The COVID-19 Pandemic and Its Impact on Women in Guatemala

By: Rosalina Tuyuc Velásquez Katherine Marshall

July 23, 2020

Religious Action on COVID-19: Efforts in the Field

Katherine Marshall: In early July, I received by email a note and paper highlighting the difficult situation of Guatemala’s indigenous women during the COVID-19 crisis. The writer, Rosalina Tuyuc Velásquez, is a remarkable Mayan leader from Guatemala, a colleague and friend who was honored by the 2012 Niwano Peace Prize, a major international award.

Rosalina was born in San Juan Comalapa, Guatemala, to a Christian family with strong indigenous spiritual and cultural roots. She worked as a teacher and auxiliary nurse and became active in women's groups and handicraft, agriculture, and animal breeding cooperatives. During the Guatemalan Civil War, her father and husband were kidnapped, tortured, believed to be murdered, and she herself was sought by the Guatemalan government as an activist. In 1988, Tuyuc and other affected widows founded the National Association of Guatemalan Widows (CONAVIGUA), now a leading Guatemalan human rights organization that pioneers active, peaceful resistance. It promotes full equality for women and respect for human rights, challenging Guatemala's military ethos and governance, and is an important voice for Guatemala’s Mayan community. Several thousand women, organized into 300 local groups, address issues such as sexual violence and the impunity of paramilitary structures. She has held various positions in Guatemalan politics, serving as a National Congress member and magistrate in the first Court of Conscience of Guatemalan Women.

The following is Rosalina’s witness as to the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on women from indigenous communities. It distills a lengthier account that describes the many vulnerabilities women in these regions and communities face and the ways in which their entrepreneurial spirit supports them. It highlights CONAVIGUA’s initiatives that support climate smart farming and crafts, health, and nutrition, and details the ways in which the COVID-19 emergency undermines the welfare of Mayan communities.

Rosalina Tuyuc Velásquez: Indigenous women are keenly aware that the COVID crisis has worsened the deep structural crisis they have long faced in Guatemala. COVID exposes the absence of state services in indigenous areas and neglect of health, education, and nutrition. Even during the crisis, the government is not helping its most vulnerable people. Its focus has been on the cities, not rural areas. Indigenous women, who live mainly in rural areas, have always been neglected because they carry the triple burden of being poor, being female, and being indigenous. Now, they fear that the pandemic will exacerbate this maltreatment and neglect. They worry about their children; with schools shut, indigenous children and young people lack the economic and technological resources to continue their studies. 

After the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Guatemala on March 13, 2020, the Guatemalan government declared a state of public emergency, followed by a curfew plus quarantine regulations. The curfew and other measures affected Guatemala’s indigenous population especially badly; as the curfew went from 4:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m. each day, indigenous people had to rise even earlier than usual to walk or take public transport to work. Quarantines affect all indigenous people, but the effects have been especially serious for indigenous women, single mothers, and widows. Among the latter are members of CONAVIGUA, who sell their products in local marketplaces but find themselves unable to reach markets or watch their products rot. New government schedules for marketplaces disrupt their lives as women who must shop for the family’s food. 

Women in Guatemala’s dry corridor region (el corredor seco), known for its droughts, are at especially high risk. Communities faced shortages and malnutrition even before the pandemic and more broadly a deep-seated health crisis shaped by racism, the effects of civil war and armed conflict, a neglectful government, and global warming. Health concerns include respiratory diseases, diabetes, tumors of different kinds, parasites, gastrointestinal disorders, and mental illness. The stunning neglect that communities in this region face from the authorities is linked to an attitude that people from there are beyond development. CONAVIGUA’s programs support these women with resources and workshops about alternative medicine, mental health, and care for the environment. 

The women of CONAVIGUA, as survivors of genocide, are especially concerned by legal measures the Guatemalan government has taken in the last few months. For example, they announced on April 1 that both the Department of Peace and the Department of Women would close. Women worry about the lack of medical infrastructure and protective equipment for public health personnel in hospitals that treat COVID-infected patients. Rising violence is another pressing concern for them, with an increase in armed assaults and murders. The murder of scientist Domingo Choc Che, an indigenous man who was researching medicinal plants, saddened indigenous people across Guatemala. 

Migrants are returning to an uncertain, treacherous future in Guatemala, as the United States carries out massive deportations. Women worry about the migrants’ safety, since the Guatemalan government has taken no proper health measures. Migrants go straight to their communities, many of them infected with COVID-19. Communities greet them with rejection, discrimination, and now fear of contagion. Enforcing public health measures along the border with Mexico is challenging, given sexual and economic violence and trafficking. 

Dealing with corruption and protecting Guatemala’s fragile democracy are other challenges. In the midst of the pandemic, powerful and corrupt political and military leaders have attempted to dismantle Guatemala’s Constitutional Court, a legislative body that has kept Guatemalan democracy alive. Those concerned about the democratic process in Guatemala have asked the Organization of American States, the UN, and several United States representatives for help. The inability to protest during the pandemic means that it is vital to lean on international institutions to defend Guatemala’s democratic processes. 

A positive development is the remarkable cooperation of many women, single or with families, who share possessions and goods and show great solidarity during this time of need. CONAVIGUA has an agroecological development program, where women farm collectively, growing healthy, eco-friendly crops for their own consumption. CONAVIGUA’s women receive support and solidarity with gratitude. They need continued support and solidarity during this period, for example to buy seeds, materials for weaving fabric, fruit trees, and basic grains.

It has been more than four months since the government took the first measures to contain the pandemic. The women of CONAVIGUA are weary, receiving no support from the government and frightened by the presence of the military in the streets. Many fear accusations from the authorities that they themselves are responsible for spreading COVID as they move between towns and village communities. The longer the pandemic lasts, the more families struggle to survive, with unemployment, fear, the number of people infected, and deaths rising. The Guatemalan people will face many challenges in the coming months. 

Editor’s Note: Alejandra Rocha, a Berkley Center research assistant, assisted in translating from the original Spanish. The post was edited and introduced by Senior Fellow Katherine Marshall.

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