Women Take the Lead in Guatemala

December 6, 2018

On a quiet side street in the historic downtown of Guatemala City sits the office of Codefem, the Collective for the Defense of Women’s Rights in Guatemala. The office’s walls are speckled with banners from past rallies, posters with empowering slogans, training materials, artwork from Codefem’s partners, and signs celebrating women’s rights – evidence of 30 years advocating for women in Guatemala and empowering them to take full and active roles in civic life.  


Codefem was started in 1989 by Patricia “Pati” Pinto, who began her career in the office of Guatemala’s human rights ombudsman. At that time, “protection against gender-based violence wasn’t seen as a human right,” explains Pati. Frustrated by the office’s failure to address even high-profile instances of gender-based violence, Pati founded Codefem to directly strengthen the capacity of women and sensitize communities to the realities of gender-based violence. “We were seeing oppression of women and wanted to address it,” Pati explains.

Although Guatemala’s human rights laws were updated in the 1990s to include full protection for women, the reality for many is that human rights protections are incomplete or even nonexistent. “Our natural environment is the local level,” says Pati, because “it’s at the local level that protection is often missing.”  

Codefem takes a two-part approach to enhancing women’s rights: training local leaders and sensitizing communities – both men and women – to the importance of extending human rights protections to all. “We were the first women’s rights organizations to include men in our work,” explains Pati proudly. “We involve the entire community.” Pati is especially forceful on one point: “We avoid confrontation” and instead focus on “compromise, conversation, and cooperation.” 

With its emphasis on strengthening local leaders and ensuring inclusive involvement of all community members, Codefem was a natural fit to partner with USAID’s Participación Cívica project, implemented by Counterpart. Participación Cívica supported Codefem in its outreach to the municipality of Villa Nueva, where power dynamics often make for an inhospitable environment for advocacy groups. In Villa Nueva, women’s civil rights are limited, formally and informally, and too often domestic violence goes unpunished. Despite these transgressions, Villa Nueva’s mayor has opposed efforts to enhance the status of local women. Female municipal officials are limited in their ability to speak out against injustices they observe. Even the municipality’s Office of Women’s Affairs, which falls under the control of the mayor, is restricted in the activities it may conduct.  

With technical assistance and funding from Counterpart, Codefem conducted a multifaceted campaign in Villa Nueva. The first step was to understand women’s concerns and identify potential leaders. “We went door-to-door” to identify these concerns and to engage both community leaders and municipal-level authorities, explains Rosita Cueller, a longtime partner of Codefem. Pati continues, “we found a number of women leaders who are participating in advocacy and citizen participation spaces, and … we were able to identify new leaders interested in participating in the process.” 

As the second step in this process, Codefem delivered a training on transparency, accountability, dialogue, and management. Two hundred residents and 26 government officials attended the training, which was developed through an alliance with the Women’s Institute at the University of San Carlos and the National Institute for Public Administration. Codefem provided tools for citizens to initiate a process of dialogue with their representatives, identify the viability of their requests and proposals, and demand accountability in municipal public spending. Women in Villa Nueva are now empowered with the skills, knowledge, and tools to demand greater accountability from their government.  

With Counterpart’s training, guidance, and support, Codefem also worked with the women and officials of the Municipality of Villa Nueva to produce two documents. The first is a Women’s Development Agenda, which will serve as a guide for women seeking accountability from local and national authorities. The second document, developed in cooperation with the Presidential Secretariat for Women, is a Gender Classifier: an administrative tool used to improve the gender equality of government agency budgets. Through Participación Cívica and our partners, women are not only participating in the local political process but are the are the direct beneficiaries of municipal budget allocations — advancing their access to resources and opportunities for engagement. 

Equipped with these tools and buoyed by the trainings provided by Codefem, the citizens of Villa Nueva are prepared to make their concerns heard, advocate for political change at the local level, and ensure greater involvementof women in civic life. 

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