Feminism in Context: A Few Observations from Guatemala

I’ve been in Xela for nearly three weeks now and I think I’ve got my bearings. This is probably my 15th time visiting – most of my dad’s side of the family lives in Guatemala and he has always wanted me to know his home. The experience feels new, though, as it’s been 3+ years since I was last here.

Walking down the street, a few things catch my eye:

  • No matter the time of day, many if not most women are in heels; this includes little girls
  • None of the bus drivers, bus assistants, or taxi drivers I’ve seen have been female (I know some are out there, but they’re few and far between)
  • I can count the other women with short hair I’ve seen on one hand
  • I can count the men with long hair I’ve seen on one hand
  • Even in the hot sun, only 1 in 20 or 30 women is in shorts or a tank top
  • Whistles and chh chh chhhh’s and comments from men are common

From my grandma, I’ve learned:

  • This is not a safe place for women; women here have been getting kidnapped and chopped up into little pieces
  • 6pm is too late to be coming home for a nice girl, new to the area, like me – anything could happen to me
  • All women should shave (or, alternatively, use Nair on) their armpits
  • Women should be fair and rosy-cheeked and have long hair; no getting tan; no sagging sweatpants; no wrinkly clothes; don’t bathe when you’re on your period
  • It’s great that I’ve maintained a fit body and I must continue to do so
  • Women should be married and with child by the age of 25

From the news, firsthand or through others, I’ve learned:

  • Guatemala is at war, according to the verdict of some sort of summit in Sweden this year, given the number of deaths that occur here each year
  • Hundreds of women are murdered anually and hardly any of the cases ever make it to trial
  • Domestic violence and violence against women are urgent issues here

In Momos, the Kiche town in which my dad grew up, I learned:

  • A relative’s adopted daughter was pregnant and married before turning 14. Her husband was not yet 17.
  • Another relative’s daughter had 2 babies by 2 different men before the age of 20.
  • Another relative, decades ago, saw her dad divorce her mom because they kept birthing girls. He wanted sons.
  • My grandma was left poor, to raise her 4 children alone. Meanwhile, her husband was a traveling salesman, in the company of other women, and eating well.
  • My grandma favored her sons and let them run free while here daughters had to work hard.
  • From a Kiche father: fathers need to remember that the times are changing. For example, they can no longer choose their daughters’ husbands.

Now, that last bullet point is a ray of light among the shadows. Nonetheless, I’m listening to Ciara’s Like A Boy and wondering how in the world DESGUA, a sustainable development organization for which I’m volunteering, is going to incorporate culturally appropriate feminist values into its work. DESGUA works primarily in rural indigenous communities, and concepts such as women’s liberation, gender conformity, or decolonization are too new or too lofty for most people to accept comfortably. How shall DESGUA move forward? Suggestions?


Magdalena Kaluza, desde Quetzaltenango, Guatemala


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One thought on “Feminism in Context: A Few Observations from Guatemala

  1. ElizaS says:

    My suggestion is to work on self esteem, leadership development skills, literacy, and education — including education about birth control, women’s health, nutrition, healthy relationships and the cycle of violence/abuse. Help women start support groups. Work on community building, trust building.


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