GUATEMALA CITY — AFTER the disappearance of her union-activist husband in 1984, Nineth Montenegro spent 12 years leading the civil rights struggle against the Guatemalan government.
But when this nation's Congress began work in the new session yesterday, Ms. Montenegro found herself on the other side of the fence. Along with two other women veterans of the opposition human rights struggle - Rosalina Tuyuc and Manuela Alvarado - Montenegro has been elected to Congress as a member of a new liberal political party, the New Guatemala Democratic Front (FDNG).
The ascent of the three controversial citizen activists to the Guatemalan legislature illustrates the degree to which the government has progressed toward tolerating political diversity since the military dictatorships of the 1980s.
But the event also reveals one of the oddities of this nation's politics: Though Guatemala is still a male-dominated society, many of its important opposition political leaders are women.
''Wherever there is a grand political struggle for human rights [here], women are at the center of the action,'' argues Montenegro, head of the Mutual Support Group (GAM), a national organization of nearly 12,000 women who have lost relatives to political violence.
''It seems very interesting that in a society of machismo, elitism, and classism, women have played such an important role,'' she says.
Like other Latin American women's groups - most notably the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina - the women of the Guatemalan left have typically become politically active only after men in their family have disappeared or been murdered.
The most famous of the Guatemalan activists is Rigoberta Menchu, although she is not in the legislature. An indigenous woman, Ms. Menchu took to political organizing after her father was killed by soldiers during a political protest in 1981.
She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992, and has used the prize money to form the Rigoberta Menchu Tum Foundation to improve the lives of Guatemala's majority indigenous population - the 6 million descendants of the Mayans.
But Menchu was not the only woman who began working in opposition to the government in the 1980s. Ms. Montenegro's entrance into political organizing occurred in 1984, when she began searching for her husband. The newly elected congresswoman from Guatemala City says she found that the government would not offer an explanation for the disappearance and no organization existed to help her.
''In that period, there were no social organizations, and the unions had been practically eliminated from the country,'' she said in an interview from her office in the headquarters of GAM. Montenegro found other women searching for missing family members. They began holding protest marches to demand information about their loved ones.
Ms. Tuyuc, an indigenous woman whose husband was killed during one of Guatemala's many massacres of rural peasants, formed her own organization in 1988. The Confederation of Guatemalan Widows (CONAVIGUA), a group of 14,000 mostly indigenous women, is similar to GAM, but focused more on outreach in rural villages.
Ms. Alvarado, who is also indigenous, came to prominence through her work as a teacher, nurse, and rights advocate.
The activists' transition from citizen organizers to political office was made possible by a temporary peace accord reached last year in the long civil war.
In August, after the signing of the accord, various human rights organizers formed their own political party, the New Guatemalan Democratic Front (FDNG). The party won six of 80 seats in Congress in the election in November.
Montenegro, Tuyuc, and Alvarado say they plan to push for a permanent peace accord, rights for indigenous people, and an end to impunity for crimes committed by soldiers.
Despite their victories, the three women from the FDNG remain realistic about their ability to bring about major change in a country where democracy is tenuous and violence frequent.
A woman who worked as an outreach worker for CONAVIGUA was murdered earlier this month. Montenegro and Tuyuc received telephone and written death threats before taking office.
Nor do the women hold out much hope for change in the new government, elected this month. Both the Congress and the presidency are now controlled by the Party of National Advancement, a political group largely representing business.
In his campaign, newly elected President Alvaro Arzu promised to promote indigenous rights, including education in native languages. He also promised to end the political violence in the country.