“Women are judged more harshly”

ARTICLE | 7 March 2020

Swedwatch works with women human rights defenders challenging irresponsible business operations and rights abuses around the world and is highlighting their work ahead of International Women’s Day on 8 March 2020.

In Guatemala, threats, harassment and killings of defenders increase each year, as does the stigmatisation and criminalisation of defenders and their work, often by those at the highest level of government. Defenders of the environment, land rights and indigenous rights are most at risk. More than 50 percent of those attacked are women human rights defenders.

Criminal proceedings are often launched by private companies related to the mining sector and the construction of dams in order to silence defenders or social movements that resist large-scale mining or hydroelectric dam projects.

The Committee for Peasant Unity (CUC) peasant movement works in over 200 communities defending the land, water and food rights of impoverished farmers, primarily in communities facing displacement or environmental damage caused by mining, dams and industrial agriculture corporations. The organisation has been affected by the shrinking civic space in Guatemala and experienced an uptick in legal attacks against its members.

Dalila Merida is a CUC regional coordinator in the Costa Sur region and one of these facing lengthy legal procedures initiated by a company.

Could you describe how the attacks against you started?

In my community, the CUC has been defending the rights of 300 retired farm workers whose pensions and other social security benefits had not been paid by the farm owners at the farm where many of them had worked their entire life. In 2016 we organised a demonstration outside the farm to pressure the farm owners to engage in dialogue. We stood outside the farms with our placards but on the first day they confronted us and their security guards started shooting at people.

There was a lot of physical violence. Since then the owners of the farm began to criminalise us, filing lawsuits, accusing me and four others of aggravated usurpation. I was detained for nine days but the charges were dropped due to lack of evidence. But since then the case has been opened again, and we recently had the first hearing.

How will this affect you and your work as a defender?

The minimum penalty is six years. I don’t know what will happen, but I know it is their way of trying to silence us. I have already been working for over 11 years with this movement. It has been quite complicated because people judge you without knowing the reality.

When they detained me, I was just leaving university. The detention was very public and it came out in the media. People started saying it was because of robbery and other things that were untrue. My children were very affected. One of them went to see me when I was detained. He started to cry and couldn’t stop. He didn’t think they would let me out.

How are women affected compared to men?

Women are judged more harshly because we are the ones in charge of the family and the children; it makes it more complicated for women to be defenders than for men. Many of us have faced legal charges despite [the fact] that we are a peaceful organisation that defends rights. It has become a way to silence us, but we are so many, they will never succeed.

We have nothing to be ashamed of. We have to keep fighting to achieve the justice we are looking for.

This interview is from the Swedwatch report Defenders at Risk: Attacks on Human Rights and Environmental Defenders and the Responsibility of Business