, , , , ,

Despite their 20 percent share of the population, Mayan women in Guatemala have limited political and economic power. They have the country’s highest rates of poverty and illiteracy, and, according to an NDI-supported study, are far less likely to vote than any other sector of the population.

-National Democratic Institute

Guatemala’s indigenous population, particularly indigenous women, have been excluded from the political system for decades. Because of the intense patriarchy that permeates through Guatemalan society – despite the fact that over a third of Guatemalan households are headed by women – Guatemalan women struggle to access educational opportunities, the work force, and positions of power, both within their own homes and their communities at large. Combine this with the general political apathy and lack of hope rampant in Guatemala – shared by indigenous peoples, Ladinos, and expatriates alike – and its difficult to believe that these structures and ideals will ever change. For decades, the country has been wrought with insecurity, drug trafficking, crime, and inequality, and the tightly centralized and highly corrupt state has made little tangible progress in addressing any of these issues.

Neither of the two frontrunners – Otto Perez Molina, a militarist ex-general known for his large role in the military abuses and bloodshed of Guatemala’s civil war, and Manuel Baldizon, a businessman with known links to narcotraffickers – present much hope for a different future. If change is ever to come, it won’t come from the government or political parties – but if the people of the country begin to educate themselves and take responsibility for the country’s future, perhaps progress can eventually be made.

To work towards this change, the organization I worked for this summer, Oxlajuj B’atz’ (OB), sought to promote political engagement, particularly of the country’s indigenous women, a group long excluded from the political process. Through their community education initiative, OB’s indigenous facilitators created a workshop on Political Participation, which they presented at each of their 20 partner cooperatives during the month of August. The intention was not to tell the women who they should vote for or why – or even to discuss the specific candidates or issues relevant to the upcoming election – but rather simply to impress upon the women the importance of them exercising their right to vote.

Indigenous women gather at OB's office for a forum on political participation and indigenous rights, a month before the election

When the election was finally held this past week, coinciding with the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the entire country of Guatemala seemed to be holding its breath. My facebook and twitter feeds were overflowing with messages of solidarity and hope as Guatemalan citizens headed to the polls in droves to elect a new president. In many ways, the election was an absolute disaster: delays in tabulating votes led to angry citizens taking to the streets in protests, ballot boxes were incinerated, bribing and buying off citizens for votes was prominent, and intimidation techniques were reportedly used to scare potential voters away from the polls, especially in rural areas. As expected, because none of the candidates received more than half of the votes, a runoff election will occur in November between the top Perez and Baldizon.

But according to other measures, the election process can be seen as a success. First, the overall turnout was overwhelming – with 1.3 million new voters brought in, in part as a result of the massive election awareness campaign undergone over the past year. Women in particular had an incredible turnout – for the first time in the history of the country, female voters outnumbered male voters, with women making up 52% of registered voters (up from 44% in 2007). Moreover, with a total of 10 female presidential and vice presidential candidates, an unprecedented number, there is hope that women’s rights issues – safety, reproductive rights, sexual diversity –which have been overwhelmingly repressed in the country’s history, will begin to come to the forefront of political and societal debates.

When you vote, they mark your finger with indelible ink so you can't vote twice. So it's a mark of pride for some people, like these old ladies.

So where does this leave us? On a macro level, it’s challenging to be optimistic about a country with such rampant political instability, crime, drug trafficking, corruption and poverty – none of which is likely to change in the foreseeable future. The results of the election are still pending – as none of the candidates were able to receive the 50% majority needed to win the election – and the final results won’t be announced until after the runoff election, which is to be held in November between the top two candidates, Perez Molina and Baldizon. But on a micro-level, it’s possible to see slivers of hope beginning to shine through. As I learned this summer working with OB, no development initiative, program, or organization can great wide, sweeping changes throughout an entire culture or country – but what they can do is seek to create smaller changes, individual by individual and community by community, and nowhere is this clearer than the rising trend of indigenous women embracing their political identities and for the first time, stepping into the political and social limelight.