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Latin American women navigating the challenges of the Cold War: A focus on the case of Guatemala

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Julio Cazzasa, Collections Development Coordinator, Senate House Library

Explore Guatemalan women's resilience during the Cold War through Senate House Library's collections, where their stories of justice, activism, and societal change unfold amidst turmoil and displacement.

In the heart of Central America, the Cold War cast its long shadows, leaving indelible marks on the people of Guatemala. As political ideologies clashed and power dynamics shifted, women in Guatemala found themselves navigating a complex and often perilous landscape. This text delves into the untold stories of Guatemalan women during the Cold War, reminding us of their roles, challenges and resilience.

Guatemala experienced intense political upheaval during the Cold War, marked by military coups and government instability. The violence spread between 1960 and 1996. Some sources provide estimates that range from 200,000 to 250,000 people who were killed or disappeared during the war. Those of indigenous ascendance and preponderantly women suffered the most unspeakable brutalities.

Front and back cover of  We continue forever: sorrow and strength of Guatemalan women
We continue forever: sorrow and strength of Guatemalan women. Pamphlet published by Women's International Resource Exchange, 1983. From the Senate House Library’s Latin American Pamphlet Collection.

Despite the risks they faced, many women emerged as activists, advocating for human rights, social justice and political reform. This meant that women often ended up bearing a disproportionate burden of the state-sponsored violence. Widespread human rights abuses, including disappearances and torture, affected countless families, with women often left to pick up the pieces and advocate for justice.

Indigenous women faced a unique set of challenges. They were not only subjected to the broader political turmoil but also to discrimination and violence due to their ethnicity. Nevertheless, their strength played a crucial role in preserving and promoting indigenous culture and traditions, as Zoe Anglesey poignantly describes in her poem, Womyn of Chinautla.

“Womyn of Chinautla”, poem by Zoe Anglesey, in We continue forever: sorrow and strength of Guatemalan women
“Womyn of Chinautla”, poem by Zoe Anglesey, in We continue forever: sorrow and strength of Guatemalan women

An enormous challenge for women was also the surge in forced displacements, with women, children and entire families fleeing violence and persecution. Many sought refuge in neighbouring countries, contributing to a massive regional refugee crisis, and as Guatemala's civil conflict intensified, women found themselves in the crossfire. Some joined armed resistance groups, while others were caught in the crosshairs of the conflict. Their experiences shed an important light on the complex intersections between gender and war. 

Despite all these challenges, feminist movements began to gain traction in Latin America during the Cold War. Women's organisations advocated for equality, reproductive rights and an end to violence against women, laying the groundwork for future social and political change.

Today, the Cold War may have ended, but its impact lingers in Guatemala. The struggle for justice and accountability for the atrocities committed during this period persists, with many women at the forefront of efforts to bring perpetrators to justice. We can now strongly affirm that amid all that adversity, Guatemalan women and Latin American women in general, exhibited remarkable resilience. Their stories reflect not only the pain and suffering they endured so courageously but also the strength and determination to build a more just and equitable society.

It is important to add that the situation for women in Guatemala improved gradually over the years, influenced by the peace process that began in the mid-1990s and ongoing efforts by various organisations to address gender inequalities. Subsequent decades saw advancements in legislation and policies aimed at promoting women's rights and well-being in Guatemala. However, the implementation of these laws remains markedly low, contributing to continued widespread inequality.

The title We continue forever goes beyond mere assertion, pointing to the profound resilience and fortitude that empowered these individuals to navigate the great trials and tribulations of a harrowing bygone era and to continue to make sense of them in the present.

Senate House Library has a wealth of material about women’s struggles and women’s movements in Latin America encompassing modern printed collections, special collections and archives. Of particular significance are the library’s Political Pamphlets consisting of over 4,000 pamphlets, posters, reports, miscellaneous journals and ephemera, produced by political parties, guerrilla groups, pressure groups, NGOs, trade unions and governments.