Apr 12, 2018

InterCambio’s Documentary Sheds Light on the Situation and Initiative of Maya Women in Guatemala


On 10 April 2018, along with the Franco-American association InterCambio, the UNPO held a screening of InterCambio-produced documentary “Maya in action – Narratives of resilience in Guatemala” in the heart of Brussels’ European district. The documentary details the challenges and initiatives put in place by Maya indigenous women in their day-to-day life, and the particularity of how they adapt to social, medical and technological changes in a Guatemalan society plagued by discrimination. British MEP for the North West, Ms Julie Ward, participated in the event and discussed indigenous rights in the context of the European Union (EU)’s foreign policy making and what further steps should be taken.  

The documentary takes the viewers to the heart of Mayan society in Guatemala, and the challenges it is facing. The four filmmakers, Ms Eléa Pays, Ms Pénélope Dufourt, Ms Laura Cahier and Ms Chorkin Chau, travelled to Tecpan, the heartland of Mayan Guatemala, and followed the work of NGO Wuqu’ Kawok, that provides medical services to Mayan women. 

The Mayans have been systemically discriminated against due to the legacy of the colonial era and the Guatemalan Civil War. Although a great deal of the Guatemalan population is a mix of indigenous and white settlers (mestizos), the customs of the Mayan indigenous people are looked down upon and they are treated as second class citizens. But the struggle is also intersectional. The discrimination they face is as much about their living conditions being of a lower standard than that of the rest of the population, as about their customs that create the stereotypes involved. Add to that the struggle the Mayan women, up against a society that does not afford them the freedom of choice in terms of family planning and political expression, a culture of machismo that is particular virulent against Mayan women. A quarter of pregnant women in their communities are teenagers, with many not having a say in the matter.

Ms Julie Ward MEP, a long-term human rights and women’s rights advocate, was clear about the approach she would take to resolve indigenous rights issues, stressing that they need more representation in public and civil society, mentioning that when LGBT and African-American groups saw more and more representatives in public life, it inspired them to engage more and to believe emancipation was possible. The role model the documentary subtly puts forwards is Sandy, a young indigenous doctor, who helps her fellow women cope with contraceptive medical measures, a thorny issue in Latin American society as a whole. Her humility is present throughout the documentary, through the way she explains the luck she had in being able to attend medical school and her patience with the indigenous women who are not familiar with some of the newer contraceptive medical techniques.  

The discussion moved on towards more broad debates about what the EU could do to improve indigenous rights and conditions in Latin America, especially given its commercial policy in the area affecting the livelihood of many indigenous communities on the continent. Among the solutions proposed by Ms Ward, such as the lack of political funding for indigenous social movements, one stood out: the need for more policy coherence and less policy dissonance. Too often in the European Parliament and in the EU in general, Trade is working on its set targets without consulting Foreign Affairs, while they should be working together rather than in their own silos. The lack of ability to oversee different programs and coordinate them is indeed a thorn in the side for NGOs like UNPO that wish to protect rights across multiple policy dimensions. If InterCambio’s documentary shows us anything it is precisely cross-sectional discrimination against an indigenous people, a challenge that many  UNPO Members face. A coordinated EU external policy would greatly help in bringing indigenous rights to the fore in contexts such as that of trade policy, often fails to take into account human rights protection.