Guatemala is known as the country of eternal spring, unfortunately women’s rights have yet to blossom. Laws against violence toward women have passed and mechanisms to prevent this violence are in place, due to the work of women organizations, but the political willingness for sustainable change and development for women has lagged as evidenced by the recent setback in the laws. As a consequence, significant advancements for women that could result in greater protections from violence are yet to come.
In 2005 as I was finishing my undergraduate studies at Loyola Marymount University, my professor Jodi Finkel told me about a program on National Public Radio about the plight of a group of women sex workers in Guatemala City, Guatemala. One of the women interviewed, Susi, a 41-year-old mother of seven children, stated that her dream was to learn to read. Inspired by her story, I asked my dear friend, Tania, to move to Guatemala to start a literacy program in the City’s red light district, known as La Línea, to enable Susi—as well as all other women in her circumstances—to learn to read. In August of 2005, Tania and I moved to Guatemala.
Upon our arrival at La Línea, the women viewed us with skepticism and mistrust; a recent documentary had been filmed in the community and plenty of foreigners had come and gone. In addition, although Tania, Jodi and I perceived literacy to be one of their needs, we quickly learned that the community faced more pressing issues such as feeding, clothing and educating their children, violence, lack of access to the justice system, few connections to women’s organizations, lack of access to holistic health provided by the state, immigration challenges, and more. We decided then to drop the plans of a literacy program and instead we sought to simply get to know the women in this community. Day after day we visited the women. As time went by Tania and I shared stories that involved our families, friends, love attempts, and our experience with immigration - Tania as first generation Mexican American and I as a Guatemalan immigrant to the US.
I was born in in the midst of the Guatemalan civil war. My parents sheltered my brother and I from the political violence. In order to do so, my family adopted a western life-style in a country that is mostly Indigenous, and invested the resources of a middle-class family in a foreign education. As a student at a French school in Guatemala City I learned about the French Revolution before I knew about the Guatemalan Revolution and I memorized the history of the Bastille before I learned of my own Mayan Q’eqchi’ ancestors. However, my immigration to the US and the quest to develop an identity as a teenager fueled my curiosity for my own heritage, the Guatemalan herstory, justice and women’s rights.
It was the personal stories shared by Tania and I and the women’s own stories that were at the center of our conversations in the rooms at the red light district of La Línea. As the relationships developed, the women in this community opened up, revealing their real names, goals, problems, dreams and longings. These relationships and the trust developed over time were the foundation of MuJER - Mujeres por la Justicia, Educación y el Reconocimiento (Women for Justice Education and Awareness). This 501(c)(3) organization has evolved into a multifaceted support system for over 500 women and trans women sex workers throughout Guatemala. We aim to advance women’s rights through education, awareness, and community organizing. Our mission is to develop spaces of empowerment for women to become socially and politically active through programs that range from literacy and vocational training to emotional well-being and violence prevention. These programs stress self-esteem, women’s rights, political empowerment and most recently legal reform. We have advocated through the Network of No Violence Against Women for changes in the laws, including the creation of a law against femicide, gender specific violence, and changes in the provisions and application of an anti-trafficking law.
MuJER, composed of a resilient and strong community of women, is part of the greater women’s movement in Guatemala. The Guatemalan women’s movement is not alone, as exemplified by this recognition from the Obama Administration. Therefore I am deeply grateful to receive this award on behalf of MuJER’s community and the women’s movement in Guatemala who are the Champions of Change.
Ana Moraga Advisor to MuJER's Board of Directors