This post is by Diana Santana.
Trigger warning, the following post contains frank discussion of brutality against women and a recent murder in Guatemala.
Just before the holidays, I learned that a long-time friend was kidnapped and murdered in Guatemala. Her lifeless body, bound and gagged, was found on the side of the road in the department of Huehuetenango on the morning of December 8th – a day after she disappeared.
Emilia, a young and aspiring Guatemalan sociologist, had just completed a study on oral traditions and civic participation. Four heavily armed men stopped the car she was traveling in while on her way to deliver the study results in the communities. The driver was found a few hours later, beaten and tied up, but alive. Emilia was not so lucky.
Although police suggested this was a car robbery gone wrong, and even though she was not engaged in any direct activism, some believe her death was politically motivated. War-torn Guatemala has a troubled history filled with human rights abuses, many at the hands of government officials and powerful economic interests, and violence is often a first resort to deal with unwanted situations.
Perhaps it is because she was a young professional, or perhaps because she worked on issues of poverty, citizenship and human rights, or because she had friends in the international NGO community; but in a country faced with daily violence, citizen insecurity, and widespread impunity, her name made national headlines, and her murder has drawn international attention.
Emilia was an amazing woman and a friend to many, who deserves the memoriam she has received. But this is also a moment to recognize the thousands of women whose names never grace the pages of our newspapers and magazines.
It’s not just that in a country with such a violent past one woman a day is killed, or that scarcely 2% of crimes against women are solved. That would be horrendous enough.
But it’s also that the bodies of women who have been kidnapped and murdered often show extra brutality – sexual violence, torture, mutilation – reflecting a societal disdain for women. The fact that many of these crimes are never even investigated reflects a insidious contempt and apathy for the lives of women by the Guatemalan government.
Violence against women is widespread. In 2008, the Guatemalan Congress passed the Law Against Femicide, establishing violence against women as any violent act, whether physical, sexual, economic, or psychological, on a woman that is perpetrated exclusively on women.
Yet according to Norma Cruz, the founder of Fundación Sobrevivientes – an advocacy organization seeking the prevention of violence, and justice for its victims – the number of murdered women has not gone down, and impunity and injustice continue while the women of Guatemala pay the price. International attention is necessary to make a difference for women in Guatemala.
Emilia’s death ironically occurred the same week the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations passed The International Violence Against Women Act , an unprecedented effort by the US to address global violence against women by supporting local organizations to provide more services to women seeking to escape violence. However, just a few days later, a bipartisan bill to prevent child marriage – another widespread source of gender-based violence – passed in the Senate, but failed in the House.
Clearly, our efforts to address violence against women may be well-meaning, but are inadequate and uneven.
Neither Guatemala’s Femicide Law, nor these bills would have saved Emilia’s life. These represent important political steps to bring about awareness and accountability to this devastating issue. Violence against women is pervasive, and too often ignored or taken for granted. But when an estimated 1 in 3 women worldwide will experience violence in her lifetime, real change will not occur until social and political values change, laws are enforced, and we value women’s lives.
(Update: Two of Emilia’s ‘alleged’ killers were arrested in the stolen car that day. The community lynched them, a common form of vigilante justice enacted when it is generally accepted that the judicial system is inadequate. So for Emilia, there was revenge, but still no justice).
Links to a few organizations who denounced her death:
Diana has spent the last fifteen years working on issues of gender and power, along the way receiving an MA in Anthropology at Columbia U and a certificate on the Body, at the international women’s university in Hanover, Germany. She is passionate supporter of feminism and human rights.
She and Emilia spent many wonderful hours gallivanting around Guatemala City.