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One Day: The women of Sepur Zarco access justice

How Trócaire helped the women of Guatemala to hold their oppressors to account

Guatemala has experienced decades of civil war. Peace was declared in the late 1990s, but despite more hopeful times significant challenges remain in the country. As well as high rates of poverty, inequality and child malnutrition – violence against women was a serious problem, heightened in the 1980’s during one of the most violent and repressive periods of Guatemala’s armed conflict.

During that time, dreadful crimes of sexual violence and slavery were committed against 15 Maya Q’eqchi women from the communities surrounding Sepur Zarco. The crimes shocked the world.

The Maya Q'eqchi women of Sepur Zarco. PHOTO: Mark Stedman The Maya Q'eqchi women of Sepur Zarco. PHOTO: Mark Stedman

The husbands of the 15 women who were abused were in the process of obtaining legal title over their lands through the National Institute for Agricultural Transformation. They were identified by local authorities and landowners and branded as ‘agitators’. When the military came looking for them, they were accused of aiding the guerrilla forces.

Their wives were beaten and raped, some by up to five soldiers, and the men were beaten and taken to the military bases at Sepur Zarco for interrogation. The women never saw their husbands alive again – seven were murdered and eight more remain disappeared.

The women were told that as widows they ‘belonged to the soldiers.’ Eleven of the women were held against their will for months to cook and clean for the 400 or so soldiers that were housed at the barracks. They were raped by multiple soldiers on a daily basis.

Historic fight for justice

From 2011 – 2016, 15 women survivors fought for justice at the highest court of Guatemala in an historic case which resulted in the conviction of two former military officers of crimes against humanity. The Sepur Zarco case marked the first time in history that sexual crimes related to armed conflict have been tried in a national court.

It set a strong precedent for the other 1,500 Guatemalan women who were survivors of sexual violence committed during the armed conflict that they too might see justice done.

In 2019 RTÉ broadcaster John Creedon travelled to Guatemala to see the impact of Trócaire’s work. John shares his experience as he meets the Maya Q’eqchi women of Sepur Zarco.

Working with partners and civil society groups Trócaire supported the 15 women of Sepur Zarco in their journey for justice, and accompanied them throughout the three weeks of the trial. It continued to support them over the following years, helping ensure that they received their due compensation and were able to rebuild their lives out of poverty.

Trócaire also supported healing that was respectful of indigenous communities using natural medicine, traditional ceremonies and massages to help the women recover from their trauma. These traditional techniques were delivered in the women’s own indigenous language and in women only spaces. The healing approach empowered them and helped the women take to the witness stand to hold perpetrators to account.

Trócaire still helps communities in Guatemala to stay on their lands in order to sustain their livelihoods and live a life free from poverty. Trócaire also helps to tackle violence against women and to support female survivors of abuse.

Trócaire is celebrating 50 years of working together with partners, people who we support, staff, donors and supporters to create positive and lasting change. One Day showcases the profound impact of these collective efforts, highlighting the countless “One Days” where lives have been transformed. Together, for a just world. Explore more One Day stories here.

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