Women, the Hope of Guatemala

The recent murder of Bishop Juan Jos Gerardi in Guatemala makes one wonder if there is any hope for a society long-mired in violence, instability, and injustice.

There is. It speaks loudly and it is beginning to rebuild Guatemalan civil society even in the midst of the ongoing violence and corruption.

Last July, during a visit to Guatemala City and the Highlands, I listened to a story of hope. And the voice that told it was female.

This restoration is occurring in the segment of society that mediates between the individual and the state, and nurtures and protects rights such as freedom of speech, assembly, and petition. It is being rebuilt in the work of more than 400 popular groups - mostly led by women.

FAMDEGUA, for example, an organization of families whose loved ones disappeared during the civil war, was one of the earliest popular groups formed. Since its inception, courageous and tenacious women have served as its leaders. Through its savvy use of the media and effective lobbying strategies, FAMDEGUA has forced the government to listen to its needs. As a consequence, the government has begun to investigate the cases of the missing.

Other popular groups, again mostly led by women, are employing similar democratic strategies.

It is not difficult to explain the absence of male leadership in Guatemalan civil society.

Two, perhaps three, generations of Mayan men have been lost to the chaos and mayhem.

The Maya lose every generation of males to the army due to conscription, while military service is not required of Ladino (mixed blood) males.

By the time the conscripts complete their military service and return to families and villages, they have been washed clean of their indigenous identity.

The military training socializes the Mayan into a world of machismo and hate - the very antithesis of Mayan culture. As a result, these men have become alienated from their own society.

This cultural genocide will continue as long as Mayan men are forced into military service.

Then there are the former rebels. The army, during the military campaigns, killed many of the rebels. Those who survived were themselves captured and often reared - as in the cases of the youngest rebels - in a world of hate and violence. Reentry into domestic village life was often difficult for them as well. Any men left between the two camps are suspect and therefore are often too intimidated to act politically. The result was a dearth of male leadership among popular groups.

Yet political leadership by women is happening, whether by mere default or necessity.

Mayan culture has, throughout its long and proud history, stressed equality among men and women. The grounding for this value is found in the indigenous religion that perceives God as having a dual nature, male and female.

It is not surprising therefore to find women very comfortably - yet not without great personal sacrifice - taking leadership roles in popular democratic groups. So the hope of Guatemala is its women. If democracy is to take firm root and to grow, it will be because of the planting, tending, and nurturing by these women.

As in El Salvador, with the life and death of Bishop Oscar Romero, the life and death of Bishop Juan Jos Gerardi will strengthen the hearts, as well as the political will, of the women of Guatemala.

* Steve Neiheisel is associate professor of political science and graduate director of the public administration program at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, Texas.

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