Nº 20/04






1.       The Special Rapporteur for the Rights of Women of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), Dr. Susana Villarán, completed a visit to Guatemala today. The visit took place between September 12-18, 2004, at the invitation of the government of President Oscar Berger and at the request of representatives of civil society concerned at the number of murders and prevalence of other forms of violence against Guatemalan women. The Rapporteur held meetings with the highest authorities of the Guatemalan State, as well as with victims, family members of victims, academics, and organizations of civil society dedicated to the defense and promotion of the human rights of women, in Guatemala City, Escuintla, Villanueva, Palín, and Santa Cruz del Quiché. In addition, in collaboration with the Office for the Protection of Indigenous Women (Defensoría de la Mujer Indígena), the Rapporteurships for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and for the Rights of Women of the IACHR held a workshop on the inter-American human rights system of with the participation of 40 indigenous women.


2.       The visit took place in a year commemorating the tenth anniversary of the American Convention for the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women (“The Convention of Belém do Pará”), which proclaims the right of women to live free from violence and discrimination, and to have access to effective justice to protect these rights. It should be remembered that Guatemala signed and ratified this instrument on April 4, 1995.


3.       The objective of the visit by the Rapporteurship for the Rights of Women of the IACHR was to investigate and obtain reliable information on the situation of discrimination and violence against women, to evaluate the effectiveness of policies and institutions whose role it is to prevent discrimination and violence, and the obstacles that may prevent victims and their family members from accessing justice. In addition, because Guatemala is a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural state, another objective was to investigate the situation of the rights of indigenous women. The IACHR is grateful for the high level of collaboration it received throughout the visit from the Guatemalan government and state authorities as well as from organizations of civil society, the academic community, and from international organizations, all of which demonstrated a high level of willingness to find solutions to the serious problems of discrimination and violence against women. The Special Rapporteur would like to praise the openness she encountered in her interviews with representatives of the State, and the transparency and expeditiousness with which they provided the information required by the IACHR delegation. She would also like to highlight the cooperation the delegation received from the Guatemalan women who play a vital role in defining strategies and actions to promote and protect their basic rights. In particular, the Rapporteur would like to mention the dignity, trust, and courage shown by the victims and their families as they gave their painful testimony.


4.       The Rapporteur for the Rights of Women of the IACHR, following the week’s work, would like to record some initial reflections.


•        Violence and discrimination


5.       Firstly, we should point out that violence against women is a human rights issue that not only affects women but also their sons and daughters, their families, and society in general. As described in the Inter-American Convention for the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women, violence against women is an expression of discrimination and is rooted in “historically unequal power relations between women and men .” Violence and discrimination against Guatemalan women, as in other countries, are serious human rights and health issues that unfortunately continue to be ignored and hidden.


        Commitments pending


6.       Violence against Guatemalan women these days is also rooted in the violence, discrimination, and exclusion that gripped the country during its 36 years of civil conflict. The peace accords contain a series of important commitments to combat and overcome the obstacles that stand in the way of the enjoyment of these human, and specifically, women’s rights. A number of these commitments remain pending, and must be carried out. They include: defining sexual harassment as a crime subject to public prosecution; a review of civil and criminal legislation to eliminate all discrimination based on gender; equal participation in decision making; equal access to education; and obligations to provide health care benefits, among others.


         Forms of violence


7.       Regarding the types of violence studied, during this visit state authorities confirmed that since 2001, 1,188 women have been murdered. During 2004 specifically, from January until now, 352 women have been murdered in Guatemala. Several sources stated that not only has the number of murders of women increased; there has also been an increase in the degree of violence and cruelty displayed against the bodies of many of the victims. In this context, the Rapporteur received reports consistent with murders “to set an example,” in which the abuse reflected by the state of the victim’s body and the areas in which the corpses were left, is designed to send a message of terror and intimidation.



         Violence against women as a problem of citizen security


8.       The Special Rapporteur is very aware that in recent years there has been an increase not only in the number of murders of women, but also of men and children, and there is widespread concern throughout the country at the increase in criminality, with a worrying perception by Guatemalan society as a whole of a lack of safety on their streets. This is of concern to the IACHR, as indicated in the chapter on the issue in the report titled “Justice and social inclusion:  The challenges of democracy in Guatemala,” which was presented to President Berger on March 22 of this year. However, the Rapporteur noted that public policy in the area of citizen security does not take into account the specific needs of women.  Family and domestic violence particularly affect women but are not considered a public safety issue. Furthermore, we can see from the absence of studies or statistics on the prevalence of family or domestic violence and from the lack of information on the prevalence of sexual crimes that mostly affect women that the issue of violence against women is largely ignored.


        Beyond the statistics


9.       The issue of the killing of women is not simply a question of numbers. Both the figures and the evidence presented show that more bodies of women are found now than before with signs of torture and in certain cases, mutilation. The victims range from girls to adult women, although the information presented suggests a high percentage of young adult women. Many such cases occur in urban or marginal areas, and also in rural areas.


10.     The Rapporteur also received information and evidence on other forms of violence affecting women such as family and domestic violence, rape, sexual harassment and abduction, amongst others. According to statistics gathered by the criminal jurisdictional agencies covering crimes against women, between January and June 2004, 2,771 crimes against women were reported, of which 1,559 were rapes.


11.     In the search for solutions to these murders of women, we must take fully into account the inter-relation between the different forms of violence. More specifically, many bodies show signs of sexual violence and in a significant number of the killings, the victim had been subject to violence within the family. According to the information provided by the authorities, of the 152 cases being handled by the Office for Crimes against Women of the Attorney General’s Office [Fiscalía de la Mujer del Ministerio Público], 28% of the victims had been sexually assaulted, and in 31% of cases, they had previously been threatened. The murder of a woman resulting from this kind of gender-based violence is the most extreme expression of discrimination.



       Obligations of the State and regulatory, legal and institutional advances


12.     Guatemala is obliged to apply due diligence to prevent violence against women, and to bring to trial and punish those who perpetrate acts of this nature; it is also obliged to adopt measures to eradicate such violence from society. National and regional norms provide basic guarantees against violence and discrimination based on gender. Specifically, the Convention of Belém do Pará states that “every woman has the right to be free from violence in both the public and private spheres.” Violence against women covers physical, sexual, and psychological violence that takes place at home and in the community, and that is perpetrated or tolerated by the state. The Convention also recognizes that women have the right to exercise all basic rights, and defines obligations for the state, mainly by demanding that it act with due diligence to prevent, investigate and punish violence against women.


13.     Having signed the peace accords, and ratified the Convention of Belém de Pará, the Guatemalan State has taken important steps to improve the legal and institutional framework for overcoming historical forms of discrimination and violence against women. These significant initiatives include the Law to Prevent, Punish, and Eradicate Intrafamilial Violence, and its regulations; and the Law for the Integral Advancement and Dignity of Women. At the same time, state policies have included the National Policy to Promote the Development of Women in Guatemala, the Equal Opportunities Plan 2001-2006, and the National Plan for the Prevention and Eradication of Intrafamilial violence and Violence against Women (PLANOVI 2004-2014). The creation of an Office for the Protection of Indigenous Women (DEMI), the National Office for the Prevention of Intrafamilial violence and Violence against Women (CONAPREVI), the Presidential Secretariat for Women (SEPREM), the Secretariat for the First Lady’s Social Work Program (SOSEP), the Offices for Gender Equity and Victim Care, and the Office for Murders of Women of the National Civil Police Force, the Offices for Crimes against Women and Victim Care of the Prosecutor’s Office, among others, all represent praiseworthy institutional progress. However, we have observed that these institutions have scant resources with which to carry out their mission and lack sorely needed inter-institutional coordination.


        The condition of indigenous women


14.     Guatemala is a multicultural country where the majority of its inhabitants belong to indigenous peoples. Any state policy aimed at women should focus specifically on indigenous women and respect their cultural identity.


15.     During her visit, the Rapporteur collected information from indigenous women’s organizations that revealed the continuation of discriminatory patterns based on ethnic origin and that are reflected in different aspects of how the country is run.


16.     The Rapporteur is concerned about the rights of indigenous women in the following situations:

        There is no ethnic heading in the statistics, reports, archives, or other documentation of allegations received by the Prosecutor’s Office, the judiciary, the civil police, or other agencies responsible for citizen security and policies for preventing violence against women.


          As far as victims are concerned, there are no programs designed for indigenous women that either improve their mental health or care for the children of victims.


          Access to justice continues to be a significant problem for indigenous women in Guatemala. Although the State has made progress in this respect as, for example, in providing interpreters or bilingual personnel in some of the state courts in areas in which most of the population is indigenous, it is still clearly insufficient. We saw that in many areas, it is impossible for indigenous women to be understood in their own language when they have recourse to justice either as victims or when accused of committing an alleged crime.


          With regard to the law currently in the Criminal Code that permits a rapist to escape criminal responsibility for his crime if he marries his victim -- a law which the IACHR on numerous occasions has said is contrary to the human rights of women -- the Rapporteur was told that it is still in frequent usage in some regions of the interior, with the support of the authorities who administer justice.


         The Commission also received reports of the frequent use of the so-called “pernada” "droit de seigneur" against young indigenous women in certain rural areas of the country. This practice has its roots in the middle ages and is an affront in this day and age to the integrity and dignity of women.


         Representatives from civil society denounced a series of discriminatory acts against indigenous women for using their traditional dress, which is a part of their own cultural identity, and reported that sometimes women were prevented from entering public establishments because they were wearing it.


         Similarly, the Rapporteur received reports of treatment of indigenous women in health centers that was frequently culturally inappropriate.



        Impunity and the cycle of violence


17.     One serious outcome of the cycle of violence against women is the impunity associated with those violations of the fundamental rights of women. Both state authorities as well as representatives of civil society said repeatedly during our visit that the system for administering justice had not responded effectively to those crimes and this has given rise to impunity and an increased the sense of insecurity among women. During the week, the delegation followed the steps that must be taken by a victim in her search for justice. Our experience, after visits to the civil police, the Prosecutor’s Office (Office for Crimes against Women, Office for Care of Victims), the morgue, and to the judiciary, was finally that the justice required is not found.


18.     Representatives of the State and of civil society, as well as victims of violence or their families, confirmed that, of the cases reported, few get as far as the trial stage. As an example, of the cases of murder handled by the Office for Crimes against Women, only one has reached the trial stage. The vast majority of crimes remain at the investigation stage. The Rapporteur was told about specific cases, such as that of an adolescent girl who was murdered a few months after her fifteenth birthday, in which a serious failure of due process has been alleged in the handling of the investigation. Although her mother has followed the process and collected and provided facts and specific information for the investigation, she indicates that the case remains pending in the early stages with no real measures having been taken to identify and punish those responsible. The Rapporteur also received valuable testimony from other victims and their families, who have encountered innumerable obstacles in their search for justice.


19.     There has been a whole series of failings in investigating cases of violence against women. This lack of due process is even greater when the victim lacks the resources or information necessary for following up the case and insisting that the relevant authorities should fulfill the role they are obliged to by law. Both national and international law states that the State is obliged to apply due process to investigate and resolve cases in which fundamental rights have been violated.


20.     Amongst the weaknesses, the authorities themselves point out that they have inadequate resources in terms of staff, infrastructure, equipment, and budget, for carrying out their work of investigating and prosecuting crime. The investigation and trials are based almost entirely on testimony; there is a blatant lack of physical or scientific evidence. The men and women who run the justice system confirm that many cases get no further than the investigation stage because of the lack of proof, and in those cases that do get as far as trial, the lack of physical or scientific evidence with which to corroborate the statements, throws the reliability of the process into question. Another consequence of the lack of resources and practices designed to produce physical and scientific evidence is that many victims who arrive at the morgue as “identity unknown,” remain unidentified. For example, data from the Office for Crimes against Women shows that of a total of 152 cases of murder, 24 of the victims had not been identified. We have discovered that Guatemala does not possess a national register of disappeared persons, nor a national identity register, which makes it very difficult to carry out the cross referencing of data necessary in order to identify corpses. In addition, the state is absent from vast areas of the country, where victims have nowhere to go to claim their rights.



          Lack of effective means of protection


21.     The incidence of family or domestic violence dramatically illustrates the relationship between gender-based violence and the subordination of women. One aspect of the current situation that reveals the need for urgent measures to be taken to break the cycle of violence against women is the number of murders where the victim had previously reported a situation of family or domestic violence. In 31% of the cases of murder handled by the Office for Crimes against Women the victims had previously been threatened. On the other hand, representatives of the state and of civil society both confirmed that the security measures provided by the law for women who are the object of this form of violence in their personal or home environments, are not effective. For example, two of the murdered women were carrying their protection orders with them. This shows that the measures are inadequate to prevent an aggressor from approaching his victim because once the order has been issued, the police visit the house once and never again.


22.     Another factor that increases the risk for women who have previously been threatened or assaulted is the lack of temporary shelters or emergency homes. The women and their children, having lodged an accusation, have no alternative but to return to the house where the aggressor lives.


23.     In addition, it must be said that the majority of victims belong to the poorest sectors of society. The National Civil Police Force, through the Office for the Care of Victims and their police stations, report that 84% of the people who report having been a victim of crime belong to a low socio-economic stratum of society. In this context, the lack of free legal services makes it difficult for these victims to gain access to the justice system.


24.Many of the families interviewed by the Rapporteur said that they did not have the basic information and legal advice they needed in order to seek justice. This lack of information and support also contributes to a generalized lack of confidence in the system for administering justice.


25.     In addition, the Rapporteur heard information and evidence of threats or other intimidating behavior towards victims or their families, as well as towards civil society organizations that support them, and of the lack of effective protection measures not only for victims but also for witnesses.


        Stigmatization of victims


26.     The Rapporteurship heard evidence from victims in many cases that the different agencies responsible for investigating and pursuing the crime treated them in a disrespectful manner. These reports show how discriminatory stereotypes operate in practice. These attitudes range from a lack of sensitivity to the situation of the person concerned to openly hostile and discriminatory attitudes that devalue the person. They may, for example, blame the victim and her family for they way they live, the clothes they wear, or the time they spend outside their home; further, the definition of many of these crimes as “crimes of passion” without due investigation reflects a pattern of discrimination. This lack of respect for the dignity of the victims or their families has the effect of “re-victimizing” them.


        Anachronistic legislation


27.     The continued existence of anachronistic laws also has the effect of reducing the visibility of violence against women. The Rapporteur proposed to Congress several essential changes in relation to the current extinction of criminal responsibility when a rapist marries the victim of the rape; the need to classify violence within the family as a crime; the need to classify sexual harassment as a crime, and the removal of the concept of “virtue” from sexual crimes. The Rapporteur was told that several drafts are under discussion for legislative reforms that would correct some of these deficiencies.


       Education to change patterns and stereotypes


28.     How aware women are of their legal rights, including their right to be treated with dignity, depends to a great extent on the education they have received. In this context, it is important to remember that the Convention of Belém do Pará enshrines the “right of women to be valued and educated free of stereotyped patterns of behavior and social and cultural practices based on concepts of inferiority or subordination.”


29.     One aspect that caught the attention the delegation was the frequent reference made to the role that should be played by the media to promote a culture of non-violence towards women; and at the same time, the acknowledgment by women’s organizations in Guatemala that some media have placed on the public agenda the issue of violence against women in Guatemala. However, analysts have indicated that sensationalism and a lack of respect for those who are victims of violence, for example, showing their faces on the front pages and even more seriously, by naming minors, has a doubly pernicious effect. On the one hand, it victimizes the woman further, and on the other, may provide support to groups whose intention is to generate a climate of fear and intimidation in Guatemalan society.


        A fearful time


30.     Worrying evidence was heard regarding the widespread perception of insecurity felt these days by women in Guatemala as a result of the level of violence and the murders in particular. The intimidating effect of this could send a perverse message: that women should relinquish the public arena they have striven for with such personal and social effort, and should shut themselves away again in private, abandoning their indispensable role in the development of their country.


         Confronting impunity


31.     The main challenge at present is how to fill the gap between the commitments entered into by the state and the violence and discrimination that women continue to experience in their everyday lives. It is essential in this context that the state  guarantees that women are able to access effective justice to protect and defend their rights.


32.     The Rapporteurship is keen to highlight the fact that the failure to investigate, prosecute, and punish those responsible for this violence against women has contributed profoundly to an atmosphere of impunity that perpetuates the violence against women in Guatemala. The low figures for sentences in cases of murder or family violence is a glaring reflection of the great majority of violent cases that remain unresolved. The state must urgently intensify its efforts to combat the violence and discrimination against women by measures including applying due diligence to investigating and solving crimes of violence against women, by bringing those responsible to justice and punishing them, as well as by providing access to protection measures and support systems for victims. It is essential that the state should not only concern itself about this problem of violence against women, but also should concern itself with providing effective solutions.




The IACHR is a principal organ of the Organization of American States (OAS), composed of seven members who are elected in a personal capacity by the General Assembly of the Organization. The mandate of the IACHR is to promote the observance and defense of human rights in the Hemisphere.


Dr. Susana Villarán, member of the IACHR, was named Special Rapporteur in 2003, and at present she is a member of the board of the IACHR and is vice-president. According to the mandate of the Rapporteurship, her functions are to protect and develop greater respect for the rights of women in the Hemisphere. Specifically, she is reviewing how the laws and practices of member states of the OAS comply with their obligations in terms of equality and non-discrimination in accordance with the rules and provisions of the American system. The relevant regional instruments include the American Convention on Human Rights (the American Convention), to which Guatemala has been party since 1978, and the Inter-American Convention for the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women (The Convention of Belém do Pará), which Guatemala ratified in 1995.


The IACHR delegation during the current visit was made up of Dr. Susana Villarán, Special Rapporteur for the Rights of Women; Elizabeth Abi-Mershed, Principal Human Rights Specialist; Maria Claudia Pulido, Principal Human Rights Specialist, Isabel Madariaga, Principal Human Rights Specialist, and Julie Santelices, Administrative Assistant.


During its stay, the Commission interviewed high-level government officials and representatives from different sectors of civil society, including the families of women who had been victims of violence, survivors, and non-governmental organizations. Meetings were held, inter alia, with: the President of the Republic Oscar Berger and the First Lady, Wendy Widmann de Berger; the Vice-President of the Republic, Eduardo Stein; Lic. Jorge Briz, Minister for Foreign Affairs; Lic. Martha Altolaguirre, Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs: Brig. Gen. Cesar Augusto Méndez Pinelo, Minister of Defense; Lic. Juan Carlos Villacorta, Vice-Minister of the Interior; Lic. Juan Luis Florido, Attorney General; Lic. Jorge Carillo, President of the Judiciary; Lic. Napoleon Gutierrez Vargas, President of the Criminal Chamber; Lic. Amanda Ramírez, in charge of gender issues in the Supreme Court; Lic. Sergio Morales, Human Rights Ombudsman; the director and assistant director of the National Civil Police; the President of the presidential commission for Human Rights, Frank La Rue, SEPREM, PROPEVI, SOSEP, the Prosecutor’s Office, CONAPREVI, the Office for the Protection of Indigenous Women, several members of the Advisory Council on Security , members of the State Platform on Women, the Institute for Criminal Public Defense, the Office of the Attorney General (Procuraduría General de la Nación), the Ministry of Labor, and the National Commission for Reparation.


The Rapporteur heard valuable evidence from women who have been subjected to violence and the families of murdered women. She also met representatives from civil society organizations who are working to develop and protect women’s rights, including: la Red de la No Violencia Contra la Mujer (the network for non-violence against women); Grupo Guatemalteco de Mujeres (the Guatemalan women’s group); Unión Nacional de Mujeres Guatemaltecas (national union of Guatemalan Women); Asociación Ixqik-Petén (the Ixqik-Peten Association); Asociación de Mujeres Vamos Adelante (the let’s go forward women’s group); Consejo de Mujeres Cristianas (council for Christian women); Instancia Coordinadora de la Maquila (coordinating agency for women in the assembly industry); Sector de Mujeres (women’s sector); Asociación de Mujeres Indígenas (indigenous women’s association); Colectiva de Lesbianas Liberadas (liberated lesbians’ collective); and CLADEM.  The Rapporteur also met human rights organizations such as the Centro Para la Acción Legal en Derechos Humanos (the center for human rights legal action); Centro de Investigación, Capacitación, y Apoyo a la Mujer (the center for research, training and support for women); Alianza contra la Impunidad (alliance against impunity); Oficina de Derechos Humanos del Arzobispado (the archbishopric’s human rights office); Asociación Fomento y Desarrollo (association for promotion and development); Colectivo Madre Selva (Madre Selva collective). The Rapporteur also received much useful information from CONAVIGUA and a wide range of indigenous organizations.


The Rapporteur also interviewed representatives of academic circles such as FLACSO, representatives from the University of San Carlos, Organismo Nalebe, Proyecto de Víctimas a Actores de Cambio (From victims to agents of change project), Comisión de la Mujer de la Universidad de San Carlos (the San Carlos University Women’s Committee), ASIES (Association for Social Studies and Research), Voces de Mujeres (Women’s Voices), Instituto de Estudios Comparados en Ciencias Penales (the Institute for Comparative Studies in Criminal Sciences), and representatives from the University of San Rafael.


The Rapporteur also received valuable help from international agencies such as the United Nations Verification Mission in Guatemala, UNICEF, the United Nations Development Program, and UNIFEM.


With support from the Office for the Protection of Indigenous Women (Defensoría de la Mujer Indígena), the Rapporteurs for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and for the Rights of Women, held a workshop on the inter-American human rights system in which 40 women indigenous leaders, lawyers and other indigenous representatives took part.


During their visit, in addition to the work carried out in the Capital, the delegation traveled to Escuintla, Villa Nueva, Palín and Santa Rosa in El Quiché in order to obtain a better grasp the situation of violence against women in the interior of the country. In Villanueva, the Rapporteur held meetings with the National Civil Police, the Prosecutor’s office (Ministerio Público), justices of the peace, public defense (defensa pública), the human rights Ombudsman (Procurador), the Office for the Care of Victims of the attorney general’s office, trial judges (jueces de sentencia), the Coordinator and Mayoress of Israel Zarzal, the Finca Zarzal Coordinator, the Executive Committee for Justice in Villanueva, the Committee for the Prevention of Crime, Pro-Mujer, Casa Adulam, and the Council for Crime Prevention in Villanueva. The Rapporteur also traveled to Palín, where she held meetings with groups from civil society including the Asociación Jarual Tinimit, the Villanueva Peace Group, and Mujeres de Palín Escuintla. The Rapporteur was also able to meet a sizeable group of indigenous women in Santa Cruz del Quiché, as well as local authorities and responsible those for the application of justice. This aspect of the delegation’s work was arranged by DEMI and allowed members of the delegation to see the progress made and the difficulties experienced by indigenous women in terms of accessing justice.


The Special Rapporteur and her team are very grateful for the cooperation and facilities provided by the government of Guatemala, and by non-governmental organizations, civil society institutions, and international organizations including the office of the OAS in Guatemala in the preparations for their visit. The Rapporteur wishes to thank the government of President Berger for the steps it took to collaborate in collecting information and for its willingness to seek solutions for the problems encountered. Special thanks are due to COPREDEH for having accompanied them on official visits. This willingness to seek solutions to improve the protection of human rights was demonstrated recently, when the State accepted its international responsibility for the cases of the Plan de Sánchez massacre, Marco Antonio Molina Theissen, and Jorge Carpio Nicolle, before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.


The Special Rapporteur will report to the IACHR plenary during its next session on the outcome of this visit. She will also, with her team, review all the information they have collected in greater detail and prepare a report on her conclusions concerning the situation of violence and discrimination against women in Guatemala, for consideration by the IACHR plenary. Her report, which will soon be presented to the Guatemalan government and published, will make a number of recommendations designed to help Guatemala improve its compliance with its international obligations. The IACHR and the Special Rapporteurship will then evaluate the measures adopted to implement these recommendations.


Washington, D.C., September 18, 2004