Violence Against Women Surges When War Is “Done”

Violence Against Women Surges When War Is “Done”

by Yifat Susskind

Rosemary Gonzalez was murdered in 2009, the victim of a war that ended in 1996. One day, 17-year-old Rosemary said good-bye to her mother Betty, walked out of their small house on the outskirts of Guatemala City and was never seen alive again.

Rosemary and Betty lived together in the poor neighborhood of Barcenas, under the constant shadow of violence. Across Guatemala, nearly 5,000 women have been killed in the past decade, attacked for the simple fact of being women. The women of Barcenas know well this fear—they live at the epicenter of this crisis.

In Guatemala, generations of women have faced murderous violence, but at its core is war. Now, the same dynamic is emerging in Iraq.

Guatemalan Women Under Siege

Why was Rosemary Gonzalez killed? Why are Guatemalan women the targets of a ten- year rape and killing spree? The answers go beyond the motives of any one culprit.

For 36 years, Guatemala was roiled by a brutal civil war that the United Nations characterized as genocide, mainly against Mayan Indigenous People. Through the years of the conflict, tens of thousands of Guatemalan women and girls were raped, tortured and murdered. These were not attacks carried out randomly; violence against women was deliberately calculated by U.S.-backed fighters to traumatize families and destroy the capacity of communities to resist and organize.

Mayan women were targeted because they are the lynchpins of their families and communities. In many instances, women were gang-raped in front of their families. Pregnant women faced specific atrocities, tortured and murdered in order to cut off the next generation of the community.

Multiple human rights investigations have found evidence that this violence against women was part of a systematic counterinsurgency strategy by the government. Over one million members of the Guatemalan army, paramilitary forces and police were trained to attack women with rape, mutilation and torture. Today’s attacks reproduce the gruesome tactics of these wartime atrocities.

Many Guatemalan feminists say that is because the perpetrators were never brought to justice once the peace accords were signed in 1996. They were simply re-absorbed into society, taking on new roles as police or in powerful criminal gangs that infiltrated many government agencies.

Targets of
deadly violence
by sectarian militias.

Meanwhile, violence against women continues to be tolerated. Women are blamed for their own attacks, for having walked alone at night or for the style of their dress.

The Latin American women’s movement has given this crisis a name: femicide. It is defined by various forms of gender-based violence against women, including murder, and characterized by impunity for perpetrators and a lack of justice processes for victims. It occurs in conditions of social upheaval, armed conflict, violence between powerful rival gangs and militias, rapid economic transformation and the demise of traditional forms of state law enforcement.

For Guatemalan women, particularly those who are young, poor or Indigenous, the war against them continues — and Rosemary is one of its victims.

Young women in Rosemary’s community of Barcenas have few options other than backbreaking work in the maquilas (sweatshops) for meager pay. After long shifts, they walk home at night, looking over their shoulders for the attack they know could come at any moment.

Rosemary wanted something different. She had studied hard in school and had dreams of university. Rosemary was looking for a job outside of the maquilas, hoping to build a better life for herself and for her mother. Instead, her life was cut short. Now, her mother Betty has devoted her own life to bringing justice for Rosemary, demanding answers from judges and police and rallying her community to her support.

To Iraq and Beyond

In Guatemala, the wartime tactic of violence against women became embedded in communities and cultures. In fact, violence in general became so prevalent that the murder rate in Guatemala today is higher than it was for much of the civil war, and the widespread rape and killing is a direct legacy of the war.

In Iraq, the U.S. invasion in 2003 also triggered a surge in violence against women. The overthrow of the Ba’ath regime ended decades of nominally secular rule, in which women consolidated certain human rights gains. The U.S. occupation brought to power Islamists whose vision of the world hinged on a fundamentalist policing of social roles for women.

Women soon found themselves the targets of deadly violence by sectarian militias, often for committing the “offense” of daring to challenge the killers’ vision of society. Those who were killed were journalists, doctors, intellectuals or women who otherwise held a job outside of the home. Few numbers were gathered of those who were attacked for exercising their basic human rights as women. In fact, the U.S. occupation authorities actively discouraged the gathering of mortality data.

When figures were released, Iraqi women’s organizations cautioned that the actual number of women being harassed, assaulted, abducted, raped and killed by Islamist militias was much higher than statistics show. As in Guatemala and elsewhere, most crimes against women were not reported because of stigma, fear of retaliation or lack of confidence in the police.

As in Guatemala, Iraqi women’s organizations emphasized the complicity of state authorities in violence against women. They reported clear links between the Islamist militias who controlled and worked in the police force and criminal gangs involved in forced prostitution and trafficking of women. These concerns place violence against Iraqi women squarely within the paradigm of femicide in Guatemala.

Grassroots Responses

In Guatemala, a grassroots organization called the Women Workers’ Committee has created an oasis of safety for women and girls. They organize workshops and community watch groups to help women know their rights to life, health and decent work and to enhance their safety. They provide crucial counseling for traumatized women and girls and legal services for families of murdered women.

Guatemalan women have learned a bitter lesson. The crucible of war allowed violence against women to become entrenched in communities. Femicide has become the “new normal,” something women must think about every day.

A grassroots organization
created an oasis of safety
for women and girls.

Leaders of the Iraqi women’s movement are fighting to ensure that the violence that escalated as a result of the U.S. war and occupation does not become their “normal” in the years to come. A group called the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq is a bulwark in the struggle to defend women’s human rights. They have built a network of women’s shelters that help women escape violence. They publish a newspaper and run Iraq’s first and only women’s radio station, broadcasting the message that violence against women must end.

Women in Iraq and Guatemala have saved lives and pulled communities back from the brink. What’s more, the global women’s movement has created the connections that allow women in one community to learn from the crises and solutions of another. Key to this exchange among women is the understanding that preventing femicide requires ending wartime impunity for violence against women; opposing the normalization of violence in social institutions ranging from law to popular media; and demanding the full range of women’s human rights as a centerpiece of democratic society.

Yifat Susskind is the Executive Director of MADRE, an international women’s rights organization that partners with the Women Workers’ Committee in Guatemala, the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq and grassroots women’s groups worldwide. In 2007, she was the author of a MADRE report titled Promising Democracy, Imposing Theocracy: Gender-Based Violence and the US War on Iraq. For more information about Rosemary and Betty Gonzalez and about MADRE’s ongoing work in Guatemala to support the Women Workers’ Committee, watch this video.

Also see A Feminist Looks at Masculine Rage and the Haditha Massacre by Kathleen Barry in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See The Cruel Lie: Bombing To Liberate Women by Debra Sweet in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

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