While COVID-19 infections and deaths are currently on the decline in most regions of the world, Latin America has become the new epicentre of the pandemic in recent weeks. Over two million cases of coronavirus have been recorded in the region, with a death toll of more than 100,000 people.
Since the first case of coronavirus was identified on March 13, the number of confirmed cases has jumped to 23,248, with 947 deaths in Guatemala. These figures probably underestimate the magnitude of the situation, since not everyone with symptoms can be tested.
As of March 22, the President of Guatemala ordered the implementation of rigorous measures aimed at curbing the spread of the virus: closing of national borders as well as regional and municipal borders, suspension of nonessential economic activities and public transit, bans on gatherings, fines for people not wearing a mask in public places or not respecting social distancing, and strict curfew from 6 p.m. to 5 a.m.
However, cases of COVID-19 continue to multiply, putting a strain on the already fragile Guatemalan health system and worsening the living conditions of the population.
Indigenous women are particularly affected by the effects of the COVID-19 prevention measures, which are jeopardizing their integrity, their capacity to act and their access to quality legal services.
“The current pandemic is affecting us greatly. It affects our work and our income. The work I do as a stay-at-home mom has never earned me a lot of money, but since the arrival of COVID, I can no longer support my children who are going to school,” explains a Mayan Kaqchikel woman from the town of Sololá.
Due to the suspension of public transit, it has become virtually impossible for indigenous women, who live mostly in remote rural areas, to travel to sell the goods they produce. Their income, already very low before the pandemic, were thus considerably affected, if not reduced to nothing. Many families now find themselves in a situation of aggravated food insecurity. Our partner organizations, whose economic activities support vulnerable women, victims or survivors of gender-based sexual violences, have also seen their production and income fall sharply.
Since the start of the lockdown, an increase in the number of cases of violence against women has been observed throughout the country. This trend can be explained by the isolation measures that slow down the economy, forcing members of the same family to coexist around the clock in a context where family tensions and men’s frustration are intensifying due to their growing inability to provide for their family’s basic needs.
The suspension of public transit and the high cost of private means of transportation severely limit the access of women victims or survivors of sexual violence to the reporting and support services usually available to them. Many women must therefore fall back on remote support services offered by telephone by partner organizations, community authorities and justice actors. Unfortunately, some of these women do not have access to a telephone.
Finally, the lack of access to protective equipment and information aimed at limiting the spread of the coronavirus, as well as the need to leave the house to try to earn some money, makes indigenous people, often living far away from health services, particularly at risk of contracting COVID-19.
In order to cope with this situation and to continue improving the exercise of the rights of indigenous women and girls, the team of the Rights and Justice for Indigenous Women and Girls in Guatemala (DEMUJERES) project, that CECI is implementing with Lawyers Without Borders Canada (LWBC), has adapted its activities in the three departments where it is being implemented: Chimaltenango, Alta Verapaz and Sololá.
During the month of June, emergency food assistance was provided to indigenous women and girls survivors of gender-based violence, to their families and to other vulnerable women in order to help them cover their immediate food-related needs. In addition, they were provided with local seeds to set up family vegetable gardens, which will enable them to improve their families’ food security in a sustainable manner.
“I am happy with the help I received and I thank the indigenous municipality as well as CECI for their support, which is very precious,” said a Mayan Kaqchikel woman from the municipality of Sololá who received emergency food aid.
Protective equipment to prevent the spread of the virus (gloves, disinfectant gel, masks, etc.) was offered to the staff of the project’s partner organizations, to local authorities, and to indigenous and community leaders, as well as justice workers that deal with cases of gender-based sexual violences. The project also supports the production and marketing of sanitary materials by partner organizations. These work with indigenous women and girls who are vulnerable or who have been subjected to violences, supporting the implementation of productive activities that can enable them to generate income.
Communication initiatives were reinforced to prevent contagion and gender-based sexual violences, as well as to promote the rights of women in the context of the pandemic. Messages in different Mayan languages have been developed and are being broadcast in a coordinated manner in rural areas and at the national level, through community radios and social media. Communication is also key to ensuring indigenous women and girls who are victims or survivors of violences have access to the psychological and legal services to which they are entitled. The project’s partner organizations have thus increased their support for these women by helping them to access the services remotely by telephone or online.
In some cases, the project also supports its local partner organizations in covering the costs of transportation for indigenous women and girls who need to commute to report cases of violences, make a statement, receive psychological support, etc.
For the next six months at least, the DEMUJERES project will continue to provide targeted support to indigenous women and girls in order to compensate for the most harmful effects of the pandemic on their well-being and their ability to exercise their rights.
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The DEMUJERES project is implemented with Lawyers Without Borders Canada (ASFC) and receives financial support from the Government of Canada through Global Affairs Canada.