Sara Nohemí Matzar Yaxón, GPJ Guatemala

Indigenous Guatemalan Women are Standing Up to Entrenched Domestic Violence


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Guatemalan women are standing up to abuse; nationwide, complaints of domestic violence increased nearly fourfold in the five years after the nation enacted a tough new law against partner abuse.

SOLOLÁ, GUATEMALA – Ana María Tigüila is a robust, financially independent Guatemalan who lives in the western department of Sololá. An indigenous woman raised in a culture in which women are expected to be submissive, Tigüila, 54, has acquired a powerful measure of self-esteem; she never looks down when she talks. She arrived at this point after standing up to the husband who had beaten and insulted her for 36 years.

"My husband drank daily,” Tigüila says. “He hit me too much, he kicked me too much, he threw me on the bed. He mistreated me as a prostitute.”

In May 2014, Tigüila’s husband chased her with a machete with the intention of killing her, she says. That attack spurred her to seek help from the Office for the Defense of the Indigenous Woman of Guatemala, a government institution that offers women assistance with psychological, legal and health needs.

“I had seen that a lot of people had gone there,” she says.

At the recommendation of the defense office, Tigüila’s husband agreed to attend counseling and enter an alcohol treatment program.

By reporting her husband’s abuse, Tigüila joined a small but growing subgroup of indigenous women who are summoning the courage to report abuse.

But many other indigenous women, in accordance with long-standing cultural expectations, endure daily abuse in silence, experts say.

Indigenous women in Guatemala file far fewer complaints of domestic violence than other Guatemalan women. In the patriarchal system that characterizes indigenous communities, women are silenced by economic dependence and ignorance of their rights, experts and citizens say.

Nationwide, Guatemalan women are standing up to domestic violence.

In 2008, Guatemala passed a law prohibiting all forms of violence and discrimination against women. Nationwide media campaigns promoted women’s rights under the law.

Over the next five years, the number of domestic violence complaints nearly quadrupled.

Between 2008 and 2013, the number of domestic violence reports filed in the country shot up from 11,566 to 49,400, according to a 2014 National Institute of Statistics report.

Nationally, 52 percent of each 10,000 women filed complaints, according to the report.

Guatemala is divided into 22 departments, and three departments with higher concentrations of indigenous peoples had the lowest reporting rates. In one such area, Sololá, only 30 percent of each 10,000 women filed complaints.

The comparatively low percentage of complaints by indigenous women is even more significant given that gender violence is more common among indigenous people and in poor areas, sociologist Walda Barrios-Klee says in a phone interview from Guatemala City.

In Sololá, 94 percent of the population is indigenous, and 74 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, which means monthly household income is under 3,236 quetzales ($424), according to a 2011 United Nations Development Program report.

Historically, the patriarchal social system has enabled indigenous men to subjugate women, and older women have validated that structure, says Barrios-Klee, coordinator of the Gender Studies Program at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences in Guatemala.

Tigüila says her own mother-in-law promoted gender violence in the home.

“My mother-in-law did not love me,” she says. “Later she used to tell my husband that she had another woman for him.”

Men use violence against women to maintain their superior position in their society’s hierarchy, Barrios-Klee says.

“The upper hierarchy has the right to discipline, even if it is a woman,” she says.

In some communities, it is considered normal for a man to discipline a woman with corporal punishment, Barrios-Klee says. And women usually defer to the cultural expectation that they let their husbands beat them.

Mothers transmit the culture of silence to their daughters, says Rut Ester Cotúc, a psychologist at the defense office.

Some indigenous women have put up with violence for many years, Cotúc says.

“Women keep quiet because sometimes mothers tell daughters to put up with it,” she says. “They come to believe that it is part of marriage, or think that they do not know what to do without their husband.”

After witnessing many years of violence, Tigüila’s daughter Elizabeth Yaxón Tigüila came to hate her father. She wished to kill him. But even she thinks there are times when it is all right for her father to insult her.

“I agree with him mistreating me when the occasion merits it,” she says. “But he does it for any little thing.”

Elizabeth Yaxón Tigüila says her father stopped hitting her mother after Ana María Tigüila reported him.

Nonetheless, he continues to insult her mom, she says.

Ana María Tigüila stays quiet, waiting for her husband to make progress through the treatment program.

“She has tried to not cry in front of us,” Elizabeth Yaxón Tigüila says. “I feel that she does not cry to not cause us pain. Sometimes a few tears escape from her, because my dad gets angry sometimes.”

Men are determined to retain the dominion that their patriarchal system has taught them to wield, Barrios-Klee says.

“If the woman is in charge, they lose the power,” she says.

At the request of Elizabeth Yaxón Tigüila, and out of concern for the family’s safety, GPJ chose not to interview her father, Ana María Tigüila’s husband.

Domingo Saquic Raxic, an indigenous man, has seen plenty of male aggression against women in his community.

Saquic, who is divorced from a woman he describes as very jealous, says he has never hit a woman. But he has seen other men in the community insult their wives and pull their hair. He says men act that way out of machismo or jealousy – or when they think their wives do not clean the house or handle the money well.

“For jealousy, men can go as far as beating, and even killing,” he says.

Geographic isolation contributes to indigenous women’s propensity to submit to abuse, Saquic says.

“In the villages, the women tolerate it because they do not know about their rights,” he says.

In some communities that have had limited contact with Western culture, traditional law – which establishes hierarchy and condones corporal punishment of women – carries more weight than international standards of human rights, Barrios-Klee says.

Economic dependency also discourages women from speaking out, she says. Women fear they cannot move forward in life without the financial support of their husbands.

Women in Guatemala are paid less than men and are more likely to be out of work.

The unemployment rate among women is 3.8 percent, compared with 2.4 percent for men, according to the 2014 National Employment and Income Survey. A Guatemalan woman’s average monthly salary is 1,758 quetzales ($230), according to the survey. The average monthly salary for a man is 2,253 quetzales ($295).

In the face of poor prospects, Ana María Tigüila sought to attain financial security by selling sweets in front of her house.

When her husband would come home drunk, he would take her earnings. Even so, she was able to support her four children, all of whom are now adults.

Ana María Tigüila says she put up with the abuse to keep the family together.

Little by little, more women who have been subjected to gender violence are filing complaints, says Concepción Susana Coché, the defense office’s regional delegate.

“There are many women that have changed their perception of themselves,” she says. “They say that they do not deserve that.”

The multidisciplinary work of the defense office, which has been operating for a year and a half, helps women feel encouraged to file complaints, Coché says. The sense of empowerment is contagious.

The organization’s psychologists, lawyers and social workers help women strengthen their self-esteem and confront violence, she says. Because they can talk in their native languages at the defense office, indigenous women feel more confident about addressing their problems.

Tigüila speaks Kaqchikel, one of the more than 20 languages spoken in Guatemala.

The defense office conducts home visits to follow up with women who approach it for help.

In this way, women tell other women about their experiences, and they feel inspired, Coché says.

Breaking the culture of violence and silence requires ongoing education for men and supportive guidance for women, Cotúc says. She is confident that word of mouth will induce more women to approach the organization.

Ana María Tigüila decided to give her husband a second chance.

“They arrived at an agreement,” Cotúc says. “They agreed that he will not hit her, and that he will care for her and will value her.”

Ana María Tigüila says she now sees things differently. She recognizes that women have the same value as men.

She urges abused women to find help.

“At this time, there is now gender equality,” she says. “Women, we are worth the same as them. We can continue forward; we do not need a man at our side.”



GPJ reporter Sara Nohemí Matzar Yaxón is not related to Elizabeth Yaxón Tigüila. Nadia Sanders contributed reporting.

Natalia Aldana, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish.