As part of our Worldette Heroine series we feature another inspirational woman and female leader who has impacted our world. This time we look at Alice Zachmann, a woman who has worked tirelessly since the 1970s to help women and communities caught up in the violence and destruction brought by civil in Guatemala.
Guatemala is a small, beautiful country in Central America, just south of Mexico. Like most of Latin America, Guatemala had a long, difficult period of war and violence, the effects of which are still being felt today. Sadly, it’s often women suffering the most.
In 1954 civil war tore the country apart as a US-backed Guatemalan army, under direction of the current dictator, went looking for people resistant to the government and killed them. Over 200,000 people were killed or went missing during the 36-year civil war. The war ended in 1990, but it was not made official until 1996 when the Peace Accords were signed.
In the 1980s, specifically from 1981-1983, endless massacres were carried out against the mostly indigenous Guatemalan people by the corrupt military that massacred people in a “scorch-earth” policy, where they would enter towns looking for “rebels” and killing everyone-men, women, and children.
As the massacres raged throughout the country thousands of Guatemalans were taken from their homes and their families never heard from their loved ones again.
People were killed and thrown into mass graves, which are still being exhumed even today. Families never knew for sure if their missing loved ones were alive or dead – there was never a body.
Although the war has been over for sixteen years, Guatemalans are still recovering from the effects of the war. While they try to come to terms with the gross human rights violations that occurred during this times it’s today their rights are still being violated.
Despite the war having ended, killing squads and disappearances continue. There is also abundant gang violence and violence against women with extremely high rates of impunity, and the government is doing little to help the situation.
The Guatemalan Human Rights Commission (GHRC) was founded in 1982, during the worst of the violence, by a nun from the United States named from the School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND) who had traveled to Guatemala twice in the seventies. She was shocked at the horrible effects the civil war was having on the people and became determined to do what she could to help the people of Guatemala.
Alice began asking human rights activists what she could do to help the situation and the idea of the GHRC was born, which she founded in Washington in 1982 and directed for twenty years. She is now in her eighties and resides in Minnesota where her parish is, lecturing and teaching about human rights abuses around the world.
Her mission for the organization was to monitor, document, and report the situation of human rights in Guatemala, in the hopes of using this information to help.
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The GHRC also focuses on educating other countries and nationalities on the issues happening in Guatemala, which so many of us are unaware of. The Commission also works to campaign and lobby for changes in legislation both in the US and in Guatemalato improve the human rights situation in the country.
Femicides in Guatemala
For women, the situation in the country is incomprehensible. Guatemala is one of the most dangerous countries in Latin America for a woman to live. The numbers of violent murders of women have been increasing since 2000; in 2008, there were 722 deaths reported and many other cases of abuse, and since 2000, more than 4,100 women have been violently murdered, according to the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission.
Women in Guatemala have been targeted as victims of violence specifically because they are women, a term which has come to be known as femicide. There are various reasons why violence against women in Guatemala is so abundant, including the long civil war, social acceptance of violence against women and misogyny, lack of essential laws and a high incidence of impunity, and the high prevalence of drug trafficking and gangs.
Helping women in Guatemala
Since its inception the GHRC has had many successes in its fight for justice and human rights. They started a project called Puentes de Paz, which supports women´s groups in Guatemala to provide mental health care and psychological support for women who have been victims of violence.
Moreover, the GHRC has led delegations on violence against women to raise awareness about the issue, and they also work to bring attention to the human rights violations in Guatemalaon an international scale and make legislative changes in the US and Guatemala to improve the situation.
The GHRC has a variety of programs working to stop human rights abuses in the country, to help immigrants and asylum cases of Guatemalans in the US, and campaigns focused on ending violence against women, among many others. With the help of the GHRC, the situation has seen improvements in Guatemala, although there is still a long way to go
If you are interested, there are many ways to get involved with the GHRC. See the GHRC website for opportunities as well as a plethora of documentation on the situation in Guatemala.