One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: the Women of Sepur Zarco and Berta Cácerces

Even as we celebrate a big victory, we are mourning another tragedy.

It is International Women's Day, and two events in our own Hemisphere -- a historic conviction of two military officers from the Guatemalan military for sexual crimes committed 30 years ago and the brutal assassination of Honduras' leading woman activist -- seem to sum up where we stand globally on women's rights. In some ways, women are making such huge leaps forward. In other ways, they are more at risk than ever.

Let's start with the victory.

Thirty years ago in a small village called Sepur Zarco, located in rural northeastern Guatemala, large landowners invited the Guatemalan military -- then waging a genocidal war against the Mayan people of Guatemala -- to set up camp. As the military moved in, soldiers "disappeared" many of the small farmers of the community, Mayan campesinos, and raped their wives. Some of the women managed to escape to the mountains, where they foraged for food and watched many of their children slowly die of starvation. The others were held as hostages and forced into sexual and domestic slavery at the camp. The women lived in constant fear for their lives, and at the end of it all, were ostracized by their own communities.

Now fast-forward twenty years.

In 2003, women's organizations in Guatemala began to work with the women of Sepur Zarco, helping them to heal and see that they were not to blame for what happened. A few years into this process, 15 of the women decided that they were ready to break the silence. They asked their new friends from national women's organizations to help them take their case to court.

And take it to court they did -- all the way to the Supreme Court of Guatemala. The landmark case, which started on February 1 and finished on February 26, is unique in the relatively short history of sexual violence litigation worldwide. While international tribunals have focused on sexual violence in past wars, for example in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda, the case of Sepur Zarco is believed to be the first time that women who were raped by the military during war sat across from their perpetrators in the highest court of the land where the crimes actually took place.

This was no accident.

It was the result of more than a decade of hard work on the part of the Alianza Rompiendo el Silencio y la Impunidad (Alliance to Break the Silence and Impunity), a coalition of Guatemalan women's organizations. They were persistent and clever, choosing to strategically use this case to make larger changes in Guatemala's justice system by applying international standards around litigating sexual violence committed during armed conflicts to the Sepur Zarco case. Importantly, the Alliance insisted on putting the survivors at the center of the process. And they protected the survivors at every step of the way, recognizing that a case that pitted poor indigenous women against former military men who still hold a great deal of political and economic power in Guatemala would involve high levels of risk.

Last but certainly not least, the Alliance reached out for support to the global women's movement -- calling on the sisterhood for everything from financial support to declarations of support and the physical presence of international observers in the courtroom.

Watching the trial unfold was like waking up on an alternative feminist planet: the activists who supported the plaintiffs to trial were all women, all but one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs were women and the judge presiding over the case is highly respected woman known for bravely taking on high profile, high risk cases. Every time one of the sneering defense lawyers referred to the Mayan women as "prostitutes" or their supporters as "terrorists", the supporters in the court room snapped photos, tweeted #TodasSomosSepurZarco and made it abundantly clear to everyone to everyone inside the courtroom and those who were watching from afar who are the real heros.


So it is no wonder that on February 26, when the court found the two military men guilty of crimes against humanity, including sexual violence and sexual slavery, women in Guatemala and around the world celebrated. A leader in the fight against sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo sent her congratulations, and said how inspiring the case was for women in her country who still suffer widespread sexual violence and have almost no access to justice.

But sadly, the warm glow from the Sepur Zarco victory was short-lived. Early this morning, the news broke that Berta Cácerces, a fearless and prominent Honduran activist, was assassinated in her home during the night.

For several years now Berta had experienced threats as a result of her work to peacefully denounce a proposed hydroelectric dam that threatened the lives and livelihoods of indigenous peoples in the area. Berta and her fellow activists were successful in delaying construction of the dam. In 2009, Berta was one of the most prominent voices denouncing a coup d'etat in her country.

In a country that the UN has called one of the most dangerous in the world for women human rights defenders, Berta has refused consistently to back down -- or shut up. Now her community has lost one of its most fearless and globally recognized leaders, and her children have lost their mother.

Bertha's death is emblematic of the extreme violence women human rights defenders experience in Honduras and throughout Central America. As women become more organized, and more effective through their organizing to take on transnational corporations in Honduras, or the military in Guatemala, they also become a bigger threat to the status quo.

And so, in some cases, they pay with their lives.

Berta's death is a sobering reminder that the fight is not over for the women of Sepur Zarco. Leaving Guatemala City, and returning to their rural homes, the women of Sepur Zarco will need to watch their backs. Their perpetrators are now in jail, but many of the men who ordered the atrocities 30 years ago still wield considerable power in Guatemala -- and are bitter that a group of "powerless" indigenous women have exposed their secrets.

Berta's story also serves as a reminder to the global sisterhood on this International Women's Day that we need to be ever vigilant in our support of the women who are at the highest risk of backlash for upholding all the principles we hold dear in the women's movement.

As Berta Cácerces once said, "It is a global fight and it is a global problem. It is a problem in this continent not only faced by us but by all people that have a sense of justice and freedom."

This post is part of a blog series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with International Women's Day, celebrated on March 8, 2016. A What's Working series, the posts address solutions tied to the United Nations' theme for International Women's Day this year: "Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality." To view all of the posts in the series, click here.