An indigenous lawyer offers her perspective on the multiple forms of discrimination and the legal barriers faced by indigenous survivors of sexual violence. This story was shared as part of the launch of Failure to Protect: How Discriminatory Sexual Violence Laws and Practices are Hurting Women, Girls, and Adolescents in the Americas.
I’m a Maya Kaqchikel woman from the western part of Guatemala, where the majority of the indigenous populations of various ethnicities live, and I am the Legal Director for the Women’s Justice Initiative (WJI). I’ve been working on gender-based violence for about 10 years in the legal field, managing cases, accompanying victim-survivors of sexual violence.
I have seen that indigenous women face multiple forms of discrimination and structural barriers when they experience sexual violence. First, they are unfamiliar with and mistrust the western judicial system; they’re afraid of it, and that makes it much less likely they will report when something happens to them. Second, it’s harder for them to express their emotions, their version of events, because they don’t speak Spanish, and the interpreters aren’t familiar with the different dialects of the indigenous language – they’re from different areas of the country than the victims and they don’t understand the victims well. Third, is the distance and delays in the process; everything is quite geographically centralized, so even if they do decide to go forward with a judicial process, in practical terms, it’s very hard for them to travel to give testimony and observe the hearings.
Added to that is the fact that those who work in the judicial system are not sensitized to sexual violence and gender discrimination. There are specialized courts, but the staff of those courts are the same people as in the “normal” courts, just with a couple of trainings – they aren’t staff with a real gender specialization. This leads to revictimization, making survivors relive their trauma over and over again.
Finally, there’s the social pressure. If the victim is over 18, it’s the victim’s decision whether or not to press charges, whether or not to take part in the process, whether or not to observe the trial. And that, in the cultural context of victim-blaming, where the community sees the aggressor and even his whole family as being affected by cases, often leads victims not to report.
For all of this to change, the judicial system has to change. The geographic reach of the courts and judicial spaces have to be widened, so they’re not so centralized. There needs to be an awareness-raising process for justice workers; a couple of trainings is not enough. The law also needs to change: we need a better definition of the crime of rape; the laws don’t square with today’s reality, they’re very archaic. And I would like it if rape were prosecuted more often as a public crime, rather than leaving it to the discretion of the victim whether or not to cooperate with the investigation and prosecution, because community pressure has far too much influence on that. I have seen that those victims who decide to report, press charges, and confront what happened to begin to be able to put it behind them better than those who don’t report – they have a better healing process.
In addition to changing the system and the law, we have to change attitudes. WJI works with community leaders and explains to the community that sexual violence is not allowed, and should be reported. There’s a shared community reflection: What would happen if it was you? When we hear from a victim, whether it’s a girl, a boy, or an adult, the community learns about those incidents. Sometimes it’s not the victim who reports but a community leader or another participant. In our indigenous communities we’re very conservative, and it’s a real challenge to work on gender issues, and an even bigger challenge to work on the issue of sexual violence, that’s why I think that we indigenous women are really doing our part for the fall of the patriarchy.
One of the most satisfying things I have seen in my work is when a woman says “it’s finally over, I feel good, it was worth it” and she cries with emotion. I feel like that satisfaction comes not from vengeance but from justice, which we share with the victims.
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