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  • Writer's pictureThe Gender Security Project

The Impact of Sexual Violence on Indigenous Motherhood in Guatemala

by Kirthi Jayakumar


Wars have destroyed local infrastructure, displaced masses and left people within the iron fist of poverty. In every war, alongside cataclysmic tolls of civilian deaths, a major hurdle is the large-scale perpetration of violence against women, making them arguably the worst victims of conflict. The occurrence of sexual violence has been a stark reality in every conflict setting. Whether in Haiti or Yugoslavia, in Afghanistan and DR Congo, or in Syria and Guatemala, conflict has always proved to be a hotbed of violence and flagrant disregard for the sanctity of the human body. Sexual violence in conflict is, oftentimes, a manifestation of the already prevailing undercurrent of gender-based antagonism in peacetime. Armed conflict paves the way for its manifestation in horrendous ways. As the men of the household take to armed forefronts, women find themselves being made vulnerable to political and criminal violence, while holding fort as the sole breadwinner of their families. While the freedom of opportunity is the first factor that sets the ball rolling on conflict-related sexual violence, the crime continues to remain afloat because of the impact it has on the social fabric.

The reason underlying the use of gender violence as a war tactic is oftentimes because of how “effective” it is. In sum, sexual violence in conflict is a means of attacking men by proxy – as it aims at humiliating or degrading the men for their failure in protecting the women in their families. This stems from a largely prevalent notion that women are “property” and become “damaged goods” post-violence. Gender violence effectively breaks, humiliates, and destroys both the mental and physical health of the person it is inflicted upon. When this impact is further extended by the sheer volume and magnitude of occurrences in a conflict zone, the whole social fabric of a community is destroyed. When women are subjected to sexual violence, in many instances, the family is broken, and social functioning comes to a grinding halt.

The impact of sexual violence on men and women differ, and is arguably worse on a woman from an Indigenous community – and there are several reasons for this. A community that is built on certain values of sanctity attached to womanhood, a community that is often marginalized and disenfranchised, a community that is worn out by poverty and a myriad of economic and social difficulties is easily more vulnerable to the disparaging effects of conflict-related sexual violence. The impact of conflict-related sexual violence is most tangibly felt on the life and livelihood of an Indigenous mother. Everything from her ability to physically bear and mother a child to being able to bring up her child while having to deal with the stigma of a child conceived in rape are encumbered by the effects of sexual violence.

This paper will seek to make an in-road into understanding the impact of sexual violence on Indigenous motherhood with specific reference and close analysis of the lives of Mayan Ixil women in Guatemala. . In this environment, women “were raped not only as the ‘spoils of war,’ but as part of the systematic and intentional plan to destroy the Ixil ethnic group by exercising violence on women’s bodies as a way to destroy the social fabric and thereby ensure the destruction of the Ixil population” (Open Society Justice Initiative, 2013). The lack of sufficient administrative and executive machinery to enforce the inherent rights of women during this conflict proves that a culture of impunity thrives due to the culture of silence, consequent to a lack of legal attention to the issues.

In Guatemala, the occurrence of the protracted civil war has provided the proverbial hotbed for crimes such as genocide and sexual violence to thrive, and among the many victims are a massive number of Mayan Ixil women. The Maya Ixil are a people indigenous to Guatemala, specifically. Geographically, they inhabit three municipalities in the Cuchumatanes mountains in North El Quiche, forming what is famously known as the Ixil Triangle. Part I of this paper will examine the heady mix of sexual violence in conflict by drawing out references to the Guatemalan conflict. The second part will proceed to examine the specific impacts that the conflict-related sexual violence has had on Indigenous mothers in the Mayan Ixil community. The final part will draw conclusions from the study to prove the contention of the author that Indigenous mothers as victims of sexual violence arguably suffer immensely among the victims of sexual violence in a conflict setting.

Sexual Violence in War

Wars do not have clearly defined “end” points, and one cannot necessarily find comfortable distinctions between relief and development (International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, 1996). Wars create complex humanitarian emergency situations, characterized by massive needs for food, water, health-care, and medical aid. In every war, alongside cataclysmic statistical tolls of civilian deaths, a major issue is the large-scale perpetration of sexual violence against women (Jayakumar, 2012). War turns a woman’s body into a battleground. When women are subjected to sexual violence, the family is the first social institution to be adversely affected.(Jayakumar, 2012).

The reason for the use of sexual violence as a war weapon or war strategy is that it is an effective tool in “breaking the enemy” (US Senate, 2008). Armed groups, combatants, and non-combatants use rape as a means to terrorize and control women and by extension entire communities. In addition to physical and psychological harm, subjecting women to sexual violence stigmatizes the woman. Families turn these women out of their homes. Men refuse to marry victims of sexual violence, regarding such women as “damaged goods” unworthy of marriage and family life because of the violence they suffered. Even married women who have survived sexual violence are often kicked out of the house by their husbands. Women in the Maya Ixil community, suffer a stigma as a consequence of rape, and literature shows that many survivors of sexual violence and aggression have even run away “to other communities to avoid living with the shame of being marked as a raped woman” (Rothenberg, p. 54, 2012) A report by the Open Society Foundation on the Guatemalan Civil War noted that:

At the collective psycho-social level, the social fabric was torn; it has been established within this framework that, among other consequences for the group, there was a breakdown of relationships of trust; the creation of communication voids in the Ixil group, for which oral transmission is of paramount importance; the silence and mistrust have in turn caused the social isolation of families and communities that returned from their displacement, due to stigmatization” (Open Society Foundation, 2013).

When women are spurned the family, community, and ultimately the backbone of the entire societal structure is broken. It is therefore no surprise that the use of sexual violence is calculated and brutal (US Senate, 2008). Using sexual violence as a modus operandi in warfare is intricately woven with the hegemonic desire for power. A close reading of the civil war in Guatemala reveals how sexual violence was used as a campaign, as a war tactic, and a war weapon.

The Guatemalan Story

Stretching over thirty years, the Guatemalan Civil War started in 1960 (Schirmer, 1998). Largely fought between the government of Guatemala and several leftist rebel groups that were supported by many ethnic Mayan Indigenous people and economically disadvantaged Ladino peasants. The government of Guatemala has been oft condemned for having committed the crime of genocide, and of having committed widespread human rights violations against the Mayan people. Statistics reveal that as many as 200,000 people died or went missing during the war, including 40,000 to 50,000 people who were subjected to enforced disappearances.[1]

The Mayan Ixil are people Indigenous to Guatemala, living in primarily three municipalities in the Cuchumatanes mountains in the northern part of the department El Quiché. Known as the Ixil triangle (Comprising Santa Maria Nebaj, San Gaspar Chajul, and San Juan Cotzal), these municipalities became a centre of violence during the peak of the war. The Ixil community became the principal target of what appears to be a genocide operation that involved systematic rape, displacement, and imposed hunger during the conflict (Briggs, 2007).

A skewed land tenure (2 per cent of the population owns 60 per cent of the country’s arable land) as well as grinding poverty, dire working conditions for Indigenous campesinos in the large coffee, sugar, and cotton export plantations, and the appalling lack of state services for health or education, gave rise to mass Indigenous incorporation into the rebel forces (Eade and Macleod, 2011). As in every war, the army deliberately incited terror in the hope of suppressing rebellions, including sexual violence in their repertoire of war crimes.

In the aftermath of the war, instead of a trade-off between peace and justice as it often happens, a Tribunal of Conscience against Sexual Violence towards Women during the Armed Conflictwas established in Guatemala in March 2010 (Crosby, Alison and Lykes, M. Brinton, 2011). Through the Tribunal, it came to light that the rape of Indigenous women continues to be commonplace as a reprisal against social organizing, especially in the forced evictions of Indigenous campesinos in land conflicts (Eade and Macleod, 2011). The most under-reported human rights violations were the incidents of rape of Indigenous women, and 88.7% of the 1465 cases of rape that were documented by the Truth Commission were those of Mayan women (Eade and Macleod, 2011). Women were “routinely raped in front of their children, often gang-raped, and others were forced into slave labour – cooking, washing clothes and providing sexual favours under duress – for the army or the civil patrol leaders” (Eade and Macleod, p.56, 2011). In the Guatemalan Civil War, most of the sexual violence took the form of Femicide. Over 5,000 women and girls in Guatemala have been murdered in the past ten years, many of them raped and mutilated, their bodies discarded in public places (Madre et al., 2012). From the many testimonies that were narrated in the Tribunal, it came to light that the brutal sexual violence inflicted upon the women included forced nudity, rape, gang rape, penetration with objects, rape as a form of torture during interrogation, rape before, during, and after massacres, rape in front of family members or neighbours, rape and mutilation, forced pregnancy, forced common-law marriage to soldiers, military commissioners or members of the civil self-defense patrols, forced sterilizations, miscarriages due to rape and/or other sorts of violence, and sexual and domestic slavery obligating the women to always be ready to “service the needs” of the troop, garrison or other military group (Latin American and Caribbean Women’s Health Network, 2010).

Sexual Violence and Motherhood in the Mayan Ixil Community

Predominantly residents of the northern highlands in Guatemala, the Mayan Ixil community are entrenched in their traditional life. Women in the community spend their time tending to the household and raising their children, while their husbands are agrarian, working on the fields of corn and beans that help sustain their families. The essence of the Mayan Ixil life is the continued importance of the principle of communality, rather than individuality (Roberts, 2013). The Indigenous communities of Guatemala have their own traditions, community values, and mores that deal with issues of gender equality, violence and the role of women in public spaces and cultures (Roberts, 2013). Gender equality in the Mayan Ixil Community hinges on the recognition of equal rights for the community at large (Roberts, 2013). However, the notion of gender equality has been eroded, in that the colonial influence of patriarchy appears to have taken root in the fabric of the Mayan Ixil society.

The everyday life of the Maya Ixil Community is deeply entwined with the profound respect for nature and for the dead, the performance of spiritual ceremonies for specific events, their own linguistic traditions and the accordance of a special status and place for animals (Roberts, 2013). Women play a significant role in the community as they transmit culture within the family. As the backbone of a familial set up, Mayan Ixil mothers maintain the interconnected ways of the people, nature, and the universe at large (Roberts, 2013). Considering the fact that there is so much importance attached to communal values and the cohesiveness of the community, sexual violence can have disparaging and damaging effects on the fabric of the community itself.

Undoubtedly, whole communities do suffer the consequences of armed conflict, but it is the women and girls that are particularly affected because of their gender and status in society. While it is definitely not for anyone to lay claim that the impact is worse on one community in comparison with another, this argument holds water in the Maya Ixil context:

The war has left the people of Guatemala years behind in development, especially the Maya. Maya women may feel the effects of their people’s history even more acutely than the men. Many men died or disappeared during the war. Women were killed as well, but more often their husband and sons were killed, while mothers and daughters were raped and tortured, then left for dead. Many of these female survivors bear physical and mental scars. Maya women are also considered to be the most marginalized individuals in Guatemala. They have two strikes against them. Despite the fact that the civil war is over, there are still major problems with racism in Guatemala. Many of the ladinos (people of mixed European descent) view themselves as far superior to the indigenous Maya. There is also a problem with machismo in the country. Men view themselves as superior to women. Therefore Maya women suffer not only because they are indigenous but also because they are women in a male dominated society and, under these circumstances, the women have begun to view themselves as inferior (Sundberg 2004).”

In the Maya Ixil Community, childbirth is a rite of passage of sorts, one that completes the transition of a girl into womanhood (Walsh, 2006; (Tedlock, 1992).Deliveries of children in the community are often done with the assistance of midwives in the Mayan society, who are ordained into the order of midwifery through divinity. Legend has it that these midwives gain their training and their calling to the profession entirely from God through their dreams. Midwives are considered significant and sacred in society, sometimes being ordained to abstain from sex. For the Mayan Ixil Community, these midwives are the liaison – sometimes, the only ones at that – to any form of healthcare, and in some instances, the only health care provider for women. Midwives are summoned anytime around the third to fifth months of pregnancy, from which point they pay monthly visits that become weekly visits in the final month of pregnancy. Mothers receive pre-natal care in the form of massages, examinations and physical assistance from midwives. During delivery and after, midwives provide assistance to the mother and the newborn. Post-delivery, the mother is made to rest. Following this, the midwife performs ritual cleansings that signify that her work here is over. The baby is bathed and dressed, and the hammock that the baby uses is prayed over, and the mother receives a hair-washing ceremony in a semi-public setting (Paul and Paul, 1975).

As a community, clearly, the Mayan Ixil of Guatemala are rooted in their own traditional practices when it comes to motherhood. Keeping to themselves, these communities are already disenfranchised and marginalized. Their access to healthcare systems outside their communities is limited, and oftentimes, non-existent. Once their children are born, they all share a common experience: they grow up stigmatised by marginalisation and exclusion as Indigenous peoples in multi-cultural societies (Madrid and Fuentes, 2007). The level of chronic malnutrition in the country is the highest in Latin America and out of every 1000 children born, 39 die before reaching their first birthday (Guatemala National Survey on Maternal and Child Health, 2008-2009). Not surprisingly, the rural areas that are inhabited by the Indigenous communities are the ones that have “the lowest levels of public investment and have the worst social indications” (Guatemala National Survey on Maternal and Child Health, p.44, 2008-2009).

Keeping these factors in mind, it is important to understand that sexual violence and rape in the Guatemalan Civil War had immense ramifications not only for the individual woman, but for the community as a whole. Sexual violence was chillingly premeditated, widespread, systematic and an overall uniform practice in the conflict. The idea was, clearly, to erode the sanctity of the social set up, to severely harm or destroy the women of the Maya Ixil community as a specific target group. None of the incidents of rape and sexual violence were isolated acts of individuals, but rather acts committed under the sanction of the superiors in charge of each of the troops. These acts were legitimized, authorized, and carried out with a grotesque aspiration of erasing the Maya Ixil population. One of the Maya Ixil women who survived the ordeal heard a clear and strong voice of a soldier saying: “Rios Montt told us to finish off all of this Ixil trash since they collaborate with the guerrilla” (AJR et. Al, 2013). The analysis that follows will attempt to put in words the impact of sexual violence on the Mayan Ixil mothers.

Physical injuries and obliteration of reproductive capacity

Sexual violence and rape have been determined to be acts of genocide by international tribunals, (Prosecutor v. Akayesu, ICTR, 1998) and with good reason. Testimonies of women at the Tribunal of Conscience recount the most horrific incidents of sexual violence that harmed women so terribly that reproduction capacities were damaged or completely obliterated. This also impacts the survival of the community at large as many individual incidents come together to erode the community’s ability to exist. A 46-year old woman witness stated: “I have an infection in my belly; my uterus always hurts…” (AJR et. Al, 2013). Another recounted, “They grabbed us and took us to a room in the parish hall and there they raped us group of women; there were several soldiers that used [raped] me and I was left hemorrhaging for almost a year…”(AJR et. Al, 2013).

Women were used as sexual slaves in the conflict. A horrific testimony explains issue:

They took us to the base and there many soldiers raped us; I was there ten days and I was raped many times, and other women as well. (AJR et. Al, 2013)

They raped me the entire night; there were about 20 soldiers. But by the end, I had lost consciousness.” (AJR et. Al, 2013)

Soldiers would take women, keep them in their custody and would rape them over several days. They were forced to cook, to “keep house” for the soldier under threats of death and continued perpetration of unabashed sexual violence. One of the women who was used as a slave at the mercy of soldiers narrated to the Tribunal of Conscience, “They stabbed me and I have scars; I could no longer walk when they raped me and they threw me around like a ball… I had to cook for them so they wouldn’t kill me.” (AJR et. Al, 2013)

Unwanted pregnancies and forced abortions

The purpose of the counterinsurgency was to instill a sense of fear and terror in the people – especially among the women. This was accomplished through sexual violence, nearly all of which left the women with permanent injuries that affected them both physically and mentally. A testimony by a survivor is proof for this. “They wanted me to become their wife [to rape me], but I resisted; but they stabbed me in the head and then I could no longer resist… I was 6 months pregnant and 15 days later I gave birth to my dead baby…”(AJR et. Al, 2013) A state of abject terror prevailed as the brutal, monstrous treatment of women and their bodies continued untrammeled.

An oft occurring consequence of wartime rape is unwanted pregnancy. Unlike other instances where the woman is left to bear the child that was conceived out of rape, in Guatemala the women were brutally forced to abort their children since the rape was integral to the pursuit of genocide. In a bid to prevent newborns among the Indigenous groups they would take pregnant women and beat their wombs until they would involuntarily wind up aborting (Genocide Watch, 2012). In some other instances, women were knifed – where their stomachs were stabbed and cut open in acts of violence by Rios Montt’s troops. Invariably, and unsurprisingly, the mothers died after being cut open. In the few instances where mothers remained pregnant and did not face abortion, there was a general proclivity towards accepting the child born out of war rape: “Well what that man did to me was against my will. But my son was born and grew up, and now he’s 19. He’s my consolation. He always leaves me a bit of money when he comes, and tells me not to worry. If it weren’t for my son I would hang myself” (Eade and Macleod, 2011, p.56).

Displacement and stigmatization

Irrespective where the rape takes place: whether in peace or in war, women face stigmatization. In many Indigenous communities, the stigmatization is inevitable as the defilement of a woman is often seen as a defilement of the community. This is especially so in the context of the Maya Ixil community – where the emphasis is largely on the community and not on the individual. The Maya live in ways similar to how they have for hundreds of years, living and working together in small supportive agrarian communities. There are clearly defined roles as to what women do and what men do. Women perform many of the traditionally female responsibilities including cleaning, cooking, taking care of the children, and weaving. Men are responsible for the planting of the crops, work in the fields (this includes the traditional practice of slash and burn agriculture), and most of the family income (normally generated by means of agriculture, either selling one’s own excess crops or working at large plantations). Mayan women suffer not only because they are indigenous but also because they are women in a male dominated society and, under these circumstances, the women have begun to view themselves as inferior (Sundberg 2004). 

Maya Ixil women were primarily seen as housewives and their work at home was viewed as not significantly helping their families or communities in regards to development, and had to only function as breeders.[2] Therefore, women who have survived rape or sexual violence are seen as an aberration on the community as much as it is on the individual. Consequently, many young and unmarried women are considered “damaged goods” or “used goods” and are deemed unsuitable for marriage. Women who were already married before the incident that have suffered sexual violence in conflict are considered adulterous, characterless, and loose. These women are often either thrown out of their homes, or are subjected to more violence. For many of the women who were thrown out of the house, and spurned by their families, the only option available was to leave their community rather than spending the rest of their lives in an ostracized state. In Guatemala, most women were rejected by their families – and those of them who were pregnant accepted the children they had conceived through violence (AJR et. Al, 2013).

For the women who remained, the destruction of the mode of livelihood of the Mayan Ixil population forced them to move out of their communities and living spaces. The army was systematic in erasing and exterminating the Indigenous ways of life entirely. One Mayan woman testifying before the Tribunal stated: “The soldiers burned all our houses, right in front of our eyes. They burned our millstones, our maize, our sacred life-giving maize … they told us that by whatever means, they were going to make all Indians disappear” (Eade and Macleod, 2011, p.6).

Physical and psychological trauma

As with any form of violence, the sexual violence inflicted on the women and girls left immense physical and psychological injuries. Already marginalized and disenfranchised these women were not in a position to access medical care outside their communities. Psychologically, the impact of sexual violence on women is tremendous. As one testimony notes, “I’m extremely sad; I’m always sick and I don’t leave my house… My heart hurts” (AJR et. Al, 2013). Those suffering from the trauma of sexual violence or wartime rape need a lot of counseling and psycho-social assistance in order to help them heal. For the Maya Ixil women, mainstream counseling may not be as easily accessible and many turn, instead, to Mayan spirituality. Certain rituals under the Mayan spiritual faith have assisted in providing solace and comfort and have contributed to reparation. For one of the Maya Ixil women, the “cleansing powers of burning pom (resin) and lighting candles means: Now I don’t feel dirty any more, I feel that my body is innocent, my body is all right because it is clean and I am clean” (Eade and Macleod, 2011, p.57).

Impact on raising children

Given that the sexual violence thrived and continued in a bid to assert a sense of dominance over a population that was to be destroyed, the campaign of violence was undertaken in way that ensured the effects would spill over into the community. There was, as anticipated and expected, a ripple effect. In addition to breaking families networks as the women were driven out of the community, there was also a direct impact on the lives of the children in the community. Seeing their mothers being raped has left a disastrous mark in the minds of children (AJR et. Al, 2013). Without psycho-social rehabilitation to help these children understand what happened, and begin the necessary healing, these children are likely to have difficulties coping with the resulting trauma. A painful testimony by a young girl is proof of this. “They grabbed my mother and they dragged her like a dog… As if we were animals so they could do anything to us” (AJR et. Al, 2013).

It is also possible that the mothers themselves might find it difficult to relate to their children’s needs in the aftermath of violence. With its impact on the physical and psychological levels on the women, sexual violence disrupted traditional mothering practices. While having to cope with recuperation from their own trauma, many mothers were unable to deal with the psycho-social needs of their children.


Clearly, the sexual violence against the women and girls of the Mayan Ixil community in Guatemala was part of a much larger campaign to assert power and domination over the Indigenous community. This violence was a demonstration of power and hatred, which was manifested on their bodies, leading to degradation, humiliation and terrible physical trauma. In a patriarchal system where women’s bodies are already not valued, the conflict led these bodies to become battlegrounds.

Throughout the course of the Civil War, the impact of sexual violence on the lives of the Mayan women was terrible. In fact, these women were the most affected. And yet, it is disheartening to note that there was absolutely no inclusion of the Mayan Ixil women in the peace negotiations between the government-army and rebel forces mediated by the United Nations. Nevertheless, without any consultation with them for their needs, the 1996 Peace Accords did include an agreement on Indigenous peoples’ identity and rights. They contained specific provisions addressing women’s needs, and also spoke of the creation of an Indigenous Women’s Defence Commission (or the Defensoría). Nevertheless, the implementation of the accords has been minimal because of the extent of dependence on international aid. Indigenous women in Guatemala continue to face underrepresentation, although it is true that in a first in Guatemalan history, a few Mayan women have been included in the Cabinet as ministers.

An ex-rebel explained in painful words what the impact of the armed conflict has been on Mayan community life: ‘Our village never recovered. It was as if our communal heart had been cut out.’ Yet As much as they suffered, Guatemala’s Maya Ixil women have been resilient and strong in their fight to survive. One clear cut example of counter-hegemonic behavior and the resilience of the Maya Ixil women is their acceptance of the children born out of rape. This stems from the resilience inherent in their culture. The Maya Ixil community has a complementary dynamic between women and men – and the connection between our human species and the ecosystem to which we belong. This interdependence is central to Ixil philosophical thought, and has been a source of resilience during war, genocide, repression. (UMAL IQ’, 2013)



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[1] Forced disappearances, or enforced disappearances are instances where a person is abducted or imprisoned clandestinely, augmented by a refusal to acknowledge the fact that the abductor/imprisoning authorities are aware of the person’s whereabouts. This is usually done to take the person outside the scope of legal protection. [See Jean-Marie Henckaerts; Louise Doswald-Beck; International Committee of the Red Cross (2005). Customary International Humanitarian Law: Rules. Cambridge University Press. p. 342.] Forced disappearances are a crime against humanity under the ambit of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Forced disappearances were carried out for the first time among other states, in Guatemala during the 30-year-long civil war. Estimates say that as many as 40,000-50,000 people were forcibly disappeared by the military and security forces in Guatemala during the civil war.



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