Our latest video, Truth and Justice for the Women of Guatemala, narrates how Women’s Link Worldwide worked with human rights groups and women from indigenous communities, specifically the Ixil Maya community, to prepare for the Ríos Montt trial and frame the gender-based violence directed toward them as evidence of genocide. This strategy also innovatively incorporated a series of expert witnesses that explained the necessity of the women’s testimony to the court.
As the head of state between 1982 and 1983, José Efraín Ríos Montt’s relatively brief window of power left an enduring impact – the UN estimates that 48% of the violence reported during the 36 year armed conflict occurred during the Ríos Montt administration. Targeting the Ixil community of the Quiche region and other indigenous communities, Ríos Montt is specifically responsible for the deaths of 1,771 individuals, forced disappearances of 29,000 people, torture, and widespread violence against women.
Under Ríos Montt, this widespread violence against women was a distinct weapon of war that played a special role in the unraveling of genocide. As Claudia Paz y Paz, Guatemala’s Attorney General, explains: gender crimes systematically target women in order to remind them of their secondary place in society. Rape and sexual violence, therefore, are not simply collateral damage of war but actually instruments of genocide. Articulating sexual violence as an attempt to “remove a community at its seed,” I think Guatemalan journalist Marielos Monzon best explains how systematic violence against women is inherently an element of genocide.
Guatemala’s trial of Ríos Montt helps solidify the legal framework that ensures gender crimes are an element of genocide. While the targeting of women as a distinct strategy of genocide has been recognized in other international criminal tribunals, the Guatemala case furthers this growing jurisprudence and historically applies it in a national context. Although the Ríos Montt trial is a major victory for the establishment of a holistic legal framework it also reveals the current limitations of law and the society it mimics: that is to say, not only the difficulty involved in rewriting monolithic law books, but also the challenge of bringing female victims into the courtroom—thirty years after the fact – to give oral testimony.
Producing this video offered much insight into the obstacles survivors face when working with the court system. Judges and prosecutors often do not know how to work with the stigmatization these women may endure when revealing themselves as victims, the secondary trauma of facing their perpetrators, or the risk of social marginalization from spouses or family members who may view the women as responsible. In many cases, judicial actors are not properly trained to question female victims of trauma and sexualized violence. Neglecting these obstacles denies Guatemalans the opportunity to uncover the truth of their country’s past, which of course is part of its present and its future.
I see this video as an important example of not only how women can be included in the judicial process but also why their participation proves imperative. We hope this film will encourage the greater use of expert testimony as well as other strategies to ensure women’s right to access justice and everyone’s right to know their history.
For more information on Women’s Link Worldwide, visit their website.