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FEATURE-Indigenous and female: life at the bottom in Guatemala

by Ellen Wulfhorst | @EJWulfhorst | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 3 May 2017 04:00 GMT

"The poverty in Guatemala affects women most and hardest, especially indigenous women."

By Ellen Wulfhorst

TECPAN, Guatemala, May 3 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An indigenous woman in Guatemala is more likely than all her fellow citizens to be sick, illiterate, poor and overwhelmed by too many unplanned children.

That's if she's not dead already.

Nearly half the population is indigenous in Guatemala, Central America's biggest economy, but they do not share in its fortunes. Indigenous women in particular are pushed aside and suffer racism and violence, campaigners say.

"We are discriminated against one, because we are poor, second, because we are indigenous and because we are women," Victoria Cumes Jochola, coordinator of Nuestra Voz, or Our Voice rights group, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Some eight million indigenous people live in Guatemala, most descendants of the Mayan civilization that once dominated Central America.

Four in five are poor, and they are nearly three times as likely to live in extreme poverty than others in the country, according to the World Bank.

They earn less money than non-indigenous people, more often working in informal jobs picking crops or selling street food.

Their life expectancy is 13 years shorter, and the maternal mortality rate more than twice as high. They often speak one of more than 20 native languages rather than Spanish.


Indigenous women are less likely to finish school, like Maria Francisa Gonzalez, who left after three years of primary school and lives in Tecpan, in Guatemala's highlands.

At age 43, she is nursing her 11th child, a newborn boy, as one of her granddaughters hides in the folds of her skirt.

"He was a surprise," she said, speaking softly in the Kaqchikel language. Her husband is a farm worker.

FEATURE-Kept in the dark about sex, girls in Guatemala suffer consequences

One in three indigenous women has no access to health and family planning services, according to WINGS, a reproductive rights organization in Guatemala.

The vast majority of indigenous children are chronically malnourished, and most suffer stunted growth.

Native communities celebrate the birth of boys but not girls, said Debora Cobar, country director for Guatemala for Plan International, a children's rights group.

"Girls are not seen (as) worth it," she said.

Repressed for centuries following the Spanish conquest, indigenous people accounted for more than 80 percent of the 200,000 people killed in Guatemala's lengthy civil war that ended in 1996, according to the United Nations-backed Truth Commission, which investigated human rights violations.

Rape was a lethal weapon in "scorched earth" warfare, it said.

"Indigenous populations and particularly indigenous women bore the brunt of the conflict," said Sarah Taylor, a women's rights advocate at Human Rights Watch.

Successive governments, often wracked with corruption, have done little to find justice or economic power for indigenous women, activists say.

FACTBOX-Ten facts on Central America's most populous country - Guatemala

"The poverty in Guatemala affects women most and hardest, especially indigenous women," said Antonia Batz, 40, a midwife in Tecpan.

"Each day we are poorer and poorer," she said.

Violence can escalate to femicide - the nation has one of the highest rates in the world - with at least two women violently killed every day, according to the United Nations.

Authorities may offer little support, said a 23-year-old indigenous woman at Center Casa de la Mujer, an organization for victims of gender-based violence in the town of Solola.

She was harassed by a man who threatened to harm her and her family. Prosecutors, reluctant to help, are proposing a conciliation meeting so he will stop his threats, she said.

"The laws are there, but they tell women they should not go (and) present a claim," she said, preferring not to disclose her name. "That's what women need to do. They should be brave."

Indigenous women often hide their heritage, said Eleanor Unsworth, programs director at WINGS.

"If you ask someone 'Are you indigenous?', she may be sitting in a very traditional outfit, she may not speak Spanish, and she may say, 'No, I'm not indigenous,' and get offended," Unsworth said.

"It goes along with a lot of stigma here."

But Maria Guitz, a 73-year old Mayan waiting to see a doctor at a Guatemala City clinic, said she suffered no discrimination.

She has worked as a domestic all her life, since fleeing an abusive father in the countryside. She never went to school and can neither read nor write.

"Being an indigenous woman is very important and respected in society because of our numbers," she told the Foundation through an interpreter. "We have a status in society."

That said, Guitz said she did not want her employers of 30 years to know she was taking time off to visit a doctor.

It is the best job she has ever held, she said.

(Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst, editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.