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A Long-Awaited Revolution: Combatting Sexual Violence in Latin America

In a historic ruling this past February, Guatemalan courts convicted a former paramilitary and a retired army officer of committing rape and murder and holding sexual slaves during the country’s 1960–1996 civil war. Amongst other charges, the two former military personnel were found guilty of holding indigenous Mayan women as domestic and sexual slaves in a military base at Sepur Zarco. The case marks the first successful prosecution of sexual violence during the conflict. The victims have waited over three decades for the court’s decision, wherein the defendants were sentenced to a total of 360 years in prison (largely a symbolic gesture, since prisoners in Guatemala may serve 50 years at most); the women are now seeking $3 million in damages. The case is hugely emblematic in nature, as it gives agency both to women and to a historically subjugated minority group in the face of a crime which, in Guatemala, is often treated as a fact of life. Guatemala is plagued with disturbingly high rates of sexual violence: approximately 10,000 women report being raped every year, although many more of these crimes go unreported. However, it now seems that Guatemala, a country with an exhaustive history of violence against women and of perpetually diminishing rights for women in general, is attempting to reform the responses of its courts and set a precedent for future rulings.

The success of this case must largely be credited to the immense amount of public attention it has received on both a domestic and an international scale, something that falls in line with the recent drive for women’s rights across all of Latin America. The movement, which has been growing since the early 1990s, has been called a social revolution, with increasing advocacy, international aid, and protests in major Latin American cities. The great public attention garnered by this particular case, however, is an idiosyncratic misrepresentation of what is in reality a women’s rights movement afflicted by a severe lack of widespread attention and support. The movement is up against socially entrenched ideas of machismo (an image of masculinity associated with strength and power), a history of institutionalized sexual violence, and gaping gender imbalances in public office. Therefore, rights for Guatemalan women — and women across the region — will remain at a standstill even after this case, unless an increasing amount of public support is given to such cases in the future.

History has shown that vocal and widespread advocacy for the rights of women is integral to the diminishing of sexual crimes. This was implicit in the evolution of women’s rights in the United States, where there was no widespread movement against sexual violence until the mid-1970s. Up until then, there were barely any rape crisis centers, shelters for battered women were nonexistent, rape was rarely mentioned in public and political discourse, and national coalitions against sexual assault had not yet been established. It was only when women began coming forward and speaking out about rape, victim-blaming, and recovery at national conventions, knowing that others would hear their stories, that anti-violence rhetoric became an important part of the national discourse. Gradually, the United States developed targeted educational programs and help centers, and experienced a rising call for traditional political and legal institutions to play their parts in ensuring and protecting the rights of every woman to emotional, mental, and physical safety and security.

The movement thus had a profound affect on how American courts evaluated and ruled in cases of domestic and sexual violence. One of the most famous examples is the case of Joan Little, an incarcerated woman who, in self defense, killed a prison guard who assaulted her. The case received national attention in the media, popular culture, and the contexts of feminism and civil rights (Little was African-American, while her attacker was white). As a spotlight was shone on violence against women in prisons and households across America, Joan Little was acquitted. Further progress was seen with the concurrent growth of the women’s rights movement. The passage of the Rape Shield statutes and the Violence Against Women Act, for example, were momentous instances of women gaining agency against this offense. The relationship between advocacy and legal progress remains clear to this day, evident in the legal controversy surrounding Title IX. As public outrage regarding sexual assault on college campuses has grown and spread via activism, film, and other media, the law has been reformed numerous times. The victims themselves have also experienced huge amounts of public support, as well as a push to ensure that their court processes are fair and just. Although the United States still has a long way to go before its women are under the full de facto protection of the law from this offense, definite and visible progress has been made.

But Latin America’s struggle with rape and sexual assault has not been able to make the same progress. Although there are growing movements, largely led by women and nonprofit organizations, to raise awareness of and campaign against sexual violence, the problem remains an oddly marginalized issue. Women continue to be treated unfairly both by their communities and the courts, likely due to the strong stigmas associated with victims of sexual violence. Victims continue to be blamed for provoking the perpetrator, and are often seen as “impure” or “ruined” after the fact. Furthermore, education about sexual assault is lacking, as is a positive and encouraging support system for survivors in the form of crisis centers and shelters. Thus, many women choose not to or are prevented from reporting their assault. These failures extend to Latin American courts as well, for those cases that are reported. In Guatemala, for instance, a mere 6 percent of cases receive a verdict — perpetrators are rarely convicted for their crimes, legal procedures are (often purposefully) complicated and difficult to maneuver, and the response of the police is usually slow, sloppy, and insufficient.

This failures of the courts may be seen as part of a greater cultural problem with ingrained ideas of “machismo,” and the reputational importance of masculine dominance over women (in turn associated with the “ideal” military and patriarchal man). Machismo extends to the legislature of many Latin American countries; in Guatemala, women hold a meager 13 percent of parliamentary seats. Therefore, many laws are ineffective, since the idea of female inferiority persists throughout the government and the legal system.  Guatemala’s domestic violence laws were formally enacted only in 1996, and laws against “femicide” and sexual violence only in 2008 and 2009, respectively. More to the point, these laws are still ineffective in altering the greater social mindset regarding sexual crimes, as perpetrators often fail to be treated like “real” criminals.

However, if Latin America follows the trajectory of other nations such as the United States, the growing public advocacy for the rights of women against sexual violence could be a sign of future legal and political progress — and perhaps the landmark case in Guatemala will show the rest of Latin America how true, tangible change can be achieved. The case in Guatemala was the subject of a heated and controversial national debate, emerging from the now more openly discussed desires of Latin American women to achieve social, economic, and political equality. Furthermore, many human rights organizations made a pointed effort to spread information about the case across the country and beyond its borders. The trial itself was public, in an effort to garner greater attention and input on what would undoubtedly be a precedent-setting case. Finally, the success of the women in court was widely publicized, overtaking Guatemalan as well as international media. The national court of Guatemala made a statement that it would not tolerate these offenses any longer, a sign that change may be occurring, if gradually and with great difficulty. In order to ensure that future cases experience the same or a greater degree of success, public support must not be silenced. Rather, the media, governments, nonprofit organizations, and every Latin American citizen (man or woman) must make a concerted effort to keep these cases at the forefront of political and legal discourse.


About the Author

Gabriella Elanbeck '19 is a World Section Staff Writer for the Brown Political Review.