Molina in Office and Montt on Trial: Reexamining Indigenous Rights in Guatemala

Last week marked Otto Perez Molina’s first week in office as Guatemala’s new president. For many, Molina’s first week was an important indication of the future of his presidency, especially with regard to Indigenous rights in Guatemala.

Molina has already appointed various military officials to his cabinet, many of whom are accused of vast human rights abuses against the Indigenous population during the country’s 36-year armed conflict. And while proclaiming respect for Indigenous communities in his inaugural speech, the flags symbolizing Indigenous peoples were removed from the National Palace and the Presidential offices upon Molina’s entry.

But as concerns arise over Indigenous rights under the new administration, former Guatemalan dictator Rios Montt has been forced to confront his role in the acts of genocide committed against Indigenous communities during the civil war. Under Montt’s seventeen-month rule, at least 1,771 people were killed, 1,485 girls were raped and 29,000 people were forcibly displaced from their homes.

The long-awaited decision to bring Rios Montt to trial comes as welcome news to Indigenous groups and human rights activists. However, news that the judge has allowed the former dictator to stand bail has upset many of the victims’ families, who are eager to see Montt brought to justice.

And while Montt will stand trial for the mass atrocities committed against Indigenous peoples in the 1980s, it is important to recognize the ongoing violence Guatemala’s Indigenous communities face. Just last year, 19 human rights defenders were assassinated, many of whom were advocating for Indigenous rights. And hundreds of Maya Q’eqchi’ families from Guatemala’s Polochic Valley remain displaced ten months after being violently pushed off their land by a sugar company claiming to own the land.

To learn more about crimes committed against the Indigenous population under Rios Montt’s rule and his trial, watch the video below:

New Report Underscores Importance of Addressing Sexual Violence in Haiti

A new report on the high level of sexual violence against displaced women and girls in Haiti has just been released. The report was authored by our friends at NYU Law’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ) and the Global Justice Clinic (GJC). Its findings link the high levels of rape to a fundamental and widespread lack of basic resources like sanitation, clean water and adequate food.

The report, “Yon Je Louvri: Reducing Vulnerability to Sexual Violence in Haiti’s IDP Camps,” identifies those most likely to be victims of sexual violence as young, female, with limited access to basic resources and living in camps with no participatory and responsive government structures. It also offers suggestions on both short and long term solutions to combating this rise in sexual violence. These include installing lighting in camps and locks in latrines, immediate access to medical services and legal assistance and long-term strategies for women’s economic empowerment.

MADRE and our Haitian sister organization KOFAVIV are working hard to make these recommendations a reality. We have called for similar efforts in numerous reports and in appeals to international legal bodies. And while many of these recommendations have yet to be implemented, MADRE and KOFAVIV are partnering to provide women with immediate solutions to the crisis. For example, flashlights and whistles serve the dual purpose of protecting women from attacks and giving a woman control over her life and her body. This newfound sense of control can lead to her empowerment in other realms, including politics. Our partners are also helping survivors of rape access medical care and legal support and holding job-skills trainings.

Together, MADRE and KOFAVIV are also combating another face of the epidemic: sexual exploitation and survival sex. Because of poverty and a lack of economic opportunity, many women and girls are forced to trade sex for shelter, money or even a single meal.

In the face of this epidemic, KOFAVIV is providing care and counseling as well as training sessions and skill-building activities to girls forced into survival sex. At the KOFAVIV Center, these young women receive a hot meal, participate in self-esteem workshops and take part in bonding activities such as jewelry making, tie-dying and learning to make artisanal crafts. By providing women and girls with the necessities they are often forced to trade sex for, they are out of harm’s way. Coupled with a knowledge of their rights and trainings to expand economic opportunity, KOFAVIV is helping these women build better futures. But KOFAVIV has run out of funding for this crucial project, leaving women and girls engaging in survival sex without the tools necessary to build economic independence, secure their rights and break their reliance on survival sex.

Learn more about survival sex among Haiti’s displaced by clicking here.

Midwives For Peace: Empowering Birth Experiences Last a Lifetime

Midwives for Peace, our sister organization,  is a grassroots group of midwives who provide pre-natal care and childbirth support for women living in the West Bank and Israel. They hold regular meetings  that bring together Palestinian and Israeli midwives to join in friendship amidst conflict; there they discuss women’s health, offer support, and empower one another.

Midwives for Peace sent us news about one recent meeting in a town near Jerusalem, where an important issue was brought up:  a birthing center in a rural area in the northern West Bank  which offered crucial women-centered obstetric care had been shut down.

With the support of MADRE, Midwives for Peace are planning to reopen a local home-based birthing center to meet the urgent need for midwifery care.

(c) Jessica Alderman

One midwife said, “We believe that empowering birth experiences last a lifetime. We would like to do our part to provide more women with the opportunity to benefit from the high quality care that we provide.”

More information about Midwives for Peace’s work  can be found here and here.

Responding to Obama’s 2012 State of the Union

On the Financial Crisis: “It was wrong. It was irresponsible. And it plunged our economy into a crisis.”

It’s clear that the terms of the national discussion on economic justice and the financial crisis have shifted dramatically. And we have the Occupy Wall Street movement to thank for that. Time and again, President Obama returned to the growing unemployment and debt that the 99% of this country are experiencing. He laid the responsibility on a broken and unfair financial system that privileges the rich and leaves the rest to struggle.

He pushed for a fairer tax code, to lessen the burden on the majority of tax payers while requiring the richest to pay their fair share. But the sights of the Occupy Wall Street movement have always been set higher. We must have real accountability for economic policies that trap people in poverty, here in the US and around the world. And after all, the State of the Union was just a speech—what we need now is action.

On Trade: “I will go anywhere in the world to open new markets for American products.”

Obama suggested that free trade agreements with Panama, South Korea and Colombia would help boost business in the US by opening markets in those countries. But let’s not forget what damage these free trade agreements have done. For years before the Colombia FTA passed, activists warned that it would worsen rural poverty, undermine labor rights and weaken access to public services like healthcare and water. We had already seen it happen with NAFTA, which decimated agriculture in Mexico and increased poverty and hunger.

On the US Wars: “For the first time in nine years, there are no Americans fighting in Iraq.” “We will build an enduring partnership with Afghanistan.”

Again, we heard the rhetoric celebrating the supposed success of the war in Iraq, as US troops leave that country. The reality is that the war was fought at the cost of over one million Iraqi lives and tens of thousands of US troops killed or injured.

The US has left behind an Iraq that will reel for generations with the impacts of the invasion. Mothers are already reporting a sharp increase in severe birth defects, likely the result of the US military dumping toxic munitions in their communities. Our partners in Iraq also say plainly that women are worse off now than before the invasion. Women demanding their rights to political participation, freedom from violence and more must contend with fundamentalists left in power by the US.

Meanwhile, Obama also signaled a drawdown of US troops from Afghanistan in the coming months. He promised a lasting partnership with Afghanistan, to prevent future terror attacks emerging from there. Afghan women were absent from his comments, although their rights and well-being have for years been used by US leaders as a justification for the war. Now is a crucial time for MADRE and women’s rights advocates worldwide to stand with Afghan women who demand their rights and a role in their country’s future.

And many in Washington are beginning to clamber for war with Iran. You could see it in Obama’s audience, from the standing ovation he received for hinting at military action targeting Iran and from the silence following his suggestion that Iran might still “rejoin the community of nations.” MADRE will continue to follow this debate closely and stand up against any push for a new war.

On Climate Change: “The differences in this chamber may be too deep right now to pass a comprehensive plan to fight climate change.”

We can’t wait for the government to act. US leaders have already failed to treat this as the emergency that it is. Instead, they have chosen to stall and block action at international talks on climate change.

The problem lies in more than divisions in the US Congress. It also lies in a failed capitalist vision of the world, enacted through policies that embrace consumption without limits and that ignore environmental sustainability.

And it is women, who make up the majority of the world’s poor, who have borne the brunt of the climate change already exacerbated by these policies. For instance, when drought threatens harvests, it is the millions of women farmers worldwide who must struggle to get food for their families. Faced with these threats, the women that MADRE works with are daily devising the solutions we all need now.

Women Standing Up to Violence in Guatemala City

In December 1, 2011, a woman from the community of Barcenas, on the outskirts of Guatemala City, was violently assaulted and left unconscious, bleeding from severe wounds. With the support of MADRE, our partners at the Women Workers’ Committee in Barcenas provided her with emergency support to make sure she heals both emotionally and physically from this attack. The Women Workers’ Committee also helped her file a formal complaint against her attackers.

The Women Workers’ Committee, an organization that works to meet the needs and advance the rights of the women and children of Barcenas, was founded in 1997 in response to labor violations against women working in the workshops of Guatemala City. By establishing health care, literacy and labor rights programs, the Women Workers’ Committee is a strong partner in fighting for justice for marginalized women that fosters community safety and workplace rights.

The Women Workers’ Committee is also working to combat an epidemic of gender-based violence in Guatemala. In 2009, a woman named Rosemary was murdered at the young age of 17 , targeted solely because she was a woman. Since Rosemary’s murder, the Women Workers’ Committee and MADRE have worked to share her story and to fight for justice.

Recently, the women of Barcenas took to the streets in a peaceful mass demonstration against violence. Rosemary’s mother, Betty Gonzalez, was there to demand justice for her daughter.

(c) Elizabeth Rappaport

To learn more about MADRE’s work with the Women Workers’ Committee in Guatemala, click here. To support Betty Gonzalez and the women of Guatemala in their fight against gender-based violence, click here.

International Criminal Court Decision Targets Four in Kenya

Today, the International Criminal Court ruled that four Kenyans will stand trial for their roles in the post-election violence that erupted in Kenya in 2007 and 2008. The four men include former Education Minister William Ruto, radio broadcaster Joshua Arap Sang, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Uhuru Kenyatta and Cabinet Secretary Francis Muthaura.

Two of the four men, Ruto and Kenyatta, are presidential hopefuls in Kenya’s upcoming elections. Ruto is being charged with murder, deportation or forcible transfer of a population and persecution. Charges against Uhuru Kenyatta include murder, deportation or forcible transfer of a population, rape, persecution and inhumane acts.

The post-election violence in Kenya began in December 2007, when supporters of two rival presidential candidates, Raila Odinga and Mwai Kibaki, clashed over election results. An estimated 1,300 people were killed in the violence, which lasted until February 2008, and displaced some 300,000 peopleThe violence was the worst Kenya had seen since its independence in 1963.

Today’s ruling has sparked fears of renewed fighting. Officials also fear a repeat in the fighting as Kenyans head to the polls again early next year.

The communities of our sister organizations in Kenya were at the epicenter of the violence four years ago. As we move towards the next elections, MADRE will continue to stand with them to make sure the vote is peaceful.

Roe vs. Wade Turns 39

Today, January 22, marks the anniversary of the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court verdict. This landmark decision legalized abortion in the United States. Yet, 39 years later, many women still lack access to safe and legal reproductive health care services in the United States.

Not only is a woman’s right to health care not guaranteed, it is being consistently undermined. 2011 was one of the worst years for women’s health in the United States, with several setbacks in reproductive rights, some of which are listed below:

  • In 2011, 24 states passed a total of 92 provisions limiting access to abortion services.
  • Texas and North Carolina enacted waiting-period requirements. This means that women must receive counseling and wait for a set period of time before being able to have an abortion. Twenty-six other states have similar requirements.
  • In February, Republicans in the House of Representatives tried to ban funding for family planning to organizations that also perform abortions. Planned Parenthood is one such organization. Family planning services were also cut 57% in New Hampshire, and 66% in Texas.
  • Currently, every Republican candidate running for the presidential nomination has taken an anti-abortion stance. Some are even in favor of denying access to some forms of birth control.

And these restrictions aren’t just being implemented in the US. If we look beyond our borders, reproductive health services are being attacked in Nicaragua, where a total ban on abortions has existed since 2006; in the Philippines, where contraception is effectively banned in Manila; or in Mexico, where suspicions of abortion could land a woman in jail.

Eighteen years ago, at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo (ICPD), governments committed for the first time ever to respecting and protecting reproductive choice as a basic human right. That declaration reiterated what women’s rights activists have been saying for decades: reproductive rights contribute directly to a woman’s right to live a healthy life, and her ability to control her financial independence, her future and the future of her family.

This is the meaning of Roe vs. Wade, of the right to abortion. The challenges women continue to face in the US and worldwide make the current efforts to uphold its legacy ever more important.

Remember Guantanamo

Ten years ago, the Bush Administration transported 20 prisoners to Guantanamo. It was the beginning of another ugly chapter in US history. Since then, hundreds of detainees have faced torture, denial of trial and other human rights violations.

Yesterday, I traveled to Washington, DC to join a protest demanding the closure of Guantanamo and an end to illegal detentions without trial. When I walked up to Lafayette Square, the park facing the White House, the day was overcast and rainy. But still, people gathered by the hundreds.

We knew the numbers: 171 prisoners still held in Guantanamo, 89 of them already cleared for release. We heard human rights lawyers tell the stories of the detainees they represent, who hold on to the faint hope that they might someday be released. One woman, who had lost her son in the attacks of September 11, spoke out about the shame of the Guantanamo prison. We expressed our outrage at Obama’s broken promise to close Guantanamo and his continuing the Bush Administration’s legacy of human rights violations in the name of fighting the “war on terror.”

Together with more than 150 others, I put on an orange jumpsuit and a black hood. The hood let in just enough light for me to follow the orange figure of the person ahead of me. We filed in front of the White House in four silent lines. We stood for a moment, facing the crowd of chanting protesters, our backs to the White House.

Then we set off, walking single file down Pennsylvania Avenue, hoods down, hands clasped behind our backs. We were headed for the steps of the Supreme Court, about two miles away.

Along the way, traffic slowed as people took in the sight of hundreds of hooded figures in orange jumpsuits. Our line stretched for blocks. Through the darkness of my hood, I could make out the pedestrians who stopped along their way, watching us file silently past.

I wondered what all the onlookers were thinking. Some naysayers have claimed that such protests are futile and just a chance for activists to dress in costume for a day. But two Administrations and an overall media blackout have made it easy to forget what’s happening in that isolated prison. We created a spectacle impossible to ignore, forcing people to remember.

Arriving at the Supreme Court, I read the words “Equal Justice Under Law” emblazoned across the top of the building. For years, the Bush Administration sought to deny them that justice under the law. Obama has cemented that travesty.

This protest was organized by the Center for Constitutional Rights, Amnesty International, Witness Against Torture and other human rights organizations.

Sexual Exploitation in Post-Earthquake Haiti

Two years ago on January 12, an earthquake devastated Haiti. The drastic increase in sexual violence in displacement camps has been well-documented since the disaster. But another face of the epidemic has emerged as a pressing issue: the sexual exploitation of displaced women and girls.

Lack of economic opportunity and the loss of community and family structures have driven young women and girls into survival sex—the exchange of sex for money, water, housing, jobs, education or even a single meal.

A new report authored by MADRE, the Commission of Women Victims for Victims (KOFAVIV), the International Women’s Human Rights Clinic at the City University of New York School of Law, the Global Justice Clinic at NYU School of Law and the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies at UC Hastings College of the Law, reveals the epidemic of sexual exploitation of displaced Haitian women and girls.

Read the summary below for information on sexual exploitation in post-earthquake Haiti, or read the full report by clicking here.

A Backgrounder

  • On January 12, 2010, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit Haiti. The earthquake caused widespread damage, killing hundreds of thousands of people and displacing millions.
  • In the aftermath of the quake, displacement camps sprung up in and around the capital of Port-au-Prince. Overcrowded, with little security, flimsy shelters and almost no privacy, incidents of rape and sexual violence increased exponentially.
  • Left with no way to earn an income and a stark lack of alternatives, increasing numbers of women and girls in the camps have turned to survival sex and been made vulnerable to sexual exploitation.
  • A rise in sexual violence and sexual exploitation in abusive conditions after disaster is common. We saw it in Somalia after the famine, in Sri Lanka after the tsunami and in Pakistan after the floods.

The Report: Analyzing Sexual Exploitation among Women and Girls in Haiti

  • The Report is based on interviews with displaced women between the ages of 18 and 32 who have either engaged in sexual exchange themselves or who know someone who has.
  • Sexual exploitation is defined as the abuse of differential power for sexual purposes, including profiting monetarily, socially or politically from the sexual exploitation of another, thus denying the victim’s human right to dignity, equality, autonomy, and physical and mental well-being. “Survival sex” is defined here as the exchange of sex in circumstances where those exchanging sex for survival lack other options. It has been treated as distinct from rape given the perception of choice in engaging in transactional sex. But for many displaced Haitians engaging in survival sex, the decision is not a result of free choice.
  • Interviewees and organizations alike recognize that economic disempowerment is the principal factor making women and girls vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Few jobs are available, and those that are available rarely generate enough income for women to provide for themselves and their families.

Barriers to Addressing Sexual Exploitation

Despite widespread recognition of sexual exploitation, multiple barriers impede efforts to end this epidemic:

  • Stereotypes: Many believe that women and girls who engage in transactional sex are lazy, that other jobs and economic opportunities exist or that displaced persons engaging in transactional sex do so as the result of free will.
  • Lack of resources: The Haitian government’s inability to address sexual exploitation is due in part to a lack of resources. Billions of dollars were pledged in the aftermath of the earthquake, but less than half has been delivered. Of that money, only a small percentage was allocated to the Haitian government or Haitian NGOs.
  • Justice system: Many women and girls do not choose to report abuse or press charges. This is due to fears of discrimination or abuse at the hands of police, a perception that the justice system is ineffective and concern that they might face punishment themselves for having engaged in survival sex. Although not required by law, victims of sexual violence are also expected to have medical certificates as proof of the crime. Inherent in this expectation is the belief that a woman’s testimony is untrustworthy and that physical force must be shown to prove lack of consent.


There is much to be done to combat an epidemic of sexual exploitation. The approach of organizations, governments and agencies alike must be multi-faceted and address immediate and long-term needs as well as hold perpetrators accountable. The report recommends:

  • Ensuring that displaced women and girls are provided with the basic necessities of life including adequate food, medical care and shelter;
  • Equipping displacement camps with lighting and security to safeguard women and girls against sexual violence;
  • Training medical staff, police, outreach workers, teachers, judges and prosecutors on how to identify and respond to women and girls vulnerable to sexual exploitation;
  • Guaranteeing women’s full participation and leadership in all phases of the reconstruction of Haiti;
  • And complying with international standards and laws on the protection of human rights.

MADRE works with KOFAVIV, a grassroots women’s rights organization in Haiti, to combat the epidemic of sexual violence and exploitation among displaced women and girls. To find out more about our work with KOFAVIV, click here. To learn about how you can help end sexual exploitation in Haiti, click here.

To read the report in full, click here.
To read the press release accompanying the report, click here.
To read some of the stories compiled during the interviews with displaced women and girls, click here.

Additional Resources:

“Rape, homelessness, cholera hound Haiti 2 yrs after quake,” Reuters AlertNet (January 5, 2012)
“Haiti: Seven Places Where Earthquake Money Did and Did Not Go,” Common Dreams (January 3, 2012)
“Child trafficking surges in Haiti,” Al Jazeera (December 25, 2011)
“Haiti: Giving girls a way out,” The Guardian (November 20, 2011)
“A search for sanctuary,” The Guardian (November 20, 2011)
“U.N. Troops Accused of Exploiting Local Women,” IPS News (September 7, 2011)
“Achieving Justice for Victims of Rape and Advancing Women’s Rights: A Comparative Study of Legal Reform,” TrustLaw (September 2011)

“In Haiti, sexual violence, healthcare neglect plague women, girls,” The Los Angeles Times (August 30, 2011)

“Women Turn Spotlight on Haiti’s Silent Rape Epidemic,” IPS News (March 29, 2011)

“Sexual Violence in Haiti’s IDP Camps,” Center for Human Rights and Global
(March 2011)

Ten Years of Torture: MADRE Condemns Human Rights Violations at Guantanamo

Today, on the tenth anniversary of the opening of the Guantanamo prison, MADRE denounces the continued unlawful imprisonment and human rights violations faced by detainees at the facility.

On the first day of President Obama’s presidency, he made a commitment to shut down Guantanamo within a year. That promise has been broken. Three years later, there is little evidence that this Administration is willing to take action to put an end to illegal detention at Guantanamo.

On January 11, 2002, 20 men were transported by the Bush Administration into Guantanamo, the first of hundreds who would be detained there. The ugly legacy of the “war on terror” started by the Bush Administration continues.

Now, a new National Defense Authorization Act signed by President Obama effectively expands the “war on terror” to all corners of the world, with no end in sight. The new legislation allows the military to arrest suspected terrorists anywhere in the world and hold them indefinitely and without trial. This would even extend to US citizens arrested on US soil, constituting a gross violation of international human rights.

Today, thousands of activists are gathering in Washington, DC for a national day of action against Guantanamo.  MADRE Communications Director Diana Duarte is there, and she will join a human chain from the White House to the Capitol. She will be posting updates on Twitter, and you can follow along on here: