We The Peoples
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We The Peoples

Sepur Zarco case: The Guatemalan women who rose for justice in a war-torn nation

The full story about the groundbreaking case where Guatemalan women raped and enslaved during the civil war fought for justice at the highest court, and won.

Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown
Maria Ba Call with members of her family. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

The Guatemalan conflict

The Guatemalan internal armed conflict[1] dates back to 1954 when a military coup ousted the democratically elected President, Jacobo Arbenz. The subsequent military rulers reversed the land reforms that benefited the poor (mostly indigenous) farmers, triggering 36 years of armed conflict between the military and left-wing guerilla groups and cost more than 200,000 lives. Majority of those killed — 83 per cent — were indigenous Maya people.

What happened in Sepur Zarco

In 1982[2], the military set up a rest outpost in Sepur Zarco. The Q’eqchi leaders of the area were seeking legal rights to their land at the time. The military retaliated with forced disappearance, torture and killing of indigenous men, and rape and slavery of the women.

“We were forced to take turns…If we didn’t do what they told us to, they said they would kill us”

— Maria Ba Caal

“They burnt our house. We didn’t go to the Sepur military base (rest outpost) by choice…they forced us. They accused us of feeding the guerillas. But we didn’t know the guerillas. I had to leave my children under a tree to go and cook for the military… and…” Maria Ba Caal leaves that sentence unfinished. It hangs in the air as we sit in front of her mud shack. Her great grandchildren are playing nearby. She cries quietly.

Don Pablo, a local farmworker, helped identify the mass grave in Tijanas Farm, where military killings of civilians took place in the 1980s. Exhumations in 2012 found remains from 51 bodies at the site. Photos: UN Women/Ryan Brown
Paula Barrios with local farmworkers. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

The abuelas of Sepur Zarco

The abuelas [grandmothers] of Sepur Zarco. Before the historic judgment was passed on the Sepur Zarco case, the grandmothers covered their faces to protect their identity as they experienced intense discrimination, and even rejection. Now they are regarded as respected elders and leaders in their community.

“To me it’s very important that our voice and our history is known to our country so that what we lived through never happens to anyone else.”

— Maria Ba Caal

The abuelas fought for justice and reparations not only for themselves, but for change that would benefit the entire community. The court sentence promised to reopen the files on land claims, set up a health centre, improve the infrastructure for the primary school and open a new secondary school, as well as offer scholarships for women and children — measures that can lift them out of the abject poverty they continue to endure.

On 21 February, 2018, the Public Ministry of Guatemala, together with UN Women, presented a special medal of recognition to the 14 surviving grandmothers of the Sepur Zarco case.The Naxjolomi medallion, which in q’eqchi ‘means, ‘the one that leads’, recognizes the leadership of the grandmothers who fought for justice and their continued leadership to ensure that the reparation measures become a reality. In this photo, Carmen Xol shows her medallion. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown
Maria Ba Caal and Felisa Cuc lead the way to Felisa’s home. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown
Felisa Cuc’s home in Pombaac. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown
Women from the community, many with children, wait at the mobile health clinic. The free mobile health clinic in Sepur Zarco serves 70–80 people every day. Photos: UN Women/Ryan Brown
Inside the mobile clinic in Sepur Zarco. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown
Maria Ba Caal. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown


[1] The conflict in Guatemala is officially referred as the “internal armed conflict”.



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