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Keeping The Faith

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Issue: 43 Section: Gender Geography: Latin America Guatemala Topics: social movements, Women

March 1, 2007

Keeping The Faith

Guatemalan feminists fight for change

by Meaghan Thurston

If asked to imagine ‘radical feminists,’ most Canadians would not think of a Christian organization, but the women of the REM cite their faith in God as that which sustains them in their struggle for a dignified life. Photo: Meaghan Thurston

One year ago, on March 8, 2006, as in many cities worldwide, thousands of women took to the streets in Guatemala City for the advancement of women’s rights. The hand-woven blouses and traditional wrap-around skirts worn by the majority of Mayan women created a sea of colour in the downtown core. Amidst this sea, a group of some 50 women marched under the banner of the Red Ecumenica de Mujeres (REM), the Women’s Ecumenical Network, a religious group of women’s rights activists and a working group of the larger Conference of Evangelical Churches in Guatemala (CIEDEG).

The national co-ordinator of the REM, Miriam Iquique, had organized school bus transportation for women of her village to allow them to participate, some for the first time, in the march for women’s rights in Guatemala City. Iquique says this kind of exposure to women’s rights work is important “because so many rurally-based women do not have the economic resources to travel to the capital.”

If asked to imagine ‘radical feminists,’ most Canadians would not think of a Christian organization, but the REM is working hard to advance women’s participation in the political landscape. This work is in the face of an increasingly violent atmosphere, where women are frequently brutalized or found murdered on Guatemala’s streets and where women’s education is often sacrificed in times of economic hardship.

Iquique and her colleagues agree that in their communities, “women are struggling for equality in the workplace.” The REM “is committed to bringing information to women so that they may understand their rights and heal the scars left by the war.” Empowering women with human rights education, addressing topics such as leadership, domestic violence, reproductive health and contraception laws, small business management, as well as enhancing literacy skills are part of what the REM calls the “therapeutic process,” a process they seek to hasten in post- civil war Guatemala. They are working with women from many different ethnic groups in Guatemala: the K’qchi, the Mam, the Kaqchikel, Tzutujil, as well as Ladina women and women of communities displaced by the war. Iquique’s home-base is the office of the Kaqchikel Presbytery, a decision-making body of representatives of local congregations, in the department of Chimaltenango, a region which suffered greatly during the violence of the 1980s, in which at least 200,000 Guatemalans, mostly indigenous people, were killed or disappeared.

The women of the REM cite their faith in God as that which sustains them in their struggle for a dignified life and at times, the REM face critiques from other women’s rights groups who do not share their religious focus. For example, during the Women’s Day March meetings at La Sector de Mujeres (a woman’s rights group that spoke out against a series of malicious break-ins to their capital office this past June), the REM’s proposal to open the march with a prayer was not widely welcomed. However, these different women’s rights groups appear united by a vision of a ‘dignified’ life, one filled with opportunities for all.

Even if their religious foundation may deter some, the REM is a unique example of inter-denominational communication; something that is greatly lacking in Guatemala. With Catholic and Evangelical women at the table, Iquique and her colleagues meet to discuss how they can secure funding to carry out their ambitious plans of leadership training for the women of rural Guatemala without concern for the differences in their faith practices.

This year, like last year, their project is gravely under-funded; so much so that Miriam worries the Women’s Day March may not be as well attended by women from her community. Despite the obvious disappointment in her voice, she is forever optimistic and reports that she is currently holding educational sessions for the women in her community about the upcoming Guatemalan elections, because “it is ever more important that women understand politics and know how and why to vote.”

The group currently receives a limited amount of funding from the Anglican Church of Canada, but it is not enough to cover the costs in all the geographic regions where they wish to work. And so, as another International Women’s Day approaches, it is unfortunate that Canadian and Guatemalan women’s rights activists can find common ground; just as recent cuts to funding restrict women’s organizations in Canada, the call for economic justice rings clear from feminist organizers in Guatemala.

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