May 21, 2020
by Laura Cahier, doctoral student in public law at the University of Aix-Marseille (DICE) and coordinator of the Institut des Amériques' Washington office (hosted by Georgetown University, CLAS).
Although there are still many unknowns with respect to the new coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), one thing is sure: it reveals and increases inequalities.
In Guatemala, though it is still too early to accurately measure the consequences of the current pandemic on the populations that are already marginalized and vulnerable, the makings of a deeply unequal crisis is in process. On March 16, the conservative president Alejandro Giammattei announced a series of measures meant to contain the spread of the virus in the country, including a curfew between 4pm and 4am, the closure of all schools and the suspension of all public transportation. Two months after these measures were put in place, the country has over 2 000 confirmed cases and 38 deaths from Covid-19. However, these numbers barely reflect the consequences of the coronavirus in the country since few tests were done, and given the social and human depth of the on-going crisis.
Already dealing with different types of discrimination and violence in all spheres of Guatemalan society, the Maya, Garífuna and Xinca women are particularly vulnerable to the direct and indirect consequences of the pandemic. Contacted a few days ago, Doña Jazmin, the coordinator of the Consejo de los Pueblos Mayas – Kaqchikel (CPO-K) Women's Council in the Chimaltenango Department, situated at about fifty kilometers on the West side of Guatemala City, shared her concerns: "With the Covid-19 pandemic, the subsistence and survival of our Sisters is even more complicated. Most of them depend on daily and uncertain economic revenus that have been greatly impacted and impaired by this situation. As always, the government's actions consisted in creating programs that will not reach the most vulnerable populations. On top of that, we also have to deal with price increases on food products and electricity".
Since the economic revenus of many of these rural communities essentially comes from agriculture and sales at local markets, the curfew and the ban on travel abruptly stopped these dynamics, often informal. In a country where 60 % of the population lives under the poverty line, the economic insecurity of the Maya, Garifuna and Xinca women is likely to increase even more. And yet, 84 % of them already live under the poverty line. Furthermore, when the level of psychological, physical and sexual violence toward these women has reached tragic heights, Doña Jazmin warns that isolation also limits access to justice, which could provoke an increase in these types of violence and broaden impunity.
The Covid-19 pandemic raises other rather serious concerns for the populations who are the most marginalized because the country's healthcare system is riddled with chronic failures and structural inefficiencies. Native women who want to get to public health institutions must regularly deal with distance and plenty of discrimination. For people living in the most isolated villages of the Chimarltenango Department, such as the El Tesoro community, it takes no less than 6 hours to get to the closest hospital - a trip by public transportation whose cost is often equivalent to several days work. And even when you reach the health center, racist and sexist stereotypes persist in a healthcare system where Native women often experience multiple forms of violence - symbolic, obstetric, economic, even physical.
The Guatemalan government's negligence toward the specific needs of the Native women is part of a long history. In December 1996, the signing of the Peace Accords between the Guatemalan president of the day Álvaro Enrique Arzú and the leaders of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) ended a violent and devastating civil war that lasted thirty-six years, with a human count of 200 000 deaths, 40 000 missing and around 1.5 million people displaced. At the time, anthropologist Rachel Sieder had pointed out that these Accords represented a hope for peace for a whole fringe of the population that had been excluded up to then and who, for the first time, were being promised political and legal recognition.
However, peace vows and promises of equality have been replaced with chronic disappointment: political recognition has been supplanted by what Charles Hale calls a "disembodied neoliberal multiculturalism". In particular, public policies put in place to resolve the violence and discrimination against Native women - for example, creating the Defensoría de la Mujer Indígena - suffer from a serious lack of human and economic resources, as well as a deficient political support. In this context, the current pandemic all the more exposes the social, economic and political divisions that continue to structure Guatemalan society.
However, Native women, already active in defending their rights, continue to build support networks to provide mutual assistance and help throughout the country in order to compensate for the Guatemalan government's failings. These solidarity circuits provide a necessary net at a time when the few 16 000 NGO that work in Guatemala have also had to slow down, if not stop, their activities.
In between two meetings of the Women's Council of CPO-K whose actions have been refocused on emergency help to the Kaqchikels women of Chimaltenango, Doña Jazmin also talks about the importance of rehabilitating certain ancestral Mayan practices in order to deal with the structural problems that the current situation is exacerbating: "The discrimination, exclusion, and oversight of indigenous populations is not new to us. I think this crisis has shown the importance of returning to certain ancestral practices, our grandfathers' and grandmothers', and the need to grow our produce in family gardens in order to secure our subsistence, threatened today by the use of herbicides, chemical fertilizers, and also single-crop agriculture". In his article on the confinement of indigenous populations in Panama, the sociologist Jean Foyer draws the same conclusions for the people living in the Comarcas, stating that "[o]ptimistically, one can hope that for both the authorities and the indigenous populations, the crisis will lead to a new step in the defense and development of their cultures and their resources".
In reaction to the global dimension of Covid-19, solidarity networks among Native women have also crossed borders. In the Americas, collective actions have been organized to make the international community aware of the importance of continuing to promote individual and group rights even during a health crisis and, in that vein, to remind countries of their legal obligations with respect to human rights. In a web conference organized by several Latin American organizations, Teresa Zapeta, Executive Director of Foro Internacional de Mujeres Indígenas, insists on the necessity to make their voices heard at both the local and the global level.
Poster of an event organized by the organization Enlace Continental de Mujeres Indígenas de las Américas (ECMIA) on the occasion of the publication of their report "Indigenous Women of the Americas and Covid-19". Source: print screen of the event on Facebook, ECMIA.
If the year 2020 will prove to be remembered as the worst contemporary health crisis, it was also supposed to have been a time to evaluate several major developments in Native women's rights on the world stage. Yet, when a crisis breaks out, the "game rules" of governance are more often exposed and shaken. The current pandemic is no exception. At a time when the 25 years of the Beijing Platform for Action and the 5 years of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals were supposed to be celebrated, it is all the more imperative to take a look at the rampant discrimination and structural inequalities which Native women face.
Laura Cahier is a doctoral student in public law at the University of Aix-Marseille (DICE) and coordinator of the Institut des Amériques' Washington office (hosted by Georgetown University, CLAS). Her thesis is on native women's rights in the Americas confronted with intersectional violences.