Widespread citizen protest has led to a dramatic turn of events in Guatemala: President Otto Perez Molina today officially stepped down from office. His resignation comes only three days before the Presidential elections and within hours of Congress’ vote to strip him of his constitutional immunity. An arrest warrant has been issued against him for his alleged role as head of the country’s largest corruption network.
These actions come after more than five months of protests, with 50,000 people taking to the streets demanding that the president resign and calling for an end to the corruption pervading Guatemalan politics. Thousands are now rejoicing, and feminist groups are hoping to build on this momentum to push for better policies and services for women.
While the past five months have shown historic levels of mobilization, the beginning of this social unrest dates back to earlier in 2006 when the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which is backed by the United Nations, began conducting investigations into the high ranks of government. The CICIG suspects President Molina and his entire cabinet to be entangled in a customs scandal called “la Linea” (The Line); they are accused of accepting bribes from importers to lower standard import taxes. All the while, public policies are lagging and funding to the health sector has been severely cut.
“When people realize that there are no health services, that there are no schools and no funds to pay public sector employees—meaning that corruption affects them—the indignation becomes intolerable,” says Ingrid Galvez from GOJoven Guatemala. GOJoven, an IWHC partner, trains young leaders in Guatemala to advance and advocate for adolescent sexual and reproductive health. Like many activists, Ingrid and her team at GoJoven Guatemala have rallied across the country to demand sweeping change.
Activist groups from diverse fields have come together to speak out against their government with a single voice. This new synergy has brought visibility to some of the most marginalized groups, including those advocating for sexual and reproductive rights, and Ingrid sees GOJoven benefiting from this mobilization. Because of this widespread outrage against corruption, “citizen participation is more active, proactive, informed, and aware,” she explained. “This makes for a good climate for sexual and reproductive rights to be incorporated into laws.”
Since 2013, GOJoven has trained young leaders to both hold their government accountable for the sexual and reproductive health and rights frameworks that have already been put into place—such as Guatemala’s National Youth Plan, the Law on Universal and Equitable Family Planning Services, and the National Program on Reproductive Health—and to pass new laws that can advance youth’s rights on these issues. However, opposition from the Catholic Church and emerging Evangelical sects and a lack of political will have hindered progress.
Also on the line for Ingrid and other feminists during these protests—another kind of “linea,” you could say—is the reform of the Electoral and Political Parties Law, which would implement quotas for women and indigenous populations on the parties’ lists of candidates. Several countries in Latin America including Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico have already enacted similar legislation to promote women’s participation in politics. Given the deep-seated cronyism of Guatemala’s electoral system, such a quota would have been unlikely to pass under President Molina’s term, or any of his predecessors. But now that Molina has resigned, Ingrid says there is a chance a transitional government could sign the bill. “With more women and feminists in Congress, the landscape for sexual and reproductive rights can change.”
For Ingrid and other women’s rights advocates, the protests and the president’s resignation present an opportunity like never before to call attention to poor governance and corruption and demonstrate the power of the people to bring about transformation. They are using this moment to forge new alliances and advance their priorities, to ensure that sexual and reproductive health and rights are included in the people’s agenda for change.