Guatemala sexual slavery verdict shows women’s bodies are not battlefields

Op-ed published at the Newspaper  The Guardian on February 29th 2016.

Two men have been found guilty for enslaving indigenous women in Sepur Zarco in a case symbolising a wider battle for Latin America women


The word muxuk refers to a woman who has been “desecrated”, a woman whose “social and spiritual world was destroyed and broken in all of the areas of her life”. In the Q’eqchi’ language there are four ways to refer to sexual violence, yet muxuk is the term Guatemalan women of the Sepur Zarco community have chosen to use when talking about the war crimes perpetrated against them.

Neither Spanish nor English have the words to describe precisely the horrors these women experienced in 1982, during the Guatemalan armed conflict.

The Sepur Zarco trial was groundbreaking for three reasons. Unlike other trials involving sexual violence during armed conflicts – such as the cases in Rwanda(pdf) and former Yugoslavia – the proceedings were conducted entirely by a national court.

The verdict has set a precedent for treating domestic and sexual slavery as war crimes – something that is crucial for the advancement of transitional justice in many Latin American countries.

And it seeks to build a standard of proof based on the testimony of survivors – important because, in a case like this, where the events occurred more than 30 years ago, little physical evidence is available.

Like many conflicts in Latin America, what happened in Sepur Zarco was a battle over the ownership of territory – both land and women’s bodies.

On 25 August 1982, during the Santa Rosa de Lima festival, soldiers captured the Q’eqchi men who had dared to request their land rights at the Instituto Nacional de Transformación Agraria (national institute for agrarian transformation).