SOUTH AMERICA ・ A closer look at the dark fate of Guatemalan women

Women in Guatemala are dying. They are dying in massive numbers which continue to rise. Guatemala is ranked third in the world for femicide –the killing of women– scoring lower than only El Salvador and Colombia respectively.[1] In fact, 43 of the 50 most homicidal cities– measured as amount of homicides per 100,000 citizens– on earth are located in Latin America and the Caribbean.[2] However, not enough attention is paid to the amount of women dying–both in the region and in Guatemala specifically– or on possible solutions which address the root causes of such violence. This short analysis aims to shed light on the causes of violence against Guatemalan women, the government’s reaction to the violence, and recent developments.



Women are dying in Guatemala for many reasons, most commonly due to domestic violence, gang activity, organized crime, deportations, sexual exploitation and human trafficking. The most common cause of a woman’s violent death in the country is domestic violence. About 15 women are murdered every week, often leading to a large number of orphaned children.[3] Women are often beaten for not obeying their husband’s will and are sometimes even killed for being unfaithful[4]. To make matters worse, few women report such abuse to the authorities out of fear of living without financial support and of their children growing up fatherless.[5] The prevalent culture of machismo and impunity only worsens the situation for women.

Another issue plaguing the country is gang violence. Both Barrio 18 and MS13–two of the most notorious gangs in the Americas– are highly active in Guatemala. Their bitter rivalry has played a major role in turning Central America into the region with the world’s highest homicide rate.[6]  Women are often caught in the crossfires of gang confrontations or deliberately targeted due to their relationships with gang members, in order to punish them. On the other hand, some gang members kill women simply to get a promotion in the group or to raise their profile.

Organized crime has also contributed to the rise in violence in Guatemala. Most organized crime groups are involved in drug trafficking, but human trafficking, kidnapping, extortion, money laundering, arms smuggling and other illegal activities are also pertinent.[7] Women fall victim to the violence caused by such groups as both members and non-members. Those who join are often co-opted and do so because of poverty and lack of education or jobs. These women suffer violence by male group members who see them as their possessions and as objects.[8] Nevertheless, Guatemalan law currently does not protect women who were part of an organized criminal organization.[9] This makes it nearly impossible for women to leave such organizations alive.

Other women–also hoping to escape the poverty cycle– look for odd jobs to earn more income. However, many are then tricked into doing work they had not anticipated. This is how some women fall victim to human trafficking, and, in rare cases, even organ trafficking rings. Women who are killed in the process of accepting such “jobs” are often never found and their families are forever left wondering what happened to them. In such cases, the police often prove unhelpful in bringing justice. In fact, law enforcement agencies have been known to directly collude with organized crime organizations.[8] The situation is similar in Mexico, El Salvador, and Honduras.


Internal Displacement

As a result of high levels of violence, an estimated 714,500 people across Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador have been internally displaced.[10] 257,000 of these are in Guatemala alone.[11] Recent years have witnessed an upsurge in U.S. asylum requests by Central American women fleeing violence. To put this in perspective, the number of Guatemalans seeking asylum and refuge in the U.S. and Mexico increased by a staggering 661% between 2012 and 2016.[12] However, it is possible that domestic violence victims will no longer qualify for asylum, as U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has considered adjusting asylum rules.[13]


Schermata 2018-03-22 alle 22.49.51

Guatemala conflict and violence displacement figures.  Source:IDMC

Children as victims

Such a change to U.S. asylum policy would have a negative impact not only on women, but also on children. Children in Guatemala are constantly exposed to the violence that engulfs the society they live in. Young children are at risk of both being recruited by gangs and suffering abuse at the hands of those they trust. A recent case illustrates this latter point.

On March 8, 2017– the same day as International Women’s Day– fifty-six Guatemalan girls and teenagers died after protesting about sexual abuse that was taking place in a government-run children’s shelter. A large fire engulfed their dormitory, but authorities refused to open the doors to free the those trapped inside. Some children had tried to escape a few days before but were caught. Some communities believe the subsequent fire was connected to that incident. In fact, 142 children had previously fled the institution in 2013.[14]

In that same year, one girl living at the shelter was strangled. Nevertheless, the police did not shut the institution down or take any definitive action against those in charge. Moreover, this is a larger problem; UNICEF estimates that there are around five thousand institutionalized children in Guatemala alone. The lack of government action and the fact that it was a government-run shelter has resulted in many locals referring to the incident as a mass case of ‘government femicide.’[14]

The shelter was previously accused of sexual abuse against minors, and human rights groups called for it to be shut down, but business went on as usual. As a result, fifty six lives have been lost, families destroyed, and trust in the justice system continues at an all-time low. The President of Guatemala, Jimmy Morales, responded to the shelter incident in the following way: “The system of protection has been weak. As such, it has failed many times, but we have also failed as people, parents, and as a society.”[15]



Today, Guatemala is ranked 105th of 144 countries on the World Economic Forum’s global gender index.[16] Women are not yet treated as equal to men and continue to suffer because of their gender. Abuse towards women is widespread, and high levels of violence claim lives every day. The government should increase efforts to prosecute individuals guilty of crimes while taking stronger actions to protect witnesses, victims, and their families. Victims should be rewarded for speaking up, not punished. The root causes of the violence plaguing the country must be addressed in order for the position of women in society to improve and for femicide to finally become a dark memory from the past.


Article written by Gabriela BERNAL



[1] Waiselfisz, J. (2015). Mapa da Violência 2015: Homicídio de mulheres no Brasil. Retrieved from

[2]The Economist. (2017). The world’s most dangerous cities. Retrieved from

[3]TeleSUR. (2017). At least 62 women killed every month in Guatemala: Report. Retrieved from

[4]Reynolds, L. (2015). Guatemalan Double Standard Limits Femicide Courts. Retrieved from

[5]Johnson, S. (2018). Can health workers stop thousands of women being killed in Guatemala? The Guardian. Retrieved from

[6] Labrador, R.C., Renwick, D. (2018). Central America’s Violent Northern Triangle. Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved from

[7]InSightCrime. (2018). Country Profile: Guatemala. Retrieved from

[8]UNHCR. (2015). Women on the Run: First hand accounts of refugees fleeing El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico. Retrieved from

[9Yagoub, M. (2016). Why Does Latin America Have the World’s Highest Female Murder Rates? Retrieved from]  

[10] Cue, W., Núñez-Flores, V. R. (2017). According to need? Humanitarian responses to violence in Central America. Humanitarian Practice Network. Retrieved from  

[11]IDMC. (2017). Guatemala. Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. Retrieved from

[12] Relief Web. (2018). 2017 Humanitarian Needs Overview: Guatemala. Retrieved from  

[13] Stern, M.J. (2018). Domestic Abuse Victims Need Not Apply. Slate. Retrieved from

[14]Rosas, M. (2018). Una rebelión de niñas expuso la violencia sexual y el feminicidio en Guatemala. La Izquierda Diario. Retrieved from

[15] Sáenz, E.C. (2018). Día de la Mujer en Guatemala recuerda a las 41 niñas muertas en hogar estatal. La Vanguardia. Retrieved from   

[16]WEF. (2018). Global Gender Gap Report: Guatemala. World Economic Forum. Retrieved from



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