Women’s Political Group Fights to be Heard in Guatemala as General Election Approaches

Few women participate in politics in the nation, but a small group of women in the municipality of Concepción hopes to change that. They are running a candidate – a man – for mayor in Sunday’s national elections. They believe he will represent them and address their needs. The women have endured years of derision and violence to reach this point, and are fighting longstanding cultural practices to demand that they are represented.

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Women’s Political Group Fights to be Heard in Guatemala as General Election Approaches

Norma Baján Balán, GPJ Guatemala

From left, Elena Sequec, Dolores Lopic Solis and Felicita Saminez Solis, with her children, at the Association of Women and Farmers, Concepción Sololá headquarters.

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CONCEPCIÓN, GUATEMALA – It’s just days before Sunday’s general election that could transform the country’s political representation nationwide, and men and women line up at their party’s headquarters to greet Lorenzo Sequec, 38, the man they nominated for mayor of their community.

They speak Kaqchikel, a Mayan language, and take turns kissing Sequec’s hand. In Concepción, a municipality in the southwestern department of Sololá, kissing someone’s hand symbolizes that that person is seen as a leader and is greatly respected in the community.

Seven women who make up the Association of Women and Farmers, Concepción Sololá nominated Sequec in a bid to change their town’s leadership and make it a friendlier place for women who want to make a difference. They say sexism makes it difficult, or even impossible, to run for political office themselves.

In the association’s 17-year history, the women have endured violence and verbal discrimination, says Vice President Dolores Lopic Solis.

Seven years ago, Lopic says, local authorities claimed the land where her association, known as ASMADECS, has its headquarters. They tried to burn down the building, she says.

“‘You’re all some thieves, whores,’ the workers of the municipality yelled at us,” Lopic says.

It is not easy to participate. But we must have courage.

Two years ago, she says, municipal authorities again returned to the ASMADECS headquarters and took pickaxes to the building, again claiming ownership of the land.

When the women ran out to stop them, Lopic says, the men hit the women as well.

The violence in 2013 was so intense that this past February, ASMADECS took legal action against Bacilio Juracán Lejá, the mayor, who is running for a third term. The public prosecutor placed a restraining order on him, Lopic says.

According to the order, the mayor was not allowed to “disturb or intimidate” the women of ASMADECS and their families, and was prohibited from access to their homes and places of work or study.

Neither Juracán Lejá nor his staff provided a comment for this story.

“The current mayor does not agree with our movement,” Lopic says. “But we recognize our right to participate.”

ASMADECS women say they have felt safer over the past six months, but the order recently expired. They hope to renew it this week. Lopic says they desperately need the renewal to prevent any violence that might happen should Sequec win the election.

But Sequec says a meeting on Aug. 19, attended by all four mayoral candidates, was a positive sign. The candidates agreed to not physically or verbally attack other candidates, political party members or voters, and to respect the final results, Sequec says.

Sequec says he’s optimistic about the election and that he has many supporters.

But Lopic and the other ASMADECS leaders say they’ve received more threats because of their political involvement. People from the mayor’s office have threatened to forcibly take their headquarters, they say.

Felicita Saminez Solis says the women at ASMADECS are constantly worried for their safety.

“We fear for our family,” she says.

Only 52 percent of indigenous Guatemalan women over the age of 15 are literate, according to 2011 government data. Close to 75 percent of indigenous men are literate.

An estimated 8 million Guatemalans will head to the polls Sunday to vote for candidates to fill 3,959 public positons, including president and vice president, according to the International Foundation for Electoral Systems. They will also vote for mayors and local councils in the nation’s 338 municipalities.

The general elections come on the heels of a political crisis that saw Guatemala’s president, Otto Pérez Molina, jailed on Thursday after resigning his office late Wednesday night. He has become embroiled in a tax-corruption scandal. Guatemalans were protesting for the resignation for months and a warrant was issued earlier Wednesday for Pérez Molina’s arrest.

ASMADECS is part of the National Unity of Hope political party. The association has about 700 registered supporters in the Sololá department.

Few women participate in politics in Sololá, says Eddy Noel Santiago Vásquez Saloj, director of Departmental Youth Association Kají Batz, a nonprofit social-participation and political-advocacy group in Sololá.

Men often underestimate the ability of women to be political leaders, Vásquez says. Most recently, he says, men have derided former Vice President Roxana Baldetti as an example of why women are not able to participate in politics.

Baldetti, the country’s first female vice president, was arrested on corruption charges two weeks ago. She was forced to leave office in May after being accused of taking part in a customs-agency bribery scheme.

Lopic says verbal abuse toward women in politics has always existed.

“They would tell us that we didn’t have a right to participate and that our place was in the house,” she says, referring to men in her community.

Women are excluded because a traditional sexist system does not allow them to participate in politics, Vásquez says.

For example, he says, political meetings are held at night. But by tradition, women are expected to be at home attending to their families after dark.

It is not easy to participate. But we must have courage.

In addition to facing cultural discrimination, ASMADECS women have limited themselves from holding higher political positions because of their lack of education.

“We didn’t study; it is for that we do not feel capable to be governing in the municipality,” Lopic says, referring to the leaders of ASMADECS.

Lopic says she was in school only through second grade and cannot read or write. Her spoken Spanish is limited.

Only 52 percent of indigenous Guatemalan women over the age of 15 are literate, according to 2011 government data. Close to 75 percent of indigenous men are literate.

“A woman with awareness, sensitivity, and they know their community very well can govern and provide good governance,” Vásquez says.

Women will truly be able to participate if they are able to expand their knowledge in politics, he says. While illiteracy is a struggle, it should not be an obstacle to participate.

Sequec says he considers it an honor to be nominated by ASMADECS, adding that he understands why they chose a man.

“There is no legal impediment, but there are certain cultural norms that prevent them from participating, such as the role that the man plays in these areas,” he says.

But despite the political persecution ASMADECS has faced from the current government, many people in the community support and trust the group, says Elena Sequec, an ASMADECS member. She is not related to Lorenzo Sequec.

Many people have attended their rallies and expressed approval of their work, she says.

“That animates us to continue forward,” she says.

Lopic says ASMADECS plans to nominate women to run for political office in 2019. They’re not likely to campaign for the mayor’s office, she says, but they hope to elect a woman to an important position.

“It is not easy to participate,” Lopic says. “But we must have courage.”

No sources in this article are related to each other.

Natalia Aldana, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish.