Originally Posted March 2006
Human Rights Accompaniment Report (Part I)
by Jackie McVicar
Two letters, March 2006, from Jackie McVicar, human rights accompanier, former Breaking the Silence Intern
March is here already! As I sit down to write this note, a thousand things come to mind that have happened since the last time I wrote. First, thanks to the people who continue to write letters of support, thank you for keeping me in your prayers and thoughts, I really appreciate it. Thanks for keeping me updated about life "back home"...wherever that might be!
Second, my work is going great. I am keeping busy, working here in the city and in various departments of the country, where I continuously meet the most amazing people. Since I started my placement in January, I have worked alongside a union member and defender who has received numerous death threats; anthropologists at exhumations and funeral services (for victims of violence in the early 1980s); organisations defending indigenous rights, fair trade agreements, environmental and land rights in regard to mining; campesinos seeking justice and reconciliation and access to land; youth fighting for an end to impunity and accountability for the people who have disappeared in Guatemala; a community that is writing its story of resistance during the internal conflict; women who are working and demanding that something be done about the increasingly high rates of violence and assassinations of women (and the phenomenon of femicide in the country); survivors and people who are testifying to finally close a horrible chapter of violence, torture and death in their lives.
I have to admit that at times I feel overwhelmed by the human rights situation in Guatemala, and as I read the news everyday, I am reminded that Guatemala is not the only country being oppressed by foreign governments or unfair economic systems; nor is it the only one resisting this invasion. The movement in Guatemala to unite and cooperate to be heard is growing, which is encouraging, despite the impunity that seems omnipresent in this country.
I am motivated to keep supporting justice in my own life however I can (like supporting Fair Trade goods...like coffee!), writing to my MP-MLAs to see what Canada's new international development and economic strategy will be in light of the recent elections and voice my opinion about the responsibilities we have as Canadians to support equality, justice and peace...I encourage you to do the same. The more I am here, the more I see how we are so interconnected in this world.
How our actions directly affect those 5000 kms away, how the decisions our government leaders and the CEOs of national companies make directly affects the lives of the most disadvantaged people in the world, and how those decisions can put and end to poverty and injustice or encourage it. I trust you are all doing what you can to support justice and peace in your own communities and Canada and hope you also remember Guatemala and the people who are greatly suffering in this world.
I hope this letter finds you all well and hope to hear from you soon.
Happy International Women's Day
"For the salvation of humanity, women to power!" I came across a random picture I had taken last year on International Women's day and the banner in the background had this slogan broadly written on it. I hadn't realised it was there when I took the picture, but it made me smile when I recently found it in my pile of photos. I spent last March 8, recognized as International Women's Day around the world, in San Lucas Toliman, Guatemala, where I was working in the Gender Programme of the Rural Farmers Comittee of the Highlands. A year later, I am back in Guatemala, where the extreme conditions women face overwhelm me on a daily basis.
A few days ago, I attended a conference entitled, "Cases of Violence Against Women," and heard the stories of four domestic and maquila (factory) workers, who have suffered sexual and physical violence, extreme labour violations and intrafamiliar violence. The four women who gave their testamonies were indigenous, poor, mostly illiterate,young and old alike. A sense of anger washed over me as each one began to tell a small portion of their stories, of their lives. I began to feel rage and resentment, before feeling sad and sickned by the way we treat each other as human beings, how power and money havea way of turning people into barbarians. How important it was that there was a safe space for victims of opression and violence to share their testamonies, I wondered how they had so much courage, a courage I am sure I will never have.
Each one told horror stories of years of maltreatment, enslavement and suffering. When finally the youngest girl spoke, a little girl of nine years, a baby, took the microphone and began to tell her own story, I was completely overwhelmed. She sobbed into the mic and she talked about the daily work she did, washing clothes, making meals, scrubbing floors. A work that lasted more than 12 hours a day sometimes, a work that receives $1.50 or a bar of soap a day. She said she started working at age seven and doesn't go to school. She talked about her own mistreatment by the hands of her bosses. Whether the case be in maquilas or homes, women across this country, and the world, are denied the right to organise and form unions and are silenced by fear of economic, emotional or physical reprocussions.
The numbers are overwhelming. In 2002, 184 women were killed in Guatemala, in 2003, 250 women and in 2004 more than 300 women murdered (AP 8-28-04). One third of all homicides against women are related to domestic violence. Most of the women murdered are poor, between the ages of 18 and 30. Many of the women who are victims of violence have already reported the abuse or threats, but find little support or help within a society which supports impunity, machismo and corruption. For indigenous women who do not speak Spanish, their fight is also plagued by inaccessability to legal aid and racism which penetrates nearly every network or judicial system. This intimidation is putting many obstacles before the participation of women in public spaces and helping break down the already fragile social fabric of Guatemala. Despite bureaucracy and a culture of disrespect for women, Guatemalan women are fighting and making the media and government listen. When I took the photo a year ago, I was at a celebration. A day dedicated to recognizing women, their value, their strength and their courage. Courage to move on, to speak out, and to keep fighting. The IWD March here in Guatemala City starts in an hour, to celebrate and renounce the injustice. I hope you too will do something today.