In theory, violence against women is illegal in Guatemala. But in reality, the perpetrators are almost never punished. It can and must change, says judge Verónica de León Xovin - a woman who really changes the world
"In some ways you could say that the judicial system here has failed.”
Judge Verónica de León Xovin is not afraid of criticizing the justice system, which she is a part of herself. Because even though that violence against women is a very common crime in Guatemala, only 2,5 per cent of the perpetrators get punished.
There are many reasons for that. One of them is that women only rarely dares to witness against the men who have beaten, threatened or raped them.
Verónica Xovin serves as a judge in the Special Court for Violence against Women in the provincial town of Chimaltenango. And in nine out of ten cases in her courtroom, the women end up withdrawing their testimony. Because they know that it will probably hurt themselves when they, after the trial, have to return to a community that does not necessarily consider violence against women a crime.
WIDESPREAD: Violence against women is the most common type of case in Guatemala's legal system. In 2019, 58,577 cases were registered.
IMPUNITY: It is estimated that only 2.5 percent of all cases of violence against women ends up with a conviction - 97.5 percent of cases have no consequence for the perpetrators
Sources: Observatorio.mp.gob.gt, elperiodico.com.gt
Fortunately, Verónica de León Xovin is not your average woman. She has a 20-year career in Guatemala's legal system – the last three of which in Chilmaltenango. In this area, the majority of the population belongs to the Mayan people. That poses some particular challenges for the justice system - and for Judge Xovin in her fight for justice.
“We are trying to make indigenous people fit into a system with which they do not identify at all. And as a result, the survivors of gender based violence far too rarely achieve justice,” she explains.
Throughout her career, Veronica Xovin has insisted on understanding the context in which she works, instead of just sitting behind a desk with her nose in the paragraphs. She wants to make sure that justice is not just something that happens on paper, but also out in real life.
For that to happen for the women here in Chimaltenango - and in a larger perspective, for women all over Guatemala - she has begun to change the justice system from within.
"We need to find a way to deal with these issues that is more in line with the Mayan worldview if women are ever to achieve justice," says Verónica Xovin.
Although almost half of Guatemala's population belongs to various Mayan peoples, the legal system is consistently based on a Western way of thinking. For example, a female victim of violence is offered help from a psychologist. But that is rarely useful for a Mayan woman.
"The Mayans do not believe in psychology. And therefore, it does not make sense to try to explain the violence and the abuses from that perspective. We need to incorporate the Mayan cosmic vision and myths if we are to help these women process their trauma and break out of the circle of violence in which they are trapped,” explains Verónica Xovin.
In addition, she also believes that the judicial system should learn to work together with the indigenous authorities, such as midwives and religious leaders.
“An important part of the court's responsibility is to help the woman move on in a dignified manner. Optimally, we need to make sure she can return to the position in society she had before the assault. It could be by collaborating with relevant authorities in the local community. But unfortunately it happens far too rarely,” she says.
Today, many Guatemalans – especially indigenous people - regard violence against women as part of the order of nature. If a man beats his wife, it is not necessarily an assault. It is just the way life is; an ingrained part of the inherited culture. This is an argument that Judge Xovin often hears from the defense in her courtroom, when trying to justify the behavior of the perpetrators.
"But I do not buy that argument. The Mayan worldview is deeply rooted in respect and duality. And it is simply not compatible with the argument that violence against women is an acceptable phenomenon in the culture. It is the influence from outside that has caused the violence to take root in our society,” she says.
When Verónica Xovin first began fighting violence against women in Chimantenango, she was not surprisingly met with opposition from many people in the community. But she has spent a lot of time listening and understanding what the opposition is all about. And as a consequence, they have gradually started to listen more to her point of view.
Together with Oxfam and the Guatemalan women's rights organization Ixoqib’ MIRIAM, she has held meetings and conferences where lawyers, judges and other judicial staff have met and exchanged experiences with Mayan leaders, midwives and other authority figures. It has been about listening, understanding and creating space for dialogue. And it has been extremely rewarding for all parties, Judge Xovin believes.
"If we can create a connection between the justice system and the indigenous peoples' systems, we can really achieve a lot. We can raise awareness about violence and prevention. And secondly, we can empower women in local communities and thus reduce violence. But we must do it with deep respect for the spirituality of the Mayans and based on their own perception of life,” says Verónica Xovin.
In three years, she has already change a lot in the courtrooms of Chimaltegango. But in fact, the work in the provincial town has changed Judge Xovin at least as much.
"When I came here, I did not consider myself an indigenous woman: I do not wear the traditional Mayan dress, I do not speak a Mayan language - so therefore I am not a Mayan woman, I thought at the time. But the understanding I have gained through my work here has changed the way I identify. It is a very special thing for me. So today I see myself as a Mayan woman and I understand that the needs of indigenous women are also my needs. It has helped me to continue to grow as a person and to keep pushing in the fight for justice,” she concludes.
For almost five years, Oxfam has worked with various partners to combat violence against women in Guatemala, Liberia and Burundi through the FLOW program. One of the most successful ways of working has been cooperating with the judicial system - and not least the female employees like judges and prosecutors. These women are experiencing a great deal of discrimination in the system themselves because of their gender, so we have strengthened them in networks and support groups, and offered training and guidance in the legislation on violence and women's rights. Over time, they have become strong allies in the fight against violence against women.
“Violence against women is the most denounced crime in Guatemala, but impunity is extremely common. The laws to punish the perpetrators and help survivors with dignified reparations are actually pretty much in place, but the system doesn’t always know how to apply these laws. Oxfam decided to start working with the female members of the judicial system to transform it from within. And it has proved highly successful; The women have become role models all over Guatemala,” says Paola González, coordinator of the FLOW program in Oxfam Guatemala.