“I come from a country that has been in constant resistance and struggle for more than 500 years.”
These words opened Guatemalan Member of Congress Sandra Moran’s talk in San Miguel last week; a talk that focused on the strength and resilience of women in the many roles we play in our communities and our families.
Moran, the first feminist and out lesbian to be elected to parliament, has been an Indigenous and women’s rights activist since she was a high school student, spending 14 years in exile in Mexico, Nicaragua and Canada during the height of the U.S.-backed war in her country.
The beginnings of that war lie in the early 20th century, when the United Fruit Company solidified its exploitation of the land, and escalated in 1954 with the U.S-supported overthrow of the democratically elected government of President Jacobo Arbenz and the institution of a military regime, which remained in power until 1996.
Between 1954 and 1996, more than 200, 000 people – 83% of them Mayan – were killed, more than 500,000 were driven from their homes and land, and many more were raped, tortured and disappeared or imprisoned.
The war that never ends
Peace accords were signed in 1996, and the war was officially ended. However, according to Moran and other activists in Guatemala, the overt military war was replaced by an economic war in which, as she put it, “the President has sold everything,” and Guatemalans, particularly Indigenous peoples, have seen their land (and, with it, their ability to grow their own food) taken away from them. Basic services such as clean water, education and health care are available only to those who can pay for them.
Guatemala has the third highest rate of femicide in the world: more than 1,000 women were killed in 2016. Moran notes that violence against women, in particular Indigenous women, was a strategy of the war, because the resistance to the military regime was led by women in many communities. Violence of all kinds against women, perpetrated and sanctioned by individuals and by the state, continues throughout the country: on March 8th – International Women’s Day – last year, 41 girls living in a state-run youth facility were killed and 19 seriously injured in a fire after they had been locked in a 6.8 x 7 metre room with no windows, food, water or toilets.
Since being elected to Congress, Moran has led efforts to end the forced marriage of girls as young as 11 who have become pregnant as the result of rape. As a result of that work, a law was passed last year prohibiting these marriages and setting the age of majority as the youngest age at which someone can marry. She has a long list of other reforms that are needed to entrench women’s rights and reduce the rate of violence.
Democracy, grassroots style
The Convergence Party, which Moran represents, grew from grassroots activism that sprang up after the signing of the peace accords and culminated in massive street protests against government and corporate corruption in 2015. The three members of that party who were elected to the national parliament in 2015 create a very small progressive voice in a Congress of 158 members representing 15 different parties and dominated by evangelical Christians.
Moran does not see her work as being limited to her role as a member of Congress. In San Miguel, she described herself as an instrument of the people and as an activist both within and outside the formal electoral system.
She is committed to true representative democracy in which “everyone in their own voice” can work towards the goal of human rights for all, which she described as “the right to have rights, to know you have rights and to enjoy your rights.”
Breaking the silence
Following her talk, Moran put her commitment to breaking the silence (rompiendo el silencio) about violence against women into action with a powerful drumming/spoken word performance.
I left the community centre deeply moved and inspired by this courageous woman, who says of herself:
“In Guatemala, to be a feminist is not welcomed, to be a lesbian, even less so. But the fact that I have always been transparent about who I am – a lesbian feminist – took away that weapon from those who use misogynist, sexist and homophobic attacks as a political strategy.”