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GUATEMALA
Congress approves law against femicide
Louisa Reynolds
4/30/2008
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In “killers’ paradise,” a legal framework is passed to fight women killings.

On April 5, 16-year-old Carmen del Rosario Aguirre and her friend Yesenia Adaly Pérez Arévalo, 17, went to the local market of La Parroquia. Both girls came from the village of Rincón de la Peña, in the municipality of Palencia, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) from Guatemala City.

Six hours later the two girls had failed to return home and their families began to worry. “We hadn’t heard any news from them so we began to call them. Carmen didn’t pick up the phone until 5:30 p.m. I was scared when I heard her voice because she said that she didn’t know what had happened and that they were with two men,” says Yesenia Adaly’s sister, Evelyn.

Fearing the worst, the two girls’ families and neighbors began a frantic search, combing streets and nearby woodlands. The following day, the bodies of the two teenagers were found in a ditch in the nearby village of Canalitos. Carmen and Yesenia Adaly had been raped and shot in the face. The police believe they were abducted, drugged, raped and murdered after they refused to have sex with the two men.

Common scenario
Stories like these have become commonplace in Guatemala, dubbed “a killer’s paradise” where 590 women were murdered in 2007 alone. The same weekend that Carmen and Yesenia Adaly were abducted and killed, five women were murdered in different parts of the country and so far this year 113 women have been brutally slain.

While the family members of Carmen and Yesenia Adaly mourned the teenagers’ deaths, around 200 people bearing banners that read “So what are you doing to stop the violence?” held a demonstration outside Guatemala City’s cathedral urging Congress to approve the Law Against Femicide and Other Forms of Violence Against Women.”

On April 9, amid intense lobbying from women’s groups and human rights organizations, Congress finally approved the law. The new law establishes 25-50 year prison sentences for gender-based crimes, three- to 10-year sentences for physical and psychological abuse and two- to eight-year sentences for “economic violence”, which includes denying women the right to work or denying them access to property.

The law was approved by 112 out of 158 members of Congress amid jubilant cries from demonstrators who had assembled outside Parliament bearing banners and white cardboard coffins as a sign of mourning for the hundreds of women who have been brutally killed in Guatemala.

After the law was approved, Congressman Pedro Palma Lau, a former guerrilla combatant and member of the ruling National Unity of Hope party (UNE), said: “The law pays homage to all the Guatemalan women who have been martyrs and victims of violence.”

Women’s rights activists have welcomed the approval of the law. According to Lorena Robles, of Sector de Mujeres, an umbrella organization that brings together more than 20 different women’s groups that campaign for a wide range of issues including femicide, domestic violence, access to contraception and discrimination in the workplace, the law was approved in a rare show of unity among Guatemala’s 19 congresswomen, who set aside ideological differences to campaign for a law that will benefit all Guatemalan women regardless of their economic or ethnic background.

Overall, women’s rights activists are satisfied with the new law and regard it as an important step towards eradicating gender discrimination, misogyny and violence against women. “We now have a legal framework that we can use to defend our rights. The new law is a starting point for our struggle,” says Fabiola Ortiz, of the National Coordinator for the Prevention of Domestic and Gender Based Violence, or CONAPREVI, an organization that brings together various government agencies and civil society groups working to eradicate violence against women.

Shelters needed
Ortiz points out that as well as establishing penalties for those who violate women’s rights, the law also includes the creation of shelters for women suffering from domestic violence. So far, CONAPREVI has set up three shelters in the departments of Coban, Rabinal and Suchitepequez. The new law states that the government must invest in setting up new shelters and refurbishing existing shelters that have been forced to close down due to a lack of resources. Although a yearly amount was not established the law stipulates that the government must invest an initial US$1 million to get the project up and running.

Activists agree that it will take many years for such deeply entrenched attitudes to change.

Last year, former Interior Minister Adela de Torrebiarte, granted CONAPREVI Q8 million ($1,058,000) to finance the shelters program. Sonia Escobedo, of the Presidential Secretariat for Women’s Issues (SEPREM), says that with this budget, CONAPREVI aims to open shelters in six of the country’s 22 departments during the course of the year: Guatemala, Escuintla, Alta Verapaz, Baja Verapaz, Suchitepequez and Quetzaltenango.

However, there is a demand for these services in other departments such as Huehuetenango, Chiquimula, Jutiapa and Peten, that will have to wait for CONAPREVI to receive its next budget allocation in 2009. In the long-term, says Escobedo, the aim is to have a shelter in every municipality in order to make these services available to all women, including those who live in remote rural areas.

This year, in response to intense lobbying from women’s rights organizations, the government increased CONAPREVI’s budget from Q1.5 million (US$198,000) to Q12 million (US$1.5 million). The new law states that the government must provide CONAPREVI with adequate funding to meet the basic needs of Guatemalan women, although it does not establish a fixed percentage.

For women’s organizations this has been an important victory, as the law not only imposes heavy sanctions for violence against women but offers an integral approach to the problem and acknowledges the importance of prevention and programs designed to help women who suffer domestic abuse.

Studies on femicide and violence against women in Guatemala have pointed to a number of root causes including the country’s 36-year-long civil war during which the rape and torture of indigenous women was routinely practiced and encouraged by the armed forces and gang violence, as women are often killed during turf wars between rival gangs.

Feminist intellectuals stress, however, that these are symptoms of an underlying cause: the prevalence of sexism and patriarchal traits in Guatemalan society. A recent investigation by feminist researchers Alba Estela Maldonado Guevara, Myra Iliana Muralles Batista and Violeta Delgado Lacayo, titled “Femicide in Guatemala. Crimes Against Humanity” emphasizes this point.

“The ideological superstructure of patriarchy has used social institutions to perpetuate the subordination of women within the family nucleus and society at large. Within this patriarchal structure, women are considered men’s property, be it a father, husband, brother or even a son. Thus, women’s life is determined by the decisions of others who can impose their will on women as they see fit, even through violence, which is seen as socially acceptable”.


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