PBS Draws Attention to Human Rights Crisis in Guatemala

PBS’s new two-part report on women in Guatemala, which aired this week, shines a much-needed light on a mounting crisis of women’s health, rights and safety while offering a glimmer of hope at the end of the tunnel.

As I reported in the Winter 2011 issue of Ms. Magazine in my article “Fighting Femicide”, the situation in Guatemala is alarming. The epidemic of seemingly random rape, torture and murder of women in the capitol and other urban areas is being compared to the well-documented femicide in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Rates of sexual assault and intimate partner violence in Guatemala’s rural areas are sky high. The country’s male-centered, machista culture, coupled with an inadequate justice system in which men commit gender-based violence with impunity, are major obstacles to women’s safety.

In part one of the report, “Epicenter of Violence”, which aired Monday, PBS Newshour reporter Ray Suarez does a good job of covering the uphill battle for NGOs fighting violence against women across Guatemala. The report focuses on activism in rural areas as well as on the highly publicized case of Maria-Isabel Sandoval in Guatemala City. Sandoval was approached at her workplace by a prominent drug-cartel member, and when she rejected his romantic advances, she was kidnapped, tortured and murdered. Despite numerous witnesses to her abduction, nothing has been done about the crime.

On a hopeful note, Guatemalan Attorney General Claudia Paz tells Suarez of a record spike in women’s reporting of intimate partner abuse–57,000 cases documented for 2010, compared to 13,375 in 2009–clear evidence of the effectiveness of the work NGOs are doing to empower women to speak out.

The second report, “In Guatemala, Family Planning Clashes with Religion, Tradition,” which aired Tuesday, covers reproductive rights. Frank conversations with activists and officials about the effects of patriarchal religion on a poverty-stricken, little-educated populace paint a grim picture of women’s daily lives. The high levels of sexual violence are pushing fathers, the decision-makers in most households, to confine their adolescent daughters to the home for fear of what may happen to them on the journey to and from school. This curtails educational opportunities for young women.

In the most difficult part of the segment to watch, a traveling medical facility sets up shop in a small town and literally herds women through for hormonal birth control implants and tubal ligation procedures. While the women seem to welcome the services, the scene also conjures up the history of forced sterilization of women of color as part a eugenicist agenda. That indigenous women make up the majority of the population targeted by these programs merits more attention than PBS gave it.

In covering the many aspects of the status of women in Guatemala, the PBS report affirms that the situation of Guatemalan women is in fact a human rights crisis. This points to the influence of feminist-minded social justice in the country, which I can attest to from my own experiences as part of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission’s 2010 delegation, entitled “For Women’s Right to Live.” When I traveled Guatemala, we met with numerous NGOs in both urban and rural areas that offer domestic-violence shelters and advocacy, education on reproductive rights, and tools for the empowerment of women, girls and indigenous communities. All of the groups we met with stress the necessity of equating women’s rights issues to human rights, and use vocabulary and methods that reflect an engagement with feminist research and pedagogy–truly something to celebrate.

In honor of International Women’s Day, thank you PBS for getting the word out to your large audience. The women of Guatemala deserve it.

Photo from Flickr user Marlin Harms under Creative Commons 3.0


I work for pay as a professor of Women's Studies and Spanish Literature, Language and Culture. I currently teach for Cal State San Marcos and National University. My research focuses on violence in all of its forms, but concentrates on searching for solutions to the specific gender-based violence that is inflicted upon women around the world.