‘Las Abuelas’: How a Group of Sexual Slavery Survivors in Guatemala Won a Historic Legal Victory


In rural Guatemala, a gaggle of survivors of sexual slavery received a exceptional authorized victory—and have develop into revered activists for Indigenous ladies’s rights.

Survivors of sexual violence got here from throughout Guatemala to fulfill in Cobán in November. (Emily Kaplan)

In small teams and massive ones, in pairs and one after the other, ladies walked to the entrance of the convention room in Cobán, a metropolis in mountainous north-central Guatemala.

“We’re victims of sexual violence,” they mentioned. In numerous methods, all of them shared the identical message: What had occurred to us was actual, it was unacceptable and it ought to by no means occur once more.

Most spoke quietly, some nearly inaudibly; a number of had been forceful and loud, their ft positioned solidly aside, their palms firmly gripping the microphone. The ladies got here from eight areas of Guatemala, and all had been survivors of sexual violence.

Seven of the eight teams had skilled sexual assault—together with rape and sexual slavery—by the hands of federal troopers in the course of the nation’s civil conflict, recognized there because the “armed battle,” which lasted from 1960 to 1996. Throughout the conflict, the Guatemalan federal authorities, backed by the US, massacred greater than 200,000 folks, practically all of whom had been poor, illiterate, Indigenous and residing in rural villages scattered all through the nation. The eighth group was composed of adolescent ladies who had been raped rather more not too long ago, in what they describe as a continuation of the identical patterns of violence skilled by their moms, grandmothers and generations of Indigenous Guatemalan ladies earlier than them.

The ladies had been convened by Mujeres Transformando el Mundo (Ladies Reworking the World), a corporation related to the United Nations, and spoke a wide range of Indigenous languages similar to Q’eqchi’, Mam and Ixil. As they spoke, all regarded every now and then to the row of 13 older ladies sitting in opposition to a wall of home windows on the far finish of the room. These ladies wore orange scarves on their heads and the brightly coloured, handwoven huipil blouses typical of the village of Sepur Zarco, within the jap division of Izabal. (Departments, or departamentos, are roughly equal to states within the U.S. or provinces in Canada.)

Because the youthful ladies spoke, this group of elders, recognized each respectfully and affectionately as las abuelas (“the grandmothers”), listened quietly, nodding.

The tales the abuelas heard had been acquainted to them: They themselves had been enslaved by invading forces within the Nineteen Eighties and repeatedly, systematically raped by the troopers who killed their husbands and plenty of of their youngsters. After the conflict, the ladies had been referred to as prostitutes and handled as pariahs by their neighbors.

However within the panorama of systematic abuse of Indigenous ladies in Guatemala, the abuelas’ story is exclusive: For them, a minimum of, there was a proper acknowledgement of wrongdoing, together with some measure of justice.

Las abuelas of Sepur Zarco, first row, seated (proper to left): Antonia Choc, Felisa Cuc, Rosario Xo, Candelaria Maaz, Manuela Bá, Demesia Yat; second row, seated: Margarita Chub; second row, standing (proper to left): Matilde Sub, Catarina Caal, María Bá, Cecelia Xo, Carmen Xol. (U.N. Ladies / Ryan Brown)

In 2016, Choose Iris Yassmin Barrios Aguilar, president of the Excessive-Threat Tribunal of Guatemala—who had additionally presided over the trial that discovered Efraín Ríos Montt, the conflict’s murderous dictator, responsible of genocide—present in favor of the abuelas, and convicted two of their captors of crimes in opposition to humanity on counts of homicide, rape and slavery. This marked the primary time in historical past {that a} tribunal discovered its personal residents responsible of sexual enslavement. (Barrios Aguilar, like a number of different Guatemalan judges recognized for combating corruption, is rumored to be in exile outdoors the nation.)

Moreover—and crucially—the sentence included the 18 measures of reparation the abuelas had requested for. These measures included opening a well being heart and first colleges in Sepur Zarco; reopening the recordsdata on claims to the land the abuelas’ husbands had died defending; publishing a youngsters’s ebook concerning the abuelas’ historical past to distribute to college students within the division of Alta Verapaz and in Guatemala Metropolis; and translating the textual content of the choose’s sentence into all indigenous languages spoken all through Guatemala.


This text initially seems within the Winter 2022 subject of MsBecome a member today to read more reporting like this in print and through our app.

In accordance with 66-year-old Demesia Yat, the chief of the abuelas, the vast majority of these measures have but to be fulfilled.

“We’re right here to demand justice and to help our sisters,” she informed me that day in Cobán, talking in Q’eqchi’ via a translator. “I’m seeing that we’re in numerous teams of girls, however I consider that that is the best way that we will battle for justice for all.”

Later that afternoon, Angélica Choc, who had spoken forcefully about ladies’s rights to their ancestral lands, informed me that she is impressed by the ladies of Sepur Zarco, which isn’t removed from her personal neighborhood of Lote Ocho. In recent times, Choc and different members of the Q’eqchi’ neighborhood have endured tremendous violence perpetrated by the federal government—together with having their properties burned and members of the family killed by police—for refusing to desert their property to international nickel firms and the federal government officers who they are saying are on the businesses’ payroll.

In some ways, the armed battle, with its attendant impunity for violence, by no means led to Lote Ocho.

To Choc, the abuelas function a “nice instance of energy and resistance.”

“In search of justice is so troublesome,” she informed me in Spanish. “They’re an instance of ‘if they’ll do it, so can I. ’ They’re very previous now, so their battle is what I’ve taken up.”

It’s true that the abuelas don’t have as a lot power as they used to; nonetheless, they proceed to share their story. Final yr, along with Mujeres Transformando el Mundo and Guatemalan journalist Sandra Sebastián, they revealed their tales in a ebook of testimonies and images referred to as Donde nace el sol y no muere: Relatos de vida de las abuelas del caso Sepur Zarco—or The place the Solar Is Born and Doesn’t Die: Life Tales of the Grandmothers of the Sepur Zarco Case. Within the ebook, the 15 ladies share particulars of their childhoods, their experiences in the course of the conflict and what their lives have been like within the wake of its destruction and trauma.

One of the crucial necessary circumstances for sustained peace after battle is that the state acknowledges what it has performed and creates circumstances for non-repetition.

Adriana Quiñones

Yat’s written testimony stands out, as a lot for the traumas described—the best way that her father’s bodily abuse of her mom led her to consider that the abuse she and different ladies endured by the hands of their husbands was regular—as for the devastating simplicity of its conclusion.

“Earlier than the conflict, we lived tranquilly with our households and animals,” it reads. “We had corn, beans and chiles. However the military left us and not using a home, with out garments, with out meals and with out animals. The army kidnapped and killed our husbands and left us hungry. And due to the mistreatment that it suffered, the land additionally misplaced its energy.”

Rosario Xo informed me that she contributed to the undertaking as a result of she believes telling her story can have an actual impact.

“To have the ability to converse the reality, that’s the strongest factor,” she mentioned. “To have contributed to justice via telling the reality—it’s what has enabled different ladies to know that they’ve rights.” Xo, who doesn’t understand how previous she is (there have been no information of her beginning, and since she by no means went to highschool, she doesn’t comprehend numerical info like time and dates), mentioned she believes that in some ways the nation is “shifting backwards.”

With tears in her eyes, Xo recounted how the invading troopers who killed her husband, by stealing the neighborhood’s meals brought about her child son’s loss of life from hunger.

“I want no ladies would dwell via what we now have lived via,” she informed me. “It’s very unhappy, very onerous, very painful. Once I see that the federal government is doing issues that make us keep in mind what it did to us: burning households’ homes … The reparations that we’re nonetheless anxiously ready for, they’ll change the lifetime of our neighborhood. What we wish is peace and tranquility in the neighborhood, in order that the worry that we lived via doesn’t exist anymore.”

The abuelas journey typically, presenting to teachers, human rights defenders, journalists and educators. Two days after the gathering in Cobán, the ladies offered at a convention in Guatemala Metropolis to a global viewers. To the attendees, the abuelas’ presence was hanging: a gaggle of aged, frail-looking Indigenous ladies, all beneath 5 ft tall, carrying the standard costume that had lengthy marked them and different Maya ladies for discrimination and abuse, sitting onstage at a banquet corridor in one of the vital elite motels within the capital metropolis that represented the army victory of their torturers.

After an introduction by Paula Barrios, the chief director of Mujeres Transformando el Mundo, Yat briefly took the rostrum. “Ours is a battle of sunshine and a battle of ache,” Yat mentioned on behalf of the group. “Thank God we will be right here to current to all of you.”

To talk the reality, that’s the strongest factor. To have contributed to justice via telling the reality—it’s what has enabled different ladies to know that they’ve rights.

Rosario Xo

Adriana Quiñones, Guatemala’s consultant to U.N. Ladies and the regional adviser for the duty pressure on violence in opposition to ladies, later defined the importance of the abuelas’ case and continued activism: “When the choose first believed them, that was step one to therapeutic and to pursuing justice, not just for them however for girls everywhere in the world. Now that the sentence has been set, it has set an instance for girls in comparable conditions all over the world—in Nepal, in Bosnia, in Colombia. The measures of reparations have been studied in order that these ladies can even search justice in circumstances of sexual violence and battle.”

Working with the U.N. Human Rights Workplace of the Commissioner and Mujeres Transformando el Mundo in addition to two different organizations—the Unión Nacional de Mujeres Guatemaltecas and Equipo de Estudios Comunitarios y Acción Psicosocial—the abuelas had been strategic within the reparations they demanded.

“One of the crucial necessary circumstances for sustained peace after battle is that the state acknowledges what it has performed and creates circumstances for non-repetition,” Quiñones defined. “As a result of the abuelas had been poor, they had been illiterate and monolingual, the military thought that they may do no matter they wished to them. With these reparations, everyone seems to be concerned—the ministry of training, the ministry of well being, the justice system, the land rights establishments … a minimum of 21 establishments are concerned within the reparations course of. What you need is to create the circumstances for non-repetition of those crimes, and you may solely obtain that by reworking the best way these establishments see their position in guaranteeing that every one persons are protected.”

As Xo and Yat famous, progress has been gradual—and the abuse of girls nonetheless abounds all through the nation. But regardless of the abuelas’ frustration, their actions have already had a profound influence.

At 17, Sara Noehmy Suram was one of many youngest individuals within the convention in Cobán. She has a 4-year-old little one who was the results of rape; she didn’t even know she was pregnant till she was 5 months alongside.

“It’s important for the community [of survivors] to develop stronger,” she mentioned. “That method, ladies can really feel safe, can trust in themselves, can help one another. It offers us energy in order that we are able to keep united.”

Reporting for this story was made doable by a grant from the Howard G. Buffett Fund for Ladies Journalists on the Worldwide Ladies’s Media Basis.

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