. And then if they are able to leave for university, they are not used to expressing their opinions and having a voice. It makes them less able to participate in classrooms and do well in university. It starts as children to be empowered by your family to speak up and express yourself. Women need more education and the confidence to pursue it and use their voice.
Some scholars have argued that the lack of speaking out and having a voice is carried over from the war where it was dangerous to do so. Do you think this is true and still relevant for today’s youth in Guatemala?
I am 26 (the war officially ended when Mildre was 10) and it is still hard for me to speak out and use my voice to express myself. It is not a fear left over from the war, but a shame because I grew up feeling like I am not valued and I lacked self-esteem, and often still do. It is hard to feel like others would want to hear my opinions or would care what I have to say. The younger kids today do not seem to be the same. They say more and yell in the streets.
What motivated you to help empower indigenous women?
My life experiences since I was a child. I was mistreated. There was a lot of violence, and depression came from this. We did not have money to buy decent clothes and other kids laughed at me. This was all a big motivation to decide to work directly with women. My mom was a big motivation because she suffered a lot, but I saw the determination and personal growth in her. She never studied in school, but it never slowed her down from seeking more in life. She always wanted to learn more and participated in many capacity building opportunities provided by local organizations. She worked hard to achieve what she did. Her experience helped me a lot by opening more opportunities and guiding me. She was a leader in the community and of other groups, even on the municipal level at one point. This influenced how I think today and motivated me to study and to want a family. I could have been scared of the violence that could come with having a family because of what I witnessed through my mom’s experience, but she told me things would be different for me. She advised me a lot and helped to make me strong and fight for other women. I know there are many other women like my mom, who even though uneducated, are great leaders when given the chance. I want to give women these opportunities as pay back to my mom for what she has done for me. We cannot change everything, but we can change the lives of a few. That is my passion and what I hope to accomplish.
It makes me happy to know that in other countries there are organizations and women that want to know more about us and our experiences. It is like planting a seed to do something good and to make a change. Women are the most vulnerable group in the world, and we need a lot of support to change this. I look at you and others that are fighting for women in many other places. It is like we are building a chain around the world that is connecting us to support women everywhere.
Bellino, Michelle. “Feminicide and Silence in “Postwar” Guatemala” Women’s Policy Journal of HarvardVol. 7 2009-2010
Borzutzky, Silvia and Carinne Ogrodnik. “Women under Attack: Violence and Poverty in Guatemala” Journal of International Women’s Studies Vol. 12., No. 1 2011
Carey Jr., David and M. Gabriela Torres. “Precursors to Femicide: Guatemalan Women in a Vortex of Violence” Latin American Research Review Vol. 45, No. 3 2010
Carlsen, Laura. “From Survivors to Defenders: Women Confronting Violence in Mexico, Honduras & Guatemala” Novel Women’s Initiative and JASS (Just Associates) 2012
Originally posted on e-collaborate’s blog.