Last Sunday, the Guatemalan security forces reported that eight women had been killed in the past 24 hours. Eight women. They ranged in age from 14 to 43, they lived in the capital city and hundreds of miles away, and they were all shot. One of them was a teenaged girl whose body was found in Barcenas, the same neighborhood of Guatemala City where MADRE’s partner organization, the Women Workers’ Committee, is based.
Then Monday, the same day we arrived in Guatemala City, Amnesty International released information on the targeted killings of women in Guatemala. They highlighted official figures that 685 women were killed in 2010 alone and that less than 4% of all homicide cases result in a conviction.
We’ve seen this crisis in other communities of our sister organizations, in places where violence becomes rooted and where women are particular targets. In Iraq, in the aftermath of the US invasion, gender-based violence escalated dramatically, as perpetrators targeted women and used violence against women to enforce their rigid view of social norms. As the leader of our sister organization in Iraq, Yanar Mohammed, explained, “We have been studying these killings since they began. It is not that the Islamists also kill women journalists, performers, or intellectuals—women are especially hunted. That's because they commit a double offense—by advocating a secular society and by being accomplished, working women."
In a MADRE report I authored on gender-based violence in Iraq in 2007, I explained:
These concerns, together with the failure to collect data, place violence against Iraqi women squarely within the paradigm of "feminicide," a term usually reserved for the widespread killing of women in Guatemala and Mexico since the early 1990s. Feminicide is the sum total of various forms of gender-based violence against women, characterized by impunity for perpetrators and a lack of justice processes for victims. Feminicide occurs in conditions of social upheaval, armed conflict, violence between powerful rival criminal gangs and militias, rapid economic transformation, and the demise of traditional forms of state power. All of these conditions apply to Iraq.
The framework of feminicide also emphasizes the complicity of local or state authorities in violence against women. Iraqi women's organizations report clear links between the Islamist militias who control and work in the police force and criminal gangs involved in forced prostitution and trafficking of women.
Shifting the focus from culture to gender reveals a system of power that is nearly universal. A 2005 Amnesty International Report on the mass killings of women in Guatemala could easily refer to Iraq when it describes a ‘notable sense of insecurity that women in Guatemala feel today as a result of the violence and the murders in particular. The resulting effect of intimidation carries with it a perverse message: women should abandon the public space they have won at much personal and social effort and shut themselves back up in the private world, abandoning their essential role in national development.’ This passage captures the intent of Iraq's Islamists, who have little in common with the perpetrators of feminicide in Guatemala, other than a rigid adherence to a gendered system of power.
We’ve talked about this with our partners here in Guatemala, and they’ve told us about the constant fear that women live with. This violence sends the message to women: your lives are dispensable. The lack of response from Guatemala’s political leaders underscores that message. In 2005, then-President of Guatemala Oscar Berger gave this callous advice to women in a national television address: for your own safety, you’d better stay at home.