Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

"Subjects of Change": Feminist Geopolitics and Gendered Truth-Telling in Guatemala

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

"Subjects of Change": Feminist Geopolitics and Gendered Truth-Telling in Guatemala

Article excerpt


This paper explores the often-undervalued role of gender in transitional justice mechanisms and the importance of women's struggles and agency in that regard. We focus on the efforts of the women's movement in Guatemala to address questions of justice and healing for survivors of gendered violence during Guatemala's 36-year internal armed conflict. We discuss how the initial transitional justice measures of documenting gendered war crimes in the context of a genocide were subsequently taken up by the women's movement and how their endeavors to further expose sexual violence have resulted in notable interventions. Interviews with key organizational activists as well as testimonies given by victims of sexual violence during the conflict suggest that transitional justice mechanisms, extended by women's movements' efforts, are creating conditions for the emergence of new practices and spaces that support the fragile cultivation of new subjectivities. Sujetas de cambio (subjects of change) are premised not on victimhood but survivorhood. The emergence of these new subjectivities and new claims, including greater personal security and freedom from everyday violence, must be approached with caution, however, as they are not born automatically out of the deeply emotional struggles that play out around historical memory. Still, their emergence suggests new ways for women to cope not only with the sexual violence of the past but also to work against the normative violence that is part of their present.

Keywords: Transitional justice, gendered violence, historical memory


On January 26, 2012, history was made inside a packed courtroom in Guatemala City, as former general Jose Efrain Rios Montt, a military dictator during the height of Guatemala's brutal rural counterinsurgency from 1982-1983, was arraigned on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. The charges in this case were brought by Guatemala's Attorney General's office, based on more than a decade of survivor testimonies and investigation. The Guatemala genocide case is path-breaking because it is the first time in the world that a genocide trial is going forward within national courts in the country where the crimes were committed, and it is the first time in Guatemala (and one of the few instances in Latin America) that a former head of state is called to account for human rights abuses.

The genocide case in Guatemala focuses on the early 1980s in Maya-Ixil, high in the mountains of northern Guatemala. In this micro-region, with an estimated population in 1981 of about 45,000 people, of whom more than 90% were Ixil-speaking Mayas, prosecutors allege that government troops under Rios Montt's command massacred 1,771 people and forcibly displaced at least 29,000. Although Guatemala has seen the prosecution of a few select human rights cases, the current genocide case against Rios Montt and members of his high command brings the war itself under judicial scrutiny. (4) Throughout the country, an estimated 200,000 people were killed during Guatemala's 36-year armed conflict (1960-1996), most during the early 1980s. The overwhelming number of deaths occurred at the hands of state forces (93%), according to the 1999 United Nations-sponsored Truth Commission report (CEH, 1999).

Among the abuses documented in this genocide case are 1,445 cases of rape and sexual violence against Maya-Ixil women in the early 1980s. (5) This documentation of rape and other forms of sexual violence is one of the most extensive efforts to date in Latin America to consider gendered war crimes as part of a human rights trial.

In addition to the genocide process in Guatemala, in 2011 a Spanish high court investigating the Guatemalan genocide, under the principle of "universal jurisdiction" (the idea that some crimes are so heinous that they can be prosecuted anywhere), announced it would consider gender violence as part of its examination. …

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