Identity and well-being – Guatemala

A lifeline for survivors of gender-based violence during lockdown

Laura Quintana Soms

Gender-based violence, particularly against indigenous women and girls, is entrenched in Guatemala. The country’s long-standing problem of femicide – often described by activists as an ‘epidemic’ – has been aggravated by the outbreak of COVID-19.

Between March and June 2020, during lockdown, at least 140 women were murdered, 57 of whom were classified as victims of femicide by the Prosecutor’s Office, while authorities received more than 19,000 reports of violence against women. During this same period, 403 emergency alerts were issued to track down women who had disappeared, including the first alert ever activated for a trans woman in the country, La China.

The pandemic has also had a deep impact on local and national non-governmental organizations which, already operating in extremely stressful and dangerous circumstances, have had to adapt their activities to the new context almost overnight. This was the case for Casa Aq’ab’al, a local organization based in the village of San Lucas Tolimán, where the population is largely Maya Kaqchikel. Created in 2016 with the objective of supporting survivors of domestic violence after the murder of a 16-year-old girl, Casa Aq’ab’al supported over 60 survivors of gender-based violence and their families between July and December 2019. The organization had planned to maintain this level of support during 2020, but when COVID-19 reached the village its five staff members suddenly found their work dramatically curtailed. They realized that they needed to respond quickly to this new challenge to ensure the right of indigenous women and girls to live without violence was protected.

First, there was the problem of increased isolation, as vulnerable women and girls were suddenly cut off from external sources of support. Like other countries, Guatemala applied a strict lockdown from March 2020, with long curfews and stay-at-home restrictions that increased tensions at home while making it impossible for women to report violence and reach out for help. Authorities tried to address this issue by implementing new or improved reporting systems, such as emergency hotlines and the creation of a mobile phone application as a ‘panic button’ for women to ask for help. Yet, with less than half of the population regularly using the internet, and an even smaller proportion having access to a secure connection at home, these options are not available to many of those at risk.

Casa Aq’ab’al distributed milk, vegetables and other items to more than 200 people, with over 90 per cent being women survivors of domestic violence and their families, the majority with precarious incomes.

At the same time, the COVID-19 crisis has placed further strain on an already overburdened and poorly functioning judicial system for reporting and investigating incidents of violence against women. As a result, many hearings and investigations have been delayed or suspended: during lockdown, Casa Aq’ab’al was only able to resolve one legal case while over 30 others were pending. More recently, the law courts have begun moving forward, with the resolution of new cases and the review of pending ones. Nevertheless, the underlying weaknesses of the country’s judicial system remain: Guatemala still ranks 118th out of 128 countries in the World Justice Project’s global ranking.

In parallel to these institutional pressures, Casa Aq’ab’al also faced the issue of their beneficiaries and neighbours suddenly losing their income. In a village where most people live from day to day, not being able to go out and sell food, clothes and other products to locals and tourists left many families in a dire economic situation. In a country where almost half the population was already unable to afford the basic food basket and levels of childhood stunting are among the highest in the world, the health implications for the most marginalized communities are potentially devastating — even before the risk of the virus itself is also factored in.

Although Casa Aq’ab’al decided to close during the first weeks of the pandemic, the team immediately reviewed the changing needs of their beneficiaries and the projects which were to be implemented during that period. Thanks to the flexibility of their donors, they were able to rearrange priorities and open up new directions for action. One critical focus area was food. With this in mind, staff created a database of families with low or insecure incomes and distributed — in collaboration with other organizations, a hotel and local volunteer firefighters — emergency supplies to those most in need. To avoid duplication, those families on Casa Aq’ab’al’s database were also incorporated into the priority lists of the local authorities in order to ensure support was maintained sustainably and that households in the most extreme situations were prioritized. In total, Casa Aq’ab’al distributed milk, vegetables and other items to more than 200 people, with over 90 per cent being women survivors of domestic violence and their families, the majority with precarious incomes.

Following this immediate response, the team decided to start installing home and community gardens for survivors of domestic violence, mainly adult women, to grow their own vegetables and herbs. In this way, food provision in the medium term would no longer be an issue. The project was also designed to support the revival of creole and organic seeds, instead of using transgenic and imported seeds. Casa Aq’ab’al now has four community allotments and more than 30 family gardens. The benefits extend beyond nutrition, providing a vital shared social space where women can meet and share their gardening experiences when they see each other in the market or in the streets of the village — bringing an end to the long years of isolation they have frequently experienced as survivors of domestic violence. In the community gardens, women coordinate among themselves the planting and maintenance, and share their experience and knowledge of caring for plants and vegetables with their families.

In parallel, the team organized workshops for women survivors of domestic violence on the production of organic soap, solid shampoo and other health and beauty products from plants grown in the organization’s gardens, such as rosemary and lavender, building on ancestral knowledge of the lunar cycles and the Mayan spiritual calendars. This led to the creation of a brand which is now sold within Guatemala, providing a number of women survivors of domestic violence with a sustainable income.


Photo: A group of women survivors of gender-based violence engage in a talk with Casa Aq’ab’al’s psychologist on the history and importance of 8 March (Women’s day). Credit: Casa Aq’ab’al.