‘Las Abuelas’: How a Group of Sexual Slavery Survivors in Guatemala Won a Historic Legal Victory
In small groups and large ones, in pairs and one by one, women walked to the front of the conference room in Cobán, a city in mountainous north-central Guatemala.
“We are victims of sexual violence,” they said. In various ways, all of them shared the same message: What had happened to us was real, it was unacceptable and it should never happen again.
Most spoke quietly, some almost inaudibly; a few were forceful and loud, their feet placed solidly apart, their hands firmly gripping the microphone. The women came from eight regions of Guatemala, and all were survivors of sexual violence.
Seven of the eight groups had experienced sexual assault—including rape and sexual slavery—at the hands of federal soldiers during the country’s civil war, known there as the “armed conflict,” which lasted from 1960 to 1996. During the war, the Guatemalan federal government, backed by the United States, massacred more than 200,000 people, nearly all of whom were poor, illiterate, Indigenous and living in rural villages scattered throughout the country. The eighth group was composed of adolescent girls who had been raped much more recently, in what they describe as a continuation of the same patterns of violence experienced by their mothers, grandmothers and generations of Indigenous Guatemalan women before them.
The women had been convened by Mujeres Transformando el Mundo (Women Transforming the World), an organization connected to the United Nations, and spoke a variety of Indigenous languages such as Q’eqchi’, Mam and Ixil. As they spoke, all looked every so often to the row of 13 older women sitting against a wall of windows at the far end of the room. These women wore orange scarves on their heads and the brightly colored, handwoven huipil blouses typical of the village of Sepur Zarco, in the eastern department of Izabal. (Departments, or departamentos, are roughly equivalent to states in the U.S. or provinces in Canada.)
As the younger women spoke, this group of elders, known both respectfully and affectionately as las abuelas (“the grandmothers”), listened quietly, nodding.
The stories the abuelas heard were familiar to them: They themselves had been enslaved by invading forces in the 1980s and repeatedly, systematically raped by the soldiers who killed their husbands and many of their children. After the war, the women were called prostitutes and treated as pariahs by their neighbors.
But in the landscape of systematic abuse of Indigenous women in Guatemala, the abuelas’ story is unique: For them, at least, there has been a formal acknowledgement of wrongdoing, along with some measure of justice.
In 2016, Judge Iris Yassmin Barrios Aguilar, president of the High-Risk Tribunal of Guatemala—who had also presided over the trial that found Efraín Ríos Montt, the war’s murderous dictator, guilty of genocide—found in favor of the abuelas, and convicted two of their captors of crimes against humanity on counts of murder, rape and slavery. This marked the first time in history that a tribunal found its own citizens guilty of sexual enslavement. (Barrios Aguilar, like several other Guatemalan judges known for fighting corruption, is rumored to be in exile outside the country.)
Additionally—and crucially—the sentence included the 18 measures of reparation the abuelas had asked for. These measures included opening a health center and primary schools in Sepur Zarco; reopening the files on claims to the land the abuelas’ husbands had died defending; publishing a children’s book about the abuelas’ history to distribute to students in the department of Alta Verapaz and in Guatemala City; and translating the text of the judge’s sentence into all indigenous languages spoken throughout Guatemala.
According to 66-year-old Demesia Yat, the leader of the abuelas, the majority of these measures have yet to be fulfilled.
“We are here to demand justice and to support our sisters,” she told me that day in Cobán, speaking in Q’eqchi’ through a translator. “I am seeing that we are in different groups of women, but I believe that this is the way that we will be able to fight for justice for all.”
Later that afternoon, Angélica Choc, who had spoken forcefully about women’s rights to their ancestral lands, told me that she is inspired by the women of Sepur Zarco, which is not far from her own community of Lote Ocho. In recent years, Choc and other members of the Q’eqchi’ community have endured tremendous violence perpetrated by the government—including having their homes burned and family members killed by police—for refusing to abandon their property to foreign nickel companies and the government officials who they say are on the companies’ payroll.
In many ways, the armed conflict, with its attendant impunity for violence, never ended in Lote Ocho.
To Choc, the abuelas serve as a “great example of strength and resistance.”
“Seeking justice is so difficult,” she told me in Spanish. “They are an example of ‘if they can do it, so can I. ’ They are very old now, so their struggle is what I have taken up.”
It is true that the abuelas do not have as much energy as they used to; however, they continue to share their story. Last year, together with Mujeres Transformando el Mundo and Guatemalan journalist Sandra Sebastián, they published their stories in a book of testimonies and photographs called Donde nace el sol y no muere: Relatos de vida de las abuelas del caso Sepur Zarco—or Where the Sun Is Born and Doesn’t Die: Life Stories of the Grandmothers of the Sepur Zarco Case. In the book, the 15 women share details of their childhoods, their experiences during the war and what their lives have been like in the wake of its destruction and trauma.
One of the most important conditions for sustained peace after conflict is that the state recognizes what it has done and creates conditions for non-repetition.
Yat’s written testimony stands out, as much for the traumas described—the way that her father’s physical abuse of her mother led her to believe that the abuse she and other women endured at the hands of their husbands was normal—as for the devastating simplicity of its conclusion.
“Before the war, we lived tranquilly with our families and animals,” it reads. “We had corn, beans and chiles. But the army left us without a house, without clothes, without food and without animals. The military kidnapped and killed our husbands and left us hungry. And because of the mistreatment that it suffered, the land also lost its strength.”
Rosario Xo told me that she contributed to the project because she believes telling her story can have a real effect.
“To be able to speak the truth, that is the most powerful thing,” she said. “To have contributed to justice through telling the truth—it’s what has enabled other women to know that they have rights.” Xo, who doesn’t know how old she is (there were no records of her birth, and because she never went to school, she doesn’t comprehend numerical information like time and dates), said she believes that in many ways the country is “moving backwards.”
With tears in her eyes, Xo recounted how the invading soldiers who killed her husband, by stealing the community’s food caused her baby son’s death from starvation.
“I wish no women would live through what we have lived through,” she told me. “It’s very sad, very hard, very painful. When I see that the government is doing things that make us remember what it did to us: burning families’ houses … The reparations that we’re still anxiously waiting for, they can change the life of our community. What we want is peace and tranquility in the community, so that the fear that we lived through doesn’t exist anymore.”
The abuelas travel often, presenting to academics, human rights defenders, journalists and educators. Two days after the gathering in Cobán, the women presented at a conference in Guatemala City to an international audience. To the attendees, the abuelas’ presence was striking: a group of elderly, frail-looking Indigenous women, all under 5 feet tall, wearing the traditional dress that had long marked them and other Maya women for discrimination and abuse, sitting onstage at a banquet hall in one of the most elite hotels in the capital city that represented the military victory of their torturers.
After an introduction by Paula Barrios, the executive director of Mujeres Transformando el Mundo, Yat briefly took the podium. “Ours is a struggle of light and a struggle of pain,” Yat said on behalf of the group. “Thank God we can be here to present to all of you.”
To speak the truth, that is the most powerful thing. To have contributed to justice through telling the truth—it’s what has enabled other women to know that they have rights.
Adriana Quiñones, Guatemala’s representative to U.N. Women and the regional adviser for the task force on violence against women, later explained the significance of the abuelas’ case and continued activism: “When the judge first believed them, that was the first step to healing and to pursuing justice, not only for them but for women all over the world. Now that the sentence has been set, it has set an example for women in similar situations around the world—in Nepal, in Bosnia, in Colombia. The measures of reparations have been studied so that those women can also seek justice in cases of sexual violence and conflict.”
Working with the U.N. Human Rights Office of the Commissioner and Mujeres Transformando el Mundo as well as two other organizations—the Unión Nacional de Mujeres Guatemaltecas and Equipo de Estudios Comunitarios y Acción Psicosocial—the abuelas were strategic in the reparations they demanded.
“One of the most important conditions for sustained peace after conflict is that the state recognizes what it has done and creates conditions for non-repetition,” Quiñones explained. “Because the abuelas were poor, they were illiterate and monolingual, the army thought that they could do whatever they wanted to them. With these reparations, everyone is involved—the ministry of education, the ministry of health, the justice system, the land rights institutions … at least 21 institutions are involved in the reparations process. What you want is to create the conditions for non-repetition of these crimes, and you can only achieve that by transforming the way these institutions see their role in ensuring that all people are protected.”
As Xo and Yat noted, progress has been slow—and the abuse of women still abounds throughout the country. Yet despite the abuelas’ frustration, their actions have already had a profound impact.
At 17, Sara Noehmy Suram was one of the youngest participants in the conference in Cobán. She has a 4-year-old child who was the result of rape; she did not even know she was pregnant until she was five months along.
“It is important for the network [of survivors] to grow stronger,” she said. “That way, women can feel secure, can have confidence in themselves, can support each other. It gives us strength so that we can stay united.”
Reporting for this story was made possible by a grant from the Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists at the International Women’s Media Foundation.