Guatemalan Women Face Sexual Harassment, Discrimination While Husbands Work Abroad

In Guatemala’s Sololá department, an 85 percent poverty rate drives men to go where the jobs are – the U.S. The wives these migrants leave behind endure sexual harassment, gender inequities and restrictions on their personal liberties. They’re denied respect, social observers say, and society imposes heavy expectations.

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Guatemalan Women Face Sexual Harassment, Discrimination While Husbands Work Abroad

Norma Baján Balán, GPJ Guatemala

Carin Sacuj Copen, the wife of a migrant laborer who lives in the U.S., stays indoors as much as possible to avoid being sexually harassed by men who know her husband is away. Her 4-year-old son is Cristián Orlando Francisco Sacuj Copen.

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SAN ANDRÉS SEMETABAJ, GUATEMALA — The flame of a candle atop a small altar lights up Angélica Matzar Matzar’s face as she prays in her living room in San Andrés Semetabaj, a municipality in Guatemala’s Sololá department.

Matzar Matzar, 29, lives with her 7-year-old daughter. The girl was a newborn when her father, Matzar Matzar’s husband, emigrated to the U.S. in search of work. Matzar Matzar prays for him to come back safe and sound.

“For me, it’s difficult to be without my husband,” she says.

Men harass Matzar Matzar because they believe her husband’s absence makes her sexually available to them, she says. They invite her to eat with them, or they say obscene things when she walks by.

“When I walk down the street, men come out to whistle at me and shout at me, ‘When can we meet?’ or ‘What a nice body you have!’” she says. “Sometimes they throw words that one shouldn’t hear.”

With her husband gone, Matzar Matzar takes on tasks that are usually reserved for men: tending to the corn crop, renovating their home, participating in community meetings.

When I walk down the street, men come out to whistle at me and shout at me: ‘When can we meet?’ or ‘What a nice body you have!’ Sometimes they throw words that one shouldn’t hear.

She faces discrimination in every task, she says.

Her experience is common among women whose husbands live abroad. Wives left behind in socially conservative communities say they become targets of sexual harassment. They struggle to care well for their families because their communities look down on them when they do what is traditionally considered men’s work.

Guatemala does not keep a count of the number of men who emigrate to the U.S., says Sara Ortiz of the Office of Social Communication of the General Directorate of Migration. Ortiz spoke by phone from Guatemala City.

That’s because most men leave as undocumented migrants, adds Claudia Verónica López, who worked until 2013 as a researcher at the Research and Political Management Institute at the University Rafael Landívar in Guatemala City.

López, speaking by phone, says poverty drives the nation’s emigration.

Sololá, whose population is primarily indigenous, is one of the poorest areas of Guatemala. About 52 percent of the department’s poor live in rural areas, according to 2011 data from the National Institute of Statistics. Some 85 percent of the rural population lives below the poverty line, which means living on less than 8,283 quetzales ($1,080) per person per year.

Nationally, 54 percent of the Guatemalan population lives under the poverty line, according to a 2013 institute report. This means the monthly household income for a family of five is under 3,236 quetzales ($420). Poverty increased in Guatemala by about 3 percent from 2006 to 2011.

Matzar Matzar’s husband, Ovaldo Sacuj Cuc, is living in New York, where he washes dishes, mows lawns, lays bricks and paints. He earns about $80 a day. He sends part of his earnings to his wife to buy more land and proceed with construction of their two-story house.

In Guatemala, Sacuj Cuc earned just 40 quetzales ($5) a day cultivating corn.

Under their culture’s strict social code, women whose husbands live abroad are neither widowed nor divorced and so must comport themselves as married women at all times, López explains.

In Guatemala, women are generally seen as sexual objects, and men are more inclined to sexually harass women whose husbands are not around, López says.

Erwin Martin Gómez, 23, drives a tuc tuc, a motorized three-wheeled vehicle used to provide transportation for hire in Guatemala. Some women see other men when their husbands are abroad, he says.

“There are women who don’t inspire respect,” he says. “When their husbands emigrate, they start going out with other men.”

Photos by Norma Baján Balán, GPJ Guatemala

Angélica Matzar Matzar’s daughter, Astrid Dayana Sacuj Matzar, 7, was just one month old when her father, Ovaldo Sacuj Cuc (seen in photo), migrated to the U.S. to work.

Angélica Matzar Matzar, an indigenous Guatemalan woman, says she has had to endure harassment and discrimination from men ever since her husband left for the U.S.

Every day, Angélica Matzar Matzar prays at this altar for the wellbeing of her husband, who is working in the U.S.

Carin Sacuj Copen, 28, says she prefers to stay home rather than face harassment because her husband is not around.

“I don’t go out, nor talk with people,” she says. “I don’t go out on the street. I only visit an aunt of mine, and if I have something urgent to do, then I go out. Otherwise I’d rather stay home. I don’t want to give people something to talk about.”

Carin Sacuj Copen is Ovaldo Sacuj Cuc’s sister.

Traditionally, women whose husbands emigrate live with their in-laws, López says.

That’s true for Griselda Roselina Lastor Mendez, 20, whose husband went to the U.S. in 2014 to look for a job. In accordance with local custom, Lastor Mendez’s in-laws manage the money her husband sends, she says. They give her a portion of it for personal expenses.

Her in-laws ask her to stay in the house, and to leave only with a companion.

“I feel controlled,” she says. “I cannot go out to the street, and if I do, I have to bring someone with me. I can’t even visit my family. People criticize and make things up – that I go out looking for men.

Some women have no choice but to work outside their homes. Rather than staying inside and performing traditional tasks such as caring for children, embroidering and knitting, the wives of migrant workers must enter a workforce that remains a male stronghold, López says.

Matzar Matzar has had to hire up to seven men to help her sow and harvest corn. But as a woman, she has found it very difficult to exercise authority over them.

She has encountered the same problem in building her house. The bricklayers were reluctant to help her buy the materials – a task she felt unprepared to do on her own. She told them what to do and how, but the men ignored her directives and did as they pleased. They did not value her instructions because she is a woman, she says.

Matzar Matzar also says she has trouble making herself heard at the weekly meetings of the Community Development Council.

At the meetings, neighbors assess the community’s needs and suggest government policies.

“In the committee meetings, only men regularly speak, and they discriminate against me as a woman,” she says. “They don’t take my opinion into account. I prefer to remain silent.”

Women who attend the meetings generally do so in the company of their husbands, says Julio Velásquez Cosme, president of the council in Panajachel, a town in Sololá department.

During a recent wastewater pipe excavation project in Panajachel, a woman was excluded because her husband was away, Velásquez Cosme says. The men would not allow her to participate in the excavation; they instead demanded that she pay someone to do her share of the work.

“Women, for the fact of not having their partner, are doubly discriminated against,” he says. “This happens because of machismo.”

Machismo is not unique to Guatemala, López says. But Guatemalan women face a severe version of it.

“In Guatemala,” she says, “men have a lot of power over women – at the economic level, at the social level.”

Fernanda Font, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish.