The Rule of Law and sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict contexts | Thelma Esperanza Aldana

30 Jun 2016

 While progress has been made in the implementation of the Peace Agenda, one of the groups whose rights are still lagging behind is women. Photo: UNDP in Guatemala

Between 1960 and 1996, Guatemala suffered an internal armed conflict during which gross human rights violations were committed systematically. The United Nations backed Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH) registered a total of 200,000 victims of human rights violations, 83% of which belonged to Maya indigenous peoples.

The CEH determined that, in addition to all forms of human rights violations, women suffered specific forms of gender violence.  The most common form of violence was sexual.  Indigenous girls and women from the rural areas were the most abused.  According to the CEH, 88.7 percent of rape victims belonged to Maya indigenous peoples; 62 percent were aged 18 to 60; 35 percent were young girls and three percent were elderly women.  Peace was signed in Guatemala on December 29, 1996.

While progress has been made in the implementation of the Peace Agenda, one of the groups whose rights are still lagging behind is women.

Around the world, thousands of women have been victims of sexual violence in armed conflict situations.  Rape in these contexts is conceived as an instrument to strip victims of their sexual identity and as a form of violence against the community by damaging its most intimate sphere. In war, the effects of sexual violence are much more devastating because the social fabric is broken and people are brought to a condition of extreme vulnerability.  

In Guatemala, for many years sexual violence has been a hidden dimension of war.  In the 80s, a group of 15 Q’eqchi women from the village of Sepur Zarco, in the northeast of the country, were sexually abused, forced into domestic servitude and held as slaves in a military base after their husbands were murdered or disappeared.

To achieve justice, the women had to come together, organize themselves and be encouraged to speak out, a very difficult process that was supported by several women’s organizations, who joined forces in 2009 to form the Alliance Breaking the Silence and Impunity.  The work to support the community was supplemented by legal advice and psychosocial support that helped the women take the case before formal criminal justice.

On February 26, 2016, the women of Sepur Zarco obtained a conviction, for the first time in the history of the country and one of the few in the world, from a national court that tried sexual slavery as a crime against humanity, and sentenced the accused to 120 and 240 years in prison.

The Sepur Zarco sentence is significant too from a reparations perspective. The Court ordered to build a health center; to improve schools in the region; train the military to observe human rights and prevent violence against women; translate the sentence of the Sepur Zarco case into 24 Mayan languages, and it ordered the local government of El Estor to build a monument representing the search for justice of the women of Sepur Zarco.

Since 2010, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Guatemala has been strengthening the rule of law by building the capacity of the state and civil society to exercise fully the rights to truth, justice, reparation and measures of non-repetition for victims of the internal armed conflict.

Now is the time for Guatemala to strengthen democracy and the rule of law, and to forge a new consensus on the future of the country to further the rule of law.  This is a concrete opportunity to advance the consolidation of peace.  

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