Move your chair into the circle: Indigenous women’s political participation in Guatemala

Jenny Enarsson

Blog post by Jenny Enarsson

Oxfam International, Gender Advisor Syria Crisis Response
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Raising Her Voice works in 17 countries to promote the rights and ability of poor women to increase their influence and ensure their voices are heard so that those in power – from village leaders to politicians and lawmakers – become more accountable to them. Jenny Enarsson reports on a meeting of the Latin American Raising Her Voice participants.

Bertha Zapeta from the indigenous Guatemalan organization Makatitlan is presenting the socio-economic situation in her country. She starts by projecting a linguistic map of Guatemala, indicating where in the country the different indigenous groups live. On top of that map she then projects a poverty map that identifies the most economically marginalized areas of the country. These are almost exactly the same as the areas highlighted in the first map.

The next layer that she adds points out where in the country the main massacres have been carried out. Again, the dots on the map coincide with the areas already marked on the screen in front of us. Finally yet another dimension is added – a natural resource map identifying the main underground riches in the country. These too are located in the same areas.

In conclusion, the areas where indigenous peoples of Guatemala live and have always lived are where there are the most natural resources, but also where there have been the most massacres, and where today there is the most poverty.

"They say that the indigenous peoples of Guatemala are poor." Bertha looks at us. "Really? Are we poor? Or is it that society impoverishes us?"

After the session, I ask Bertha how her political work and activism got started. "It's not activism," she says, "it's my community service. My family breaks the paradigms in that we women study. My grandparents were adamant that we finish school and go on to university. They decided that when I went away to study I should wear trousers and a shirt and I should speak Spanish – because in a racist society, our traditional dress and our language are obstacles.

"So I got an education, but there was always an emptiness inside me. Finally at the age of 18, I decided to start wearing my traditional dress – as a political act – and speak my language. You can travel far away from home, but in the end something pulls you back to where you belong." 

Move your chair into the circle

"I started getting involved in community politics and working in organizations. There, with the women's groups, is where I learnt what it really means to organize. They teach you about organization at university, but it's not the same. I learnt about politics from the elders, the ancestral authorities.

"In the meetings, it was all men and then me, little Bertha. My chair was in the corner, outside their circle. I sat there and listened in meeting after meeting, wondering when I would be invited to speak.

"After a whole month had passed by without my saying a word, I finally went up to one of the leaders and asked him when they would let me contribute. He said 'Bertha... you have had a whole month to move your chair into the circle...!'

"That was my first lesson in politics: I learnt that not only can I not let them exclude me – I also mustn't exclude myself. They put my chair in the corner, but it is up to me to move it – both literally and politically speaking.

We need political education. Otherwise, once we manage to get into those spaces for dialogue and they start talking to us about things like municipal budgets, it's like jumping out of a plane with no parachute. If they are talking about infrastructure, I have to know about infrastructure. If they are talking about territorial rights, I have to know about territorial rights. That is how you move the chair." 

“Ensure that those who come after you can change too”

Mérida Cacao joins Bertha and me. She is a communicator with the organization Ixqik in the Petén region of Guatemala. I ask her how she came to this work.

"My father always said that women shouldn't study, but my mother wanted me to learn what she hadn't been able to. I started school at the age of nine, but left after two years. When I was 15, I told a friend that one day I wanted to know how to use a computer. He looked at me and laughed "You think you can learn that? It's impossible! You're a woman, and you're indigenous." I told him I would show him."

"I started taking literacy classes and that sparked my interest in getting involved and learning things. It gave me the opportunity to be something. I went on to lead youth groups. It made me feel important when I would come to a meeting and have lots of people listen to me. They were young people with the same dream as me – to work and participate."

"I know that I won't just be given space – I have to take it."

Says Bertha, "Our political participation may look modest, but you have to understand the effort it takes to do what we do in a context where we are discriminated against, in economic crisis, with a lack of education and health services. We live in a State that is not our State. They ask us to create democracy and govern, but how are we supposed to do that when the very people who are asking us to do this built their wealth on the wealth of our people? They ask us to incorporate ourselves in a capitalist society, when that system has collapsed. Or in a socialist system, when that has collapsed too. Why would we want to do that?"

"When you participate in political issues you will grow and you will change, and that is important. But the most important thing you can do is to ensure that those who come after you can change too."

What do you think? Do you have any examples of women increasing their influence, to ensure their voices are heard?

Originally published by Oxfam GB.

Related links

The program: Raising Her Voice

Indigenous and minority rights

Gender justice

Oxfam's work in Guatemala