Empowering Women and Girls in Guatemala
Maria Cuc Choc is a Q’eqchi Mayan community leader in the Izabal region of Guatemala. She is an advocate for indigenous rights and women’s rights issues. This interview was conducted in Spanish, and was translated to English by Louise McLarnan.
Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom recently instituted policies designed to improve access to education, including abolishing inscription fees at primary public schools. Do you feel that these policies have in fact improved access for children, particularly for girls? If not, how can we help improve girls’ access to education?
Many Guatemalans believe that President Colom’s administration has looked for ways to improve access to education, including for girls, with the intention of benefiting all children. But his policies have not led to good education programs: they are unsuccessful because the policies have had little impact for communities in rural areas of the country. The administration is accustomed to creating policies that only serve their own political interests. Education in much of the country is still very poor.
Moreover, the lack of girls’ education is part of the larger problem of gender inequality in Guatemala. There is a great deal of impunity for those who commit violence against women, and many, many women have suffered exploitation and sexual abuse. So, in this context, I think of the mothers: many mothers have experienced such abuses and continue to suffer from the psychological trauma. It is very difficult for these women to advocate for their daughters.
In order to improve conditions for women, we need to focus on comprehensive education for girls in every Guatemalan community. Every community has its own culture, its own customs and traditions. For many of the indigenous communities in Guatemala, a traditional Western education isn’t the best education system. I feel that education in each community should be based on the traditions and values of that community. In this way, we can ensure education for girls as well as build greater social consciousness among girls and thus ultimately, for women.
So, do you feel that education should be controlled more at the local level, rather than the national level?
In the [United Nations] International Labor Organization Convention, it is very clear that the government must include the rights and values of indigenous communities in their policy decisions. [Guatemala ratified the Convention concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in 1996 — ed.] It is intended to ensure that our children receive a quality education, from early childhood through young adulthood.
But even today, many Guatemalan adults are illiterate and have no formal education. If someone wants to be educated, they have to be self-motivated and fight for their right to an education. So, what is the government doing with the funds intended for our education? They are not devoting sufficient funds to education. As I’ve said, they are primarily concerned with their own political interests.
It sounds like you’re saying that major changes are needed in education policy in countries like Guatemala, where high-level politicians are not making quality of children’s education a priority.
In order to change education in Guatemala, we need to have qualified ministers of education in the Department of Education. Every single education program ought to be reevaluated, with the focus on the children of Guatemala and providing quality education and ultimately, in the long-term, giving them a voice and preparing them for a better future.
While many Guatemalans live in poverty, it is especially difficult for women to improve their economic well-being, particularly when they lack education. What do you think is the best way to help women in poverty improve their economic condition?
I feel that the best way to help women improve their economic condition, particularly women who are illiterate and accustomed to working in agriculture, is to ensure their right to work independently on their own land. Agricultural work is the means for a woman to obtain renewable financial resources as well as food. It gives her a good that she can sell, which allows her to build her personal finances and support her family.
But, when the government or foreign corporations confiscate peoples’ land, we have a serious problem. In Guatemala, there is major agrarian conflict, and many people are dispossessed of their land. Communities are frequently dispossessed of their land by large landowners or multinational corporations who, in order to forcibly evict them, burn the communities’ possessions, crops, and homes. When this happens, women suffer the most of all, particularly women who live in rural areas. When a woman’s land is taken away, how can she provide for her children and their future?
As such, in order to empower women economically, we must ensure their rights to their own land and prevent the dispossession of ancestral lands. Furthermore, women need the right to participate in decision-making processes on personal and political levels, and to have freedom of expression. These things are crucial for empowering women.
Recently, women have become more involved in the political process in Guatemala. Do you feel that, if more women participate in politics, they can have an impact on Guatemala’s politics?
It is certainly possible that women could change Guatemalan politics through greater political participation. But if this going to happen, everyone—international organizations, non-governmental organizations, and the state—needs to be more concerned about women’s issues in Guatemala. If we don’t give women the means to be more independent, then gender norms will remain the same in both social and political spheres.
It all begins with young girls. After all, in many rural communities, girls begin marrying at twelve years old. This means we have many, many girls who never advance beyond this point. What kind of future will they have? We should simultaneously focus on the individual empowerment of women and women’s rights in society as a whole.
Feature photo: cc/Abe Kleinfeld