Tradition is holding women back
Wendy Mendez (32) is a young and highly motivated candidate for Congress in the September elections in Guatemala. She speaks about her drive in politics with her Dutch fellow politician Judith Sargentini.
"When I was a little girl, I once climbed a mango tree in my grandmother’s garden. But when she saw me, she threw a shoe at me and screamed that I should get out of the tree immediately! Why? Because I was a girl and by climbing it, the tree would die. Tradition can hold women back, and we should not let that happen."
With these words Wendy Mendez introduced herself to the conference ‘More Women. Better Politics’ which I attended in Guatemala on 3 August. This national event brought together 400 women from all political parties calling for more attention to the position of women in Guatemalan politics. The conference was the grand finale of a two years project supported by NIMD, UNDP and the SOROS foundation to get more women elected.
More than 2000 women will stand candidate in the September general elections for a new president, Congress and town councils. In the Congress elections Wendy is the third candidate on the list of URNG and the party’s highest placed woman.
According to Wendy the violent history of her country, which was wrecked for 35 years by a bloody civil war, and the second rate citizenship of women hold many women back, “Our elder women censor themselves. They do not speak out in public, because they still feel the insecurity of the times of oppression.”
Personal commitment to a political party seems weak among politicians in Guatemala. Floor-crossing is frequent and widely accepted.
But Wendy’s choice for the URNG is deeply rooted and very personal. Her party descents from the Mayan armed resistance against their oppression by the military junta which ruled the country during the 80s.
The movement changed itself into a political party after the peace agreements in 1996. The URNG has strong ties with the social movements in the country and finds its base in the Highland regions where most of the (poor) Mayan live.
In 1984 her Mayan mother disappeared and was murdered in a massacre by the military junta of president Rios Montt. The case is widely known, but until now no legal action has been taken against the responsible general who gave the orders. Wendy has been very active within a Guatemalan human rights organization to bring this case to the Inter American Commission on Human Rights.
With such a personal commitment to politics, she worries how to get along with other members of Congress, particularly with those from the party of Rios Montt. We wondered what was the best way to use such emotions in her work. As a parliamentarian she could try to go after those responsible for the massacres by continuously asking questions in Congress. She should use every opportunity to debate the massacres even when the Congress’ agenda is scheduled for a debate about – say – the construction of new highways. But whether that is sufficient….
No corn crop
During my visit to Guatemala the election campaign was in full swing. Guatemala City looked like a big festival terrain with youngsters waving their party flags and lampposts covered by numerous posters of parties and candidates. But the corn crop of the URNG which refers to daily bread of the Mayans is nowhere to be seen on the streets of the capital or elsewhere in the low lands. URNG has a small campaign budget, Wendy explains. They do not have the financial support of rich families that lead the national economy. Their leftwing political programme attracts mainly poor Mayans in the Highlands. This lack of funds will seriously effect their changes in the elections.
And how about the women candidates of URNG? Wendy is the first women on the list and the party has elected a female candidate for the vice presidency, which is quite exceptional compared to the other parties. Nevertheless, the woman who attracts the most attention is presidential candidate and Nobel Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu. Her brand new party Encuentro por Guatemala will be an important rival to other leftwing parties as URNG.
We will have to wait and see what happens in September. May the best woman win. And honestly, I wish Wendy Mendez gets a change to ask her questions in parliament.
Judith Sargentini is the leader of the Green Party in the town council of Amsterdam. She was invited by NIMD as a guest speaker at the conference ‘More Women. Better Politics’ in Guatemala City on 3 August 2007.