Assisting isolated indigenous women to access justice and improve their lives

Guatemala / Freedom for Justice / 28 mar 2018

Over 40% of the population of Guatemala are indigenous peoples, of which 75% are living in poverty. Indigenous peoples in Guatemala were repressed for centuries following Spanish colonisation. During the counter-insurgency campaign of the 1980s, 80% of the 200,000 people killed were indigenous peoples, in what has since been named a genocide. Indigenous Guatemalans continue to suffer the impact of this legacy today. Many are unable to access land for farming - 1% of agricultural producers control 75% of fertile land. Many struggle without a legal identity, which restricts their ability to access services like healthcare, education or the justice system. Guatemala faces some of the highest levels of violence against women and girls in the region, having the third highest femicide rate globally. Furthermore, many institutions in Guatemala do not operate in, or cater for, indigenous languages, leaving communities isolated.

Indigenous women shoulder the double burden of discrimination for being born both female and indigenous. They are less likely to finish school, more likely to suffer illness and unlikely to be able to access family planning services.

The Women’s Justice Initiative (WJI) improves the lives of indigenous Guatemalan women and girls through education, access to legal services, and gender-based violence prevention. WJI works in rural Maya communities in Guatemala where women face extreme poverty and have little or no access to social services, making them especially vulnerable to violence, inequality, and discrimination. They provide free legal services directly to women by bringing lawyers and paralegals to communities and by providing bilingual Mayan-Spanish resources. They advise on a range of legal issues, including domestic violence, property rights, inheritance, and family law. They also run women’s rights education programmes for women and adolescent girls to give them the tools to better protect their rights.

The WJI Legal Services team was able to help 41-year-old Magdalena and her family gain their legal identity. Magdalena is a mother of six who gave birth to all of her children at home. Giving birth outside of a hospital means women must register their children with the national registry within 60 days. Nearly 50% of indigenous women in Guatemala give birth at home. Unfortunately, Magdalena could not afford the registration costs (approximately $6.85 per child) so none of her children had legal identities. Without this, none of her six children were enrolled in school, could read or write, or receive medical attention when they were ill. As adults, they would face serious barriers to employment. The Legal Services team helped the family request birth certificates from community midwives and the local health centre, identify witnesses required for registration, accompanied them to complete the formal registration process, and covered all costs incurred during the process. WJI secured legal identification for Magdalena and her children over just four months.

Everyone has the right to an identity, and without one, many people are unable to exercise their basic rights as a citizen. Without a legal identity, an individual cannot marry, study, vote, receive social security and health benefits, participate in government development programs, and obtain formal, dignified work. WJI is doing vital work to help women and their children gain their legal identities so they can assert their rights as Guatemalans. By working with the local community and improving access to justice for indigenous women and girls, WJI is breaking the cycle of gender-based violence and inequality in rural Guatemala.