Indigenous Women's Rights Day - Meeting with Saríah Acevedo, Coordinator of Equal Rights and Justice for Women and Girls in Guatemala (DEMUJERES)

News | Published at: September 04 2021

Meeting with Saríah Acevedo, Coordinator of Equal Rights and Justice for Women and Girls in Guatemala  (DEMUJERES)

Profoundly marked by her personal history of the violence of the armed conflict that tore her country apart from 1960 to 1996, this Mayan sociologist, social worker and researcher joined CECI three years ago.

A tireless Indigenous women’s rights activist, she has worked with many organizations, as well as with public institutions, in particular alongside Otilia Lux de Cotí, the first Indigenous minister in a Guatemalan government, as well as at the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights in Guatemala.

On the International Day of Indigenous Women, celebrated on September 5, Saríah Acevedo talked to us about her personal trajectory, shared her thoughts with us on the reality of the situation of Indigenous women and talked about her involvement in the DEMUJERES project, and its many unique aspects.


You were born 48 years ago in Mixco, a city close to the Guatemalan capital. You have been back living there for several years now. But before that, your life was marked by violence and exile. Can you provide us with the background to this?

I am the daughter of migrants. My parents lived in the eastern part of the country, and were involved in political democratization movements. In the context of the internal armed conflict, they were the target of threats and, to escape the political violence, they came here in the 1970s. As the conflict grew, the violence spread across Guatemala, and my father, who belonged to the social democratic party, was assassinated.

We had to emigrate for several years, to different regions of the country, and when my mother decided the violence and risks were too great, we left Guatemala to go live in Mexico, Costa Rica and then Honduras. I was 8 when I left Mixco. I came back when I was 29.

So, I grew up in a community of displaced and exiled persons. I spent a large part of my childhood and youth, my education and training, among diverse Indigenous communities, in particular the Maya K'iche' and the Kaqchikel. Because of this life experience, in many ways I feel multicultural. My identity was shaped by diverse roots within the Mayan peoples.

Was your commitment forged during these years in exile? What spurred it?

When we were in Mexico and in Costa Rica, many exiles, particularly Mayans, were coming together and organizing. My mother started participating in all of these movements that were making demands, appropriating identity, fighting for rights, denouncing the widespread violence against Mayan communities in Guatemala.

She was an activist, I was a child, I accompanied her and listened to the many experiences as told by other children, other families, what they had lived through, what was going on in our country, I was grasping more and more, and I started to develop an understanding of the culture and the political situation.

My maternal grandmother’s life also greatly influenced my understanding of the racial and gender violence experienced by Indigenous women. She was a Mayan woman of Ch’orti’ origin who had experienced most of the discriminations that can affect Indigenous women: she was illiterate, she had very pronounced Indigenous features, she lived and interacted with everyone as a rural Indigenous woman. So, she was subjected to constant confrontations, contempt, was considered ignorant, she experienced all of this to the extent that she even internalized many aspects of racism, all of this marked me deeply.

So, your awareness as an activist developed over time?

Yes, I think it developed gradually, my own family and social experiences, and observing what was going on in the country raised my awareness.

Another experience that had a deep impact on me was what I went through in the ‘90s. I was a teenager then and I was living with women who were pioneers of the Indigenous movement that was fighting for the State to recognize the rights of Indigenous peoples and women as part of the negotiations and then the signing of the peace accord, but also within Indigenous organizations, they were demanding and fighting for equality, respect and equality for them as women.

And they were saying that if the Mayan movement was demanding peoples’ rights, then the rights of Indigenous women, who suffered the greatest racism, also had to be demanded, and that Indigenous women had to participate in organizations as leaders, making decisions, and not simply preparing food for activities. They argued that there was no opposition between collective rights and the specific rights of women. They were complementary.

At what point did you feel personally involved in the struggle for the recognition of Indigenous women’s rights?

In all of my involvement in Indigenous organizations, during adolescence, I became aware of my own origins and heritage, not only at the family level, but also at the level of the country and region, and of the importance of strengthening my identity as an Indigenous woman.

If you don’t give political meaning to your identity, to the context in which you’re experiencing violence, there’s no mechanism for understanding it, grasping it, and fighting it. We’re subjected to ridicule and violence, and sometimes we even believe we’re responsible for it.

When I started participating in an organization that explained the origins of racism, the political situation in the country, and how all of that is constructed in people’s mentalities, then I started to understand. And to tell myself that I should not stop being who I am in order to be respected, but that I could affirm my own identity and my own origins in order to be able to exist, and also to be able to advance the process of eradicating racism. And it’s true that you can’t do that on your own. That’s when you become aware that it’s a social process and it requires collective effort.

At that point, I was able to reconcile with everything I was, with my cultural and political origins, with my history. And that really helped me find my place and affirm myself as a woman, as an Indigenous person, and also with my politic desire for transformation and change.

What is the importance of the International Day of Indigenous Women and what does September 5 represent for you?

September 5 was created in remembrance and recognition of the struggle of Bartolina Sisa, a Bolivian Indigenous woman who fought against the colonizers in the 16th century. This day highlights and recognizes the historic role Indigenous women played.

It’s important because it breaks the historic invisibility of the contribution of Indigenous women in prehispanic cultures and during entire processes of resistance throughout the colonial period and republican period, and then during the internal armed conflict and peacebuilding. It shows that, throughout history, Indigenous women have played a role in developing science, society and democracy in defending their territory, their autonomy, their culture, their rights and their bodies, and in fighting for recognition of who they are.

It is also an opportunity to affirm the role of women, to open up spaces, to enable them to play or expand their role in political life and in many other spheres where their presence is rare. These spaces are opening up thanks to the strength, persistence and demands of Indigenous women.

How is this day different from March 8, International Women’s Day?

I think a day like September 5 makes it possible to discuss the specific prejudices that Indigenous women experience because of their multiple identities. That is, to be both an Indigenous person subjected to racial violence, often to be poor, to be rural in a centralist and urban society, and also to be a woman. This is what we now refer to as intersectionality. 

And this legitimizes the need to open a specific space to see the specific conditions in which Indigenous women live. The fact that they belong to Indigenous communities, to collectives with a particular vision of the world and aspirations, also makes it necessary to consider the situation and condition of women in their specific context.  

Since October 2018, you have been the coordinator of DEMUJERES. How do you see your role?

Basically, coordination means articulating the talents and experiences of all of the people involved in the project. I think that my role is to try to harmonize the efforts and also the interests of the partner organizations we work with, all within the context of an agenda they themselves defined.

I constantly strive to make sure that the project is not simply limited to managing funds and carrying out activities, but that the orientations that we give to activities have an impact that goes beyond simply carrying them out. 

We try to make sure that everything we do in the project bears fruit, and contributes to a global reflection on how Indigenous women experience violence, that this changes their living conditions, not only in regions where the project is present, but that it becomes a useful experience that can be applied everywhere so that, nationally, the processes change, the policies change, the way in which cases are resolved changes, so that there is no more impunity.

The DEMUJERES project, implemented in three departments with large Indigenous populations, seeks to improve Indigenous women and children’s access to justice, and to strengthen protection against gender-based violence. Can you talk to us about the “holistic approach,” one of the special features of this project?

Indigenous women and girls told us that they do not only want the conviction of the person who perpetrated the violence against them, what they want the most is to be able to rebuild their life project and they insist on the need to work with men to promote, at the community level, values like the right to a violence-free life and a culture of respect.

The project seeks to build the organizational capacity of civil society and certain community Indigenous authorities in order to develop their ability to support, in a holistic fashion, women and girls who have been subjected to gender violence, sexual violence in particular.  

This global approach has been promoted in such a way that the organizations themselves provide or coordinate various forms of support simultaneously: legal support, either in the State legal system or the Indigenous legal system; psychosocial support to heal the violence, based on a clinical psychology approach or from a Mayan medical therapy perspective; economic support so that women can become empowered and independent because, very often, women who are economically dependent have greater difficulty accessing justice or breaking the cycle of violence they are in.

We also seek to contribute to strengthening violence-free Indigenous masculinities, based on a vision of the world and the historical experiences of Indigenous peoples and men, because we must change the models of violent masculinity that have taken root through colonization, militarization, religious fundamentalism, racism and the experiences of subjugation on large farms.

You mentioned an Indigenous justice system, Mayan traditional medical therapies, the necessary discussions around positive masculinities, a subject that Indigenous women who pioneered the movement introduced back in the ‘90s. Would you say that the DEMUJERES project is led according to an Indigenous perspective?

Without a doubt, we are making a constant effort to integrate the Indigenous perspective. Of course, this is a project that follows the guidelines of Canadian cooperation, its feminist policy, the way in which CECI strengthens human rights and gender equality and in which the LWBC promotes access to justice, but we have cultivated a space from which we can bring all of that together with Indigenous peoples’ ways of doing. 

The partner organizations bring life to the project from the point of view of Indigenous women and also from their own forms of Indigenous organization, so that the project’s actions have a genuine direction and meaning, and bear fruit.

For example, the involvement of Indigenous authorities within the project has shown us that community organization systems have the capacity to offer sustainability to support processes for women and girls in their search for justice and in the reconstruction of their life project, by giving them a meaning that is their own.

By using Indigenous languages in communications, partner organizations construct messages based on Indigenous aesthetic and logic. Thanks to the recovery of ancestral cultural models and knowledge specific to Indigenous peoples, organizations encourage greater economic empowerment for women on the basis of their own aspirations to find a harmonious relationship with nature.  

And of course, the support of Indigenous professionals within the team is essential! The fact that most members of the team are Indigenous professionals helps us maintain a constant and broad-ranging dialogue with partner organizations, which enables us to be in the context, to adapt in seeking methods for overcoming the obstacles women face on a daily basis, and to contribute to their aspirations for a full life free of violence.

Rights and Justice for Indigenous Women and Girls in Guatemala (DEMUJERES) is carried out by CECI and Lawyers Without Borders Canada (LWBC) with financial support from the Government of Canada through Global Affairs Canada.