A Q’eqchi’ woman with a bicycle walks down the unpaved main road through Sepur Zarco © UN Women/Ryan Brown

Standing in solidarity
Indigenous women breaking the silence of conflict-related sexual violence in Guatemala and worldwide
1 Jul 2024

In Guatemala, indigenous women of the Polochic Valley, the ancestral homeland of the Q’eqchi’ people, lead the defense of their lands and territories, protect life and nature, and work towards building and maintaining peace. 

After the Guatemalan Civil War, (1960-1996) Q’eqchi indigenous women from Sepur Zarco now known as the Grandmothers, broke 30 years of silence and the cycle of impunity, which resulted in a trial, and a condemnatory sentence of a crime against humanity (sexual violence, sexual slavery, and domestic slavery) committed during Guatemala’s internal conflict.

The landmark ruling in the Sepur Zarco case was a historic sentence, as it was the first instance of a domestic court prosecuting the international crime of sexual slavery in a conflict setting through the application of national and international laws.

The sentence, which was declared firm by Guatemala’s Constitutional Court, became final in September 2018 and included transformative reparations for victims, survivors, and their communities, addressing the human rights violations suffered by indigenous women, but also tackling structural inequalities, discrimination and exclusion that contributed to the Grandmothers’ condition of extreme vulnerability. 

The verdict comprises 18 transformative reparation measures, of which 16 are community-oriented, amongst which, continuing the investigation of the enforced disappearances of the Grandmothers’ husbands and relatives; installing a Health Center in the community of Sepur Zarco with all the necessary medicines; improving the infrastructure of the Primary Education schools; provide scholarships in the three education levels for the population of Sepur Zarco; the development of cultural projects aimed at the women of Sepur Zarco; include in the study programs and textbooks the case of the Sepur Zarco Women and; the recognition of 26 February as the Day for victims of sexual violence, as well as victims of sexual and domestic slavery.

The Sepur Zarco case changed the narrative about sexual violence in the Guatemalan conflict, by recognizing it as a separate crime equivalent to other crimes committed during the conflict. The Sepur Zarco case recognized the gender impact of the use of rape as a weapon of war, proved the importance of mainstreaming a gender perspective in the trial process and opened the door to new practices within the justice system. As a result, the case remains a global inspiration for other women and girls to seek justice.

The Abuelas (Grandmothers) of Sepur Zarco © UN Women/Ryan Brown

Impunity sends a permissive message, which feeds the continuum of violence against women and girls. Furthermore, it has a negative impact on post-conflict peace-building efforts, the socio-economic fabric, the rule of law, and good governance.

According to the United Nations, 2023 ended with the highest number of active conflicts since the Second World War. As indicated in this year´s annual report of the Secretary-General on conflict-related sexual violence, the report refers to 3,688 verified cases of CRSV, representing a 50% increase from the previous reporting cycle. It highlights the alarming reality that 95% of these cases targeted women and girls. However, these numbers likely underestimate the true extent of the problem, as many cases go uncounted and unreported. 

The same report points out the “historic ruling in the Sepur Zarco case” because of the “transformative reparations to victims of conflict-related sexual violence,” which led to the declaration of 26 February as Guatemala’s national day for victims of sexual violence, as well as victims of sexual and domestic slavery.

While impunity for CSRV cases continued to be the norm in 2023, the landmark sentence of Sepur Zarco remains a powerful testament to the resilience of survivors, the importance of women’s access to justice, and the key role of transformative reparations in building peace.

In the context of the implementation of the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000) and related resolutions on Women, Peace, and Security, UN Women and partners continue to support the Grandmothers of Sepur Zarco monitoring and evaluating the implementation of the sentence, generating knowledge-based protection mechanisms and transformative reparation standards. The lessons learned from the Sepur Zarco case pave the path for other countries and other women and communities to search for justice and, through this process, build sustainable peace. 

* UN Women is the United Nations entity dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women. UN Women delivers programmes, policies, and standards that uphold women’s human rights and ensure that every woman and girl lives up to her full potential.
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