Lorena Cabnal is an indigenous feminist from Guatemala. Previously with Xinca feminist organisation AMISMAXAJ, she is now a core member of the Tzk'at Network of Ancestral Healers of Community Feminism, an organisation of indigenous women defending women's rights, natural resources and territory in different regions of Guatemala.

On life for Xinca women and girls


"Many of the girls that grow up in Santa María de Xalapán grow up thinking that it’s normal to be taken involuntarily at 12 or 13 years old, to be any man’s woman. And if this man doesn’t like living with you he can discard you like rubbish. In my community on the mountain, many women already have up to four or five children when they’re 18 years old.

Many young girls work from a really young age; they have many domestic tasks and don’t go to school. When our education collective interviewed everyone in 2007, and asked the girls why they didn’t go to school, they said: ‘Because I have to cook and look after my younger brothers and sisters,’ or, ‘Because my mum or dad says that you don’t need to go to school in order to make tortillas.'

So we realised that many children grow up thinking that it’s normal not to have access to education, it’s normal for young girls to be taken as wives, it’s normal to be working as a young girl and to be exploited when you go to the farm with your family to cut coffee, it’s normal as well that they don’t pay you for the work you do."

On a growing awareness of gender

"In 2003 I was helping out a community project with the National Plan of Action against Sexual Exploitation of Children in Guatemala.

We created a programme for children and young people from about five to 20/21 years old. We talked about children’s issues, but also did fun recreational activities with them. I was really interested in promoting these issues, and tackling them within the community.

I remember a friend called María Andrés Serrano said to me one day: ‘Lorena, you know how children have rights, do you think that women have rights as well?  This made a great impact on me, because I thought: ‘Really, I’m a woman and I don’t even know what my rights are! Children have rights to education, recreation, and so on, so what are my rights?’

I think that from that moment on, an awareness of gender, an awareness of being a woman started to arise in me. Maria Andrés and I started saying: ‘We’ve got to do something!’

At that time we couldn’t organise ourselves, because hermetic communities aren’t very open to the organisation of women. We decided to tell our husbands that we were going to the cemetery to look after the tombs, because this isn’t seen as a bad thing. So we invited our neighbours, and we realised that the women really needed to talk, but we didn’t know what to talk about – we didn’t have a methodology, an agenda, or anything.

We made a list of all the urgent needs that the women in the community had, and a really long list started to appear – there was malnutrition in children, malnutrition in women, teenage pregnancies, maternal deaths…

We went to a load of organisations and state institutions; we heard that they helped women so we knocked on the door of the First Lady’s Secretariat for Social Works, we wrote letters… Nothing. And we got tired. So that was how we arrived at the Women’s Sector, an organisation that coordinates women’s organisations and has done a lot of political work, in the creation of the assembly of the civil society associations, and in the negotiation of the Peace Accords.

The Women’s Sector said to us: ‘We don’t have any productive projects for you, but we do have political support’. But we said that we didn’t want political support, we didn’t want anything to do with political parties. So they said, ‘It’s not political parties, let’s call it ‘social politics’.'

They said: ‘We’d love to help you start up a school for political training so that you can decide if you want to strengthen your organisation, but with clarity and through political thinking, because there are many organisations that don’t have clear mechanisms or means.

Maria Andrés Serrano said, ‘I know some other women leaders in other communities in the region, should we call them together?‘ … And that’s how we started up the Association for Indigenous Women of Santa Maria Xalapán’, on 24 July 2004. Today we have three schools for political training, in each of which around 30 women have participated, and also some really strong work with young women – more than 35 young women have participated in this political training process. It’s been a path of strengthening, of thinking and of organising for political action."

On the reaction of neighbours and community

"Well, it’s been complicated because to be honest at the beginning my family, my mother, my brothers, they didn’t show much support for this work, for doing a job to do with defending women’s and children’s human rights, or now that we’ve got to the point where we’re more of an association of indigenous women concerned with the defence of our natural resources.

On the one hand, our families are afraid that one day we could be physically affected. In other words, someone could kill us because of this fight. They said: ‘Why do you get yourself involved in this? Don’t criticise the government! Don’t criticise how things are! Why do you have to take this position? It’s better to leave things as they are, because in reality things don’t change!’

The reaction of the community can also be complicated: on the one hand they support you, but on the other hand sometimes they don’t, because when women start to have a voice sometimes it’s relevant, sometimes it’s valued, and this may not seem legitimate because of the historic values of men’s and women’s roles."

On the death threat she'll never forget

"In 2004 I received the first death threat. It said: ‘Stop putting yourself in the heads of women who don’t vote for you […], because if you don’t you’re going to appear hacked to pieces on one of the roads in the community’. So a few days after that message, the person who sent it was arrested in the bus terminal of Jalapa for having killed a leader of the opposition party. And then he was released from prison three days later, unpunished. So that means that this man threatened me because he could.

Since then I’ve been threatened several times for all the political work denouncing sexual violence against women and children, promoting the right for education and for our ethnic identities here in the mountains to be recognised, as women and as an indigenous people, as well as for denouncing the 31 metal mining licences granted in the region, and denouncing racism and institutional discrimination in Jalapa.

In 2006, there was one particular case, which involved three consecutive raids, related to our denunciations of kidnappings and rape, and concerning minors such as one case of a young woman and her seven-month old son. This situation was so serious because it didn’t just put my life as a human rights defender at risk, but also that of my family, because they raided my home.

So my family started feeling unsafe, and so that’s the other position of my family: ‘Your work is really risky and you’re putting us in danger’. And that’s something really complicated as well because then one starts to think, ‘Up to what point will our work really complicate the existence of the people around us?’"

On the need for international solidarity

"When I’ve experienced these situations, threats, raids, intimidation, I have even almost had to leave the country. In 2006 I had to leave my community and live somewhere else for more than seven months, and then return on a set of conditions.

But when this has happened to me, I don’t think that in my heart, in my mind, or in my body, I’ve ever thought about leaving the struggle… I’m convinced that if something were to happen to me, I think that much of my work has had implications, not just political but also on the energy of the struggle, not only for women but also in the community. And that’s important because it makes the defence of human rights a collective thing.

I like feeling that I’m not alone, feeling that I have support, because what has passed through my mind when these things become intense is who’s supporting me; I think immediately about who I have to call. In other words, I don’t think about the fear or terror that’s engulfing me, I don’t think about how long it’s going to last, I don’t panic or worry; I think immediately of my national and international support network, of solidarity; I think about who our allies are, for defending my rights too, as a human rights defender."

On the support of PBI

"Throughout this situation we’ve experienced insecurity, threats and intimidations. In July 2009 we asked PBI for accompaniment. We read PBI’s monthly bulletin and saw that it was like a report of threats that HRDs are suffering, and it’s also a form of public announcement, which is important for a network of support and solidarity with the struggles of women’s organisations, social and indigenous movements in different parts of the country.

For us it’s hugely important for us to feel supported not just with solidarity, but also in political support: It has enabled AMISMAXAJ to strengthen our political work more efficiently, while remaining aware of the risks that accompany the defence of human rights in the region."

On the impact of her work within the Xinca community

"I think one of the positive changes is that the indigenous Xinca government now recognises us as valid political actors. They consult us; they take notice of us. … I think this is really important for the Xinca women. Another important achievement is that we have assumed a visible ethnic identity, because before no one talked about the Xinca people. They didn’t say we existed. I think this changes indigenous peoples’ situation at a national level and can be seen as transcending the issue of the situation of women in Guatemala, apart from the fact that we are denouncing discrimination against indigenous women, racism against indigenous women, sexism in education, violence against women.

I think another important achievement is the strengthening of Xinca women through political training, which leads to a strengthening of political feminist thought, and to now be part of the growing feminist movement in Guatemala. And that gives us an approach from a feminist viewpoint for the defence of our territory, our bodies, and our land. I think that we indigenous women have to make important contributions based on the historic oppression, of our bodies and of our territories.

We are also establishing relationships within the communities and with mixed organisations, and with people we know through our families, through our lives, and there are also important achievements here, not just because we’ve questioned the unequal power relationships in our culture, but also because we are offering ideas, from our view of the world, of how to strengthen and build more equal relationships. We are proposing that women should participate in the Xinca government, because it’s currently only men; we are encouraging women to talk of the process of spirituality and healing, because this healing process helps liberate us from pain and from all the violence that we have lived through. We are also promoting recreation for young women and sports…

Another achievement is that before, only two women, including adults, in the group knew how to read and write, but today we can all read and write; we have an education centre where more than 70 women have learnt to read and write. This education centre has allowed us to provide education in the context of our ethnic identity and a non-sexist education. So, I think that we’ve made really important advances that are changing our situation as women.

I think that these are great advances for Xinca women. It’s been a difficult fight, but I think we’ve achieved it through tenacity, through perseverance, and through our collective strength."

This is an edited translation of an interview with Lorena in November 2010.