Guatemala’s Duty to Indigenous Women: How the Country can Advance Indigenous Rights through CEDAW

In 1981 the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) came into effect to formally address prejudices and outdated laws that have hindered the rights of women on an international scale. With nearly 189 countries having ratified this agreement, many are encouraged to conduct qualitative research and impose new legal standards to further emphasise and promote the rights and development of women in society. Having ratified CEDAW in 1982, Guatemala has taken significant steps to diminish the obstacles women face in the country. Whilst the country’s accomplishments should not be overlooked entirely, it should be noted that these measures have not always applied to all women in all cases – indigenous women remain on the margins of such developments and protections.

Within Central America, Guatemala remains one of the strongest economies and maintains the highest population of indigenous peoples and communities. An estimated 43 percent of the total population is made up of indigenous peoples, and within that it can be estimated that roughly half of that figure is comprised of women. Guatemala has a relatively young population, with the average age of women being 26. Within this range, indigenous women are at an inherent disadvantage in comparison to their non-indigenous counterparts.

The number of indigenous tribes, cultures, and languages in Guatemala varies greatly, and consequently women from each tribe encounter discrimination differently, especially compared to their non-indigenous female counterparts. The four main groups of indigenous tribes include the Mayans, Garifunas, Xincas and Mestizos. The discrimination that these groups encounter include: unequal employment opportunities, violence against women by authorities or non-indigenous perpetrators, obstacles to readily available and advanced education, and access to adequate sexual and reproductive health services – with the inclusion of the LGBTIQ community, who also feel the intersectional brunt of such discriminatory practices.

Researchers and advocates have concluded that indigenous women in Guatemala maintain some of the highest rates of poverty in the country, causing them to work in poor conditions for lower-paid professions, failing to receive higher or consistent education which would improve their professional skills, and often falling victim to underage or unwanted pregnancy, resulting in teen pregnancies or early mortality rates – often as a result of sexual violence. These factors have contributed to the inability of indigenous women to achieve the same human rights protections as the Guatemalan general population enjoy.

With a clear discrepancy in the protection of the rights of indigenous women in Guatemala, a number of activists and non-governmental organisations from the local indigenous communities have taken action by gathering information for report compilations alongside making submissions to the Committee overseeing the progress of CEDAW’s goals through the Tzununijá Indigenous Women’s Movement (est. 2009). The Movement also acts as a social implementer to ensure that indigenous women’s rights are upheld on a local level within the communities.

The Movement continues to strengthen its initial report through adding the latest information and data to raise awareness of the importance of the issues facing indigenous women in Guatemala. Most recently, the CEDAW Committee reviewed the aforementioned report in Autumn of 2017 in order to issue recommendations which coincide with the direct needs of indigenous women, as reported in their recent findings. The Committee produced recommendations which include: adopting special measures which tackle the obstacles of employment discrimination by providing avenues for transitional training and work to switch professions or to obtain formal employment; reforming educational frameworks that involuntarily shadow indigenous pupils from obtaining tailored programmes, scholarships, and other school benefits; and finally, by reconstructing national legislation which would aid “health expenditure and improve the coverage of and access to health services throughout its territory.” These directives also include extending legislation that provides protection for the LGBTIQ communities within the existing indigenous laws, so they no longer face a double-edged discrimination.

Following these recommendations, the Committee has requested that the State of Guatemala submits an updated report on the measures that the government has taken to ensure that these recommendations are being implemented for the benefit of society as a whole, as well as specifically targeting the existing imbalance in protecting indigenous women, to ensure that these changes in the social, political, and legal frameworks leave no woman behind.

Guatemala’s state reports continue to argue that measures have been taken to address the issues which could have an impact on indigenous communities, but fail to administer legal initiatives which directly focus on problems encountered only by indigenous communities, leading women in these communities to endure an intersectional form of discrimination that cannot be addressed by general frameworks.

While it is clear that the government has more work to do in order to accomplish the fulfillment of human rights, especially concerning indigenous women in Guatemala; the role of CEDAW provides a starting point that has encouraged groups, such as those involved in the Movement, to provide localised assistance and research to raise awareness to the ways in which indigenous women are directly affected by national legislation that fails to take into account their specific needs. Through the combined efforts of the Movement and the CEDAW Committee, Guatemala has little justification in further ignoring the rights of its own indigenous women.


Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979). Comprised in 1979, came into effect 1981, ratified by Guatemala in 1982. Available at:
UN Women Country Profile: Guatemala. Available at: Accessed 26 March 2018.
Indigenous Women of Guatemala Prepare to Report to CEDAW (2017). Available at:
Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women Examines the Reports of Guatemala (10 November 2017). Available at:
Shadow Report Regarding Indigenous Women in Guatemala: 68th Session of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) (2017). Available at:
Recommendations to the CEDAW Committee to Guarantee the Respect, Enjoyment and Implementation of the Individual and Collective Rights of Indigenous Women (2014). Available at: Accessed 26 March 2018.
Concluding observations of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (Guatemala) CEDAW/C/GUA/CO/7 (22 November 2017). Available at:
Consideration of reports submitted by State parties under article 18 of the Convention (Guatemala) CEDAW/C/GTM/8-9 (22 November 2017). Available at:

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