Where women are killed by their own families

  • 5 December 2015
  • From the section Magazine
Media captionRebeca Lane on her fight against machismo (video by Gerardo del Valle)

Every year an estimated 66,000 women are murdered worldwide. One of the countries with the highest rate of violence against women is Guatemala - so why is it such a dangerous place to be female?

"We are being killed by our fathers, brothers, stepfathers… the very people who are supposed to care for us," says Rebeca Lane, a feminist rapper in Guatemala City.

"Most of us have to live violence in silence so when someone hits us or screams at us we just close our eyes and let go. We have to join other women and talk about it so we know this is not OK, this is not normal."

When Lane was 15, she got involved with an older man who was not only controlling, but also physically and sexually abusive. "He knew what he was doing. He isolated me from my family and friends. I know what it is to live with violence from an early age," she says. The relationship lasted for three years.

Now she uses her music to campaign for women's rights. "Poetry saved my life. When I started to write it was vital to my recovery," she says. Her best-known song, Mujer Lunar - Lunar Woman - is a lyrical call for respect for women's bodies, lives and independence.

She has also run hip-hop workshops for young mothers in Guatemala City to teach them their rights and how to deal with the kind of abuse she endured.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption November's International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, in Guatemala City

Guatemala has the third highest femicide rate in the world (after El Salvador and Jamaica) - between 2007 and 2012 there were 9.1 murders for every 100,000 women according to the National Guatemalan Police. And last year 846 women were killed in a population of little more than 15 million, says the State Prosecutors Office.

It seems the reason for this lies in the country's brutal past. Lane's main inspiration as a feminist activist is the aunt after whom she is named. She never met her father's sister, but her story helps draw a direct line between the social instability of today and Guatemala's 36-year civil war.

Lane's aunt disappeared in 1981 after she joined left-wing guerrillas fighting the military government. Around the time Lane's aunt died, news began to filter out of the rape, torture and murder of tens of thousands of women and girls - mostly from indigenous Mayan communities accused of supporting the insurgents.

More than a decade later, a UN-sponsored report said this abuse had been generalised and systematic - it estimated that 25% or 50,000 of the victims of Guatemala's war were women.

Sexual violence was "at very high levels and used as a tool of war", says Helen Mack, of the Myrna Mack Foundation. "The stereotype was that women were used for sex and seen as an object, to serve families, and this continues today."

Mack's sister, Myrna - after whom the human rights organisation is named - died after she was stabbed in the street by a military death squad in 1990. Myrna had uncovered the extent of the physical and sexual violence the army had used against Mayan communities.

During the conflict, an army of around 40,000 men and a civilian defence force of approximately one million were trained to commit acts of violence against women. When the war ended and these men returned home, they got no help in readjusting.

Mack believes they redirected their aggression towards their wives, mothers and girlfriends - a culture of violence towards women and an expectation of impunity, which still persists today, developed.

"This week we received a phone call from a woman. Her husband had driven his car over her several times to make sure she was dead," says Mack.

"She survived and was brought to Guatemala City where she is being treated for her injuries. But her husband would not let go - he sent his father to her bedside to threaten her so that she didn't report the attack to the courts."

In Mack's experience, it is common for women to be threatened in this way or even killed by their attackers. Violence against women is still considered a domestic matter, she says, despite new laws against femicide and other forms of violence against women. In 2008 Guatemala became the first country to officially recognise femicide - the murder of a woman because of her gender - as a crime.

Image caption Helen Mack - her sister was stabbed in the street in 1990

"The difference in Guatemala between the murder of a woman and of a man is that the woman is made to suffer before death, she is raped, mutilated and beaten," says the country's Attorney General Thelma Aldana.

Aldana is trying to change attitudes towards victims who are often blamed for the abuse they receive. "A few years ago the police and forensic investigators would arrive on a crime scene and say, "Look how she is dressed - that is why they killed her [or] she was coming out of a disco at 1am - she was asking for it."

In 2011, when she was president of the Supreme Court, Aldana helped establish a network of special tribunals and courts across Guatemala to deal with femicide cases.

"The justice system can do a lot to change culture," she says.

"We asked women to come forward and break the silence. Femicide and other forms of violence against women are now the crimes that are most reported in the country, with an average of 56,000 reports a year - this includes rape, sexual violence, physical and economic violence and murder."

There are now femicide tribunals in 11 of the country's 22 departments or provinces where the judges and police officers receive gender crime training.

Image copyright Thinkstock

The State Prosecutor's office doesn't have the capacity to take on every case it receives, so has to choose the ones with the strongest evidence.

This year only 3,366 were successfully heard in the femicide courts. In 2013, in the 3,560 cases that went to trial, only 1,460 sentences were handed out.

Although the bodies of five murdered women were found in the area around Guatemala City in just one week in November, Helen Mack thinks there is progress.

"In the last 10 years we have been moving forward, at least women are now talking," she says, pointing to a generation of women judges and activists who have been pushing change.

"In my sister's case, it only moved forward because the judges who had the courage to deal with it were women. Guatemala has shown that in different areas of the political spectrum, women have had more courage and commitment than the men to deal with the country's problems."

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