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Girls & Women

Global 1st: Guatemala sends soldiers to jail for using rape as a weapon

Flickr: Tori Rector

The Guatemalan Supreme Court of Justice ruled former members of the military guilty for crimes against humanity committed during the nation’s civil war. The charges included rape, sexual slavery and murder of indigenous girls and women. This is the first domestic court in the world to consider rape as a weapon of war.

The Guatemalan Civil War lasted from 1960 to 1996. The conflict was between the government and leftist rebel groups supported by indigenous Mayans and Ladino peasants- who represent the majority of the rural poor in Guatemala.

The soldiers found guilty in this case were government troops at the Sepur Zarco outpost, who were guided by their commanders to kill local women’s husbands and forcibly draft them into the unit to serve as sex slaves.

In cases like this, rape and sexual abuse are not just a byproduct of war but are used as a deliberate military strategy.

The strategic use of rape in war is not a new phenomenon. Only recently has it begun to be widely documented. From conflicts in Bosnia, to civil wars in Rwanda, girls and women have been singled out for rape, imprisonment, torture and execution.

In previous centuries, rape by militaries was used often seen as opportunistic ‘rape and pillage,’ not a strategy. However, in modern times (and in some cases historically) it is used as coordinated combat tool.

Rape has been identified by psychologists as the most intrusive of traumatic events that can happen to an individual.

Guatemalan independent news media, Plaza Publica, explained the case in Guatemala:

“The soldiers, instructed by military commanders, forcefully made their husbands disappear in August 1982. ‘Widowed’ and ‘alone’, they were forced to move to the detachment in Sepur Zarco, where, according to their accounts, they were raped repeatedly and forced to cook and wash military uniforms for six months.” (Translation provided by GlobalVoices.org)

This is a HUGE step towards global justice.  This is the first time a domestic court has declared rape as a weapon of war and a crime against humanity. The ruling is historic both domestically and internationally.

In many nations, the collapse of the rule of law during a conflict leaves a long lasting inability to deal with allegations of rape, while in others, women feel too exposed to stigma to accuse their attackers.

The fact that this case was brought to court and received a guilty ruling is historic.

The verdict was delivered in a public courtroom, however the victims’ identities were protected by wearing clothing that covered them completely except a small slit for their eyes. Anyone interested in the case had the opportunity to watch it live online, which caused the story to generate a lot of conversation both domestically and internationally.

Prominent women’s activists showed their support by live tweeting the entire process.

When sentencing the defendants to a total of 210 years, Judge Jazmin Barrios described the brutal treatment that vulnerable, indigenous women suffered from soldiers during the time of war as being inhumane.

This is a huge development for the Guatemalan government but it will echo internationally. Domestic courts adopting global norms on crimes against humanity sets a global precedent for justice.

It is tragic that rape is still used as a weapon of war, but this verdict is a monumental step in the right direction to ending the practice and getting justice for victims.