Femicide in Guatemala: The Double Burden of COVID-19

By Megan DeTura, Skevi Kambitis, and Valery Valdez Pinto*

Stop Femicide in Guatemala Banner/ Karen Eliot/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Women in Guatemala are facing a double threat of contagion and violence: the global COVID-19 pandemic and a surge in gender violence. Stay-at-home orders and quarantines have forced victims and perpetrators of domestic violence into close quarters, exacerbating the risk of attacks. While epidemiologists work to highlight the importance of public health data documenting waves of COVID infections, an already high level of femicides has yet to receive such attention. The Guatemalan government has not provided data documenting an increase in domestic violence reports, but women’s groups and NGOs report an increase in anecdotal accounts of attacks.

  • As early as last June, international organizations warned that, although stay-at-home orders offer an effective means of preventing disease transmission, they entail inherent risks for women, children, and the elderly. UN agencies and human rights organizations believe a surge in domestic violence is occurring and is not being reported due to the pressure on women to stay silent. With women’s shelters, community centers, and other “safe spaces” shut down due to COVID, indigenous and other women in Guatemala have few or no options to flee. NGOs are facing various programmatic obstacles as they attempt to restructure their work in Guatemala while observing public health precautions.
  • Femicide in Guatemala is a consequence of deep-rooted, historic factors. Legacies of a patriarchal and conservative culture have long diminished women’s rights, as men used gender-violence for submission and control. This practice was exacerbated during the country’s 36-year civil war, when violence against women was a weapon of intimidation and terror. Peace Accords signed in 1996 were supposed to end it and bring perpetrators to justice, but serious flaws in implementation have prevented women and indigenous groups from fully benefiting. Continuing violence in and outside the home and discrimination based on sex, ethnicity, and class have prolonged persistent socio-economic inequality for women, especially those of indigenous descent.

Legislation has failed to stem the violence against women. In addition to a 1996 Law Against Intrafamilial Violence, the Guatemalan Congress in 2008 passed the Law Against Femicide and Other Forms of Violence Against Women, explicitly recognizing femicide as a criminal offense. And with the passage of the Immediate Search for Missing Women Act in 2016, the state enhanced its domestic infrastructure to combat femicide, creating a DNA database and registries of missing women and perpetrators – efforts spearheaded by a National Search Coordinator.

  • The impact on the ground, however, has been marred by limited access to justice and high levels of impunity. The country’s 29 specialized courts for crimes of femicide are located in just 11 of 22 departments, with many staffed entirely by men. Women residing in rural areas face transportation burdens that limit access and present jurisdictional challenges. When a case is filed by the Public Prosecutor’s office, the possibility of conviction remains uncertain, as less than one third of femicide cases filed from 2014 through 2017 have resulted in convictions. Even perpetrators found guilty are now afforded greater leniency because a 2018 decision by the Constitutional Court gutted the once mandatory 25- to 50-year prison sentence.

While Guatemala is among the worst, it is not alone in its failure to take effective action against femicide and other violence against vulnerable groups. Femicide was recently highlighted in a study by the Pan American Health Organization, which also documented serious gaps in preventing violence against children and adolescents in the Americas. PAHO has also reiterated its call on public health systems in Central America to acknowledge their role in protecting women from violence during the pandemic.

  • Guatemala specifically has the means by which the administration of President Alejandro Giammattei could take action. Much of the epidemiologic infrastructure developed for COVID, for example, can be expanded to create a parallel system for the surveillance of femicide at the local, state, and national levels. NGOs already in close proximity to potential victims and their families could be strengthened to increase the prevention and punishment of violence against women and answer the Femicide Watch Call issued by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights last year. Much like the response to COVID as a public health challenge, only an orchestrated, multi-level response will curtail future outbreaks of violence against women from reaching epidemic proportions.

January 19, 2021

* Megan DeTura is a graduate student in Comparative Regional Studies and a research assistant at both the National Security Archive and American University’s Accountability Research Center (ARC). Skevi Kambitis is a graduate student in International Peace and Conflict Resolution and a research assistant at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). Valery Valdez Pinto is a graduate student in Ethics, Peace, and Human Rights and a graduate assistant at CLALS.

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