Selectively Muted: Breaking the Silence

By Evelyn Recinos Contreras (Fellowship Attorney at Women’s Link Worldwide)

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “mute” as “not able or willing to speak.”

Many women around the world are not able to speak. We are forced to be silent about the most unendurable pain—pain that marks our bodies and our lives forever. Guatemalan women know this all too well. In their country, war was waged on their bodies.

The sexual violence inflicted on thousands of women during the internal armed conflicts has been kept quiet for years. Most of the cases in Guatemala have yet to come to light. Many women have never had a chance to speak, but now a few have been able to tell their stories, almost 30 years later.

They started by breaking the silence within their communities, speaking with other women who also suffered violence. Then, after a long journey and lots of hard work, they told their stories to the court and to the world.

The silence was broken in Guatemala when former head of state José Efraín Ríos Montt and his chief of military intelligence José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez were tried for genocide. Ten brave women faced the masterminds of a brutal campaign of violence, including sexual violence and told the truth about what had happened. They had the courage to speak up and break the silence at last.

Their scarred and deeply lined hands clutched at their huipiles (typical Mayan dress blouse), their voices shook, but they spoke with chilling resolve. And they spoke with a clear purpose: first, to see justice done, and second, to make sure that no other woman would ever again have to go through what they went through.

The panel of three judges—two women and a man—hung on their every word. But they were not the only ones. Behind these ten women were many, many more who supported them and accompanied them on their journey: women from the Ixil community and other indigenous communities throughout the region, students, feminists, mothers, sisters, friends, human rights activists, attorneys, authors, anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, researchers, businesswomen and expert witnesses, all from different places and different realities, who did their part to help break the conspiracy of silence.

These brave women changed the course of history, broke the silence, and brought to light what had been hidden and silenced for so many years.

They did it with the support of women from all over the world who contributed the skills and knowledge of their different professions. The assistance received from many quarters, such as the expert testimony provided by Women’s Link and others, serves as a reminder that while breaking the silence is always a profoundly personal act, creating a new future is up to all of us.

To learn more about this case, we invite you to watch this 8-minute documentary: “Truth and Justice for the Women of Guatemala.”

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