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CRSV: Guatemala

This case note is a part of our series of case notes that document the occurrence of sexual violence in violent conflict. The case note contains explicit mentions of different forms of sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.

Background of the conflict

Stretching over thirty years, the Guatemalan Civil War started in 1960 (Schirmer, 1998), and was fought between the government of Guatemala and several leftist rebel groups that were supported by many ethnic Mayan Indigenous people and economically disadvantaged Ladino peasants. The government of Guatemala has been condemned for having committed the crime of genocide, and of having committed widespread human rights violations against the Mayan people. Statistics show that as many as 200,000 people died or went missing during the war, including 40,000 to 50,000 people who were subjected to enforced disappearances (International Committee of the Red Cross 2005).

A skewed land tenure (2 per cent of the population owns 60 per cent of the country’s arable land) as well as grinding poverty, dire working conditions for Indigenous campesinos in the large coffee, sugar, and cotton export plantations, and the appalling lack of state services for health or education, gave rise to mass conscription of indigenous people into the rebel forces (Eade and Macleod, 2011).

The Mayan Ixil are people Indigenous to Guatemala, living in primarily three municipalities in the Cuchumatanes mountains in the northern part of the department El Quiché. Known as the Ixil triangle (Comprising Santa Maria Nebaj, San Gaspar Chajul, and San Juan Cotzal), these municipalities became a centre of violence during the peak of the war. The Ixil community became the principal target of what appears to be a genocide operation that involved systematic rape, displacement, and imposed hunger during the conflict (Briggs, 2007).

The Prevalence of Sexual Violence

The most under-reported human rights violations were the incidents of rape of Indigenous women, and 88.7% of the 1465 cases of rape that were documented by the Truth Commission were those of Mayan women (Eade and Macleod, 2011). Women were “routinely raped in front of their children, often gang-raped, and others were forced into slave labour – cooking, washing clothes and providing sexual favours under duress – for the army or the civil patrol leaders” (Eade and Macleod, 2011). In the Guatemalan Civil War, most of the sexual violence took the form of Femicide. Over 5,000 women and girls in Guatemala have been murdered in the past ten years, many of them raped and mutilated, their bodies discarded in public places (Madre et al., 2012).

From the many testimonies that were narrated in the Tribunal of Conscience against Sexual Violence towards Women during the Armed Conflict, it came to light that the brutal sexual violence inflicted upon the women included a range of different forms of violence, and sexual and domestic slavery obligating the women to always be ready to “service the needs” of the troop, garrison or other military group (Latin American and Caribbean Women's Health Network, 2010).

The Strategic Use of Sexual Violence

During the civil war in Guatemala, women “were raped not only as the ‘spoils of war,’ but as part of the systematic and intentional plan to destroy the Ixil ethnic group by exercising violence on women’s bodies as a means of perpetrating ethnic cleansing, where the aim was way to destroy the social fabric and thereby ensure the destruction of the Ixil population (Open Society Justice Initiative, 2013). By targeting the women, the intention was to obliterate reproductive capacity and therefore to carry out the crime of genocide (AJR et. Al, 2013). The breakdown of administrative and executive machinery meant that there was no mechanism to enforce the inherent rights of women during this conflict. The culture of impunity enabled the crimes to continue unabated.

Pursuing prosecution

The Tribunal of Conscience against Sexual Violence towards Women during the Armed Conflict was established in Guatemala in March 2010 (Crosby, Alison and Lykes, M. Brinton, 2011). Through the Tribunal, it came to light that the rape of Indigenous women continues to be commonplace as a reprisal against social organizing, especially in the forced evictions of Indigenous campesinos in land conflicts (Eade and Macleod, 2011).

Efrain Rios Montt, the Guatemalan dictator during the civil war, was prosecuted by the Guatemalan Supreme Court in 2013 (Doman 2018). He was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity, and his trial presented several testimonies of rape and sexual violence committed against Maya Ixil women – all of which were presented to show how sexual violence constituted part of the genocide. However, in just ten days after his verdict, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court annulled the trial on procedural grounds after sustained pressure from powerful sectors of Guatemala’s economy and society (Doman 2018).


  1. Asociación para la Justicia y Reconciliación AJR [Association for Justice and Reconciliation], Centro para la Acción Legal en Derechos Humanos CALDH [Center for Legal Action in Human Rights], Colectivo Nosotras las Mujeres [We Women Collective], Centro Medios Independientes [Independent Media Center], Alai, America Latina en Movimiento, Guatemala - Testimonies of the trial against Rioss Montt: Sexual Violence is Genocide: their truth is our truth, April 12, 2013. Available at: accessed on June 10, 2013)

  2. Briggs, Billy (2 February 2007). "Billy Briggs on the atrocities of Guatemala's civil war". The Guardian (London) available at (last accessed on June 10, 2013)

  3. Crosby, Alison and Lykes, M. Brinton, Mayan Women Survivors Speak: The Gendered Relations of Truth Telling in Postwar Guatemala IJTJ first published online September 15, 2011 (last accessed on June 10, 2013)

  4. Doman, Juliette. How indigenous women who survived Guatemala’s conflict are fighting for justice

  5. Eade, Deborah and Macleod, Morna, “Women and armed conflict: from victims to activists”, in State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2011, available at (last accessed on June 10, 2013)

  6. Guatemala National Survey of Maternal and Child Health, Encuesta Nacional de Salud Materno Infantil, ENSMI (2008-2009) (last accessed on June 10, 2013)

  7. Huffman L., Amber, The Gendered Aspect of Maya Development in Guatemala, (Thesis submitted in fulfillment of the requirements for Honours in Geography) University of Mary Washington, 2011

  8. International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, World Disasters Report, Oxford University Press (1996)

  9. Latin American and Caribbean Women's Health Network, Tribunal of Conscience against Sexual Violence in Guatemala, (March 2010)

  10. MADRE, the International Women’s Human Rights Clinic at the City University of New York School of Law, Muixil, Barcenas Women Workers Committee, Colectivo Artesana, Women’s Link Worldwide and the Guatemala Human Rights Commission, Demanding Rights, Resources & Results for Women Worldwide (2012) (last accessed on June 10, 2013)

  11. Madrid, Kathia Loyzaga Dávila and Fuentes, Patricia Figueroa, “A shared challenge Indigenous childhood and education, Bernard van Leer Foundation Early Childhood Matters, June 2007

  12. Open Society Justice Initiative, Judging a Dictator: The Trial of Guatemala’s Efrain Rios Montt

  13. Open Society Justice Initiative, Judging a Dictator: The Trial of Guatemala's Rios Montt

  14. Paul, Lois & Paul, D. Benjamin, The Maya Midwife as Sacred Specialist: A Guatemalan Case, American Ethnologist, Vol.2, No. 4 (1975)

  15. Pike, John, “Guatemalan Civil War – 1960-1996" Global Security, (last accessed on June 10, 2013)

  16. Prosecutor v. Akayesu, (ICTR) Case No. ICTR-96-4 (Trial Chamber), September 2, 1998. Available at (last accessed on June 10, 2013)

  17. Roberts, Tobias, "Gender Equity and Mayan Spirituality", Huffington Post, May 8, 2013,

  18. Rothenberg, Daniel, Memory of Silence, The Guatemlan Truth Commission Report, Palgrave Macmillan, March 2012

  19. Schirmer, Jennifer (1998). The Guatemalan Military Project: A Violence Called Democracy. Penn Press.

  20. Tedlock, Barbara, The Role of Dreams and Visionary Narratives in Mayan Cultural Survival, Ethos, Volume 20, Issue 4, pages 453–476, December 1992

  21. UMAL IQ', "Monument to the Resilience of the Ixil-Maya" (2013)

  22. US Senate, Rape as a Weapon of War: Accountability for Sexual Violence in Conflict, (Hearing before the Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law of the Committee on the Judiciary), April 1, 2008 available at (last accessed on June 10, 2013)

  23. Walsh, Linda, “Beliefs and Rituals in Traditional Birth Attendant Practice in Guatemala” Journal Of Transcultural Nursing, (2006)

Documented by Kirthi Jayakumar

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