Violence against women remains one of the biggest challenges facing Guatemala and promises to continue driving emigration, according to former Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz.
Paz y Paz said in an interview with The Huffington Post Wednesday that acts of violence against women are among the most commonly reported crimes in Guatemala. Still, in many parts of the country, law enforcement and the general public continue to view such crimes as issues that should be resolved by families at home rather than through the legal system.
“Throughout Guatemala’s history, violence against women hasn’t been seen as a crime, but rather as a family issue,” Paz y Paz said.
Guatemala has long been among the most violent countries in the world, largely the inheritance of a 36-year civil war that ended in 1996.
Paz y Paz said the country had made progress. Guatemala became the first Latin American country to codify “femicide” as a unique crime in 2009. Some jurisdictions have created special tribunals to address violence against women and many law enforcement officials have become more sensitive to the issue.
Former President Otto Pérez placed the country’s homicide rate last year at 31 per 100,000 residents. The figure, while high, marks a sharp decline from the 2009 peak of 47 per 100,000, according to World Bank data. The U.S. homicide rate was 5 per 100,000 in 2012.
“It’s still not enough,” Paz y Paz said. “I’m sure that homicidal violence is one of the things forcing people to leave the country.”
Violence in Guatemala and its neighboring countries of Honduras and El Salvador was a main factor driving the unaccompanied child migrant crisis at the U.S. border that upended the American immigration debate. Some 68,000 unaccompanied children, the vast majority of them from those three countries, crossed illegally into the U.S. last year, along with a similar number of women traveling with their children.
Lawyers who work with the migrants said the vast majority were fleeing violence in their home countries and generally qualify for asylum or other forms of humanitarian assistance.
Paz y Paz was appointed as Guatemala’s attorney general in 2010 — the first woman to hold the position. She built a reputation for challenging widespread impunity for homicide, taking on gang members and members of the military.
On Wednesday, Paz y Paz received the Train Foundation’s Civil Courage Prize at a ceremony in New York, along with Yassmin Barrios, the judge who presided over the trial of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt for genocide. The prosecution of Ríos Montt marked an unprecedented step for Guatemala, where the architects of a series of U.S.-backed military governments committed wide-scale atrocities, largely without punishment.
The conviction of Ríos Montt was overturned in 2013 for procedural reasons.
Many human rights activists viewed the Ríos Montt reversal as a setback. But Paz y Paz said the mass demonstrations and the corruption investigation that forced the resignation of former President Otto Pérez last month showed that civil society has begun to assert itself in a way not seen since before the war.
“I’ve never seen such a protest of that size in Guatemala,” Paz y Paz said. “It’s a fundamental change.”
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