Laura Chavez inspires Guatemalan women to claim their rights

By Tjarda Muller
Laura Chavez, right, attends a conference on gender-based violence.

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When Laura Chávez was 16, she got pregnant for the first time. Her parents and the parents of the father of her child, forced them to marry, even though Chávez begged to remain single. The consequences were severe.

Chávez suffered harsh physical and psychological abuse from her husband. The police had to rescue her twice from the brutal beatings and take her to the hospital. Her husband was imprisoned both times. After the second incident, Chávez moved out and set up a new home on her own, taking a job selling Avon products door to door so she could feed her children.

Now, at 30, Chávez lives alone with her four daughters, and has become a leader to the women in her community. When she speaks, it’s with no bitterness in her voice. As she tells the story of how she got where she is today, her tone is soft yet determined.

“A little over a year ago I started to get involved. It was the political campaign for the mayor’s elections,” recalled Chávez “One of the candidates said: ’Gather votes for me and I will help you.’ I said to myself: “I have to get ahead! I will gather women. We will support the candidate mayor, and then help will come for us. I gathered almost 335 women. Now, I’m their leader and I got to know the government institutions. That is how it all started.”

The candidate Chávez rooted for won the election and is now  the mayor of Santiago Atitlán, a municipality of the department of Sololá, Guatemala. However, with his election, the much hoped for help for the women did not come.

But that didn’t stop Chávez. Through the Municipal Women’s Office she got involved in Oxfam’s Campaign for the Prevention of Gender Based Violence. Chávez receives training and information on women’s rights, on where to go for help, and on how to help other women.

“They come to me all beat up, and I won’t permit that,” says Chávez. “I take them in; I tell them a man who does that is not a man. Take a decision. Let’s go and denounce him. Let’s put an end to this. You can do it. You can work and earn your own money. Maybe it won’t be much, but you will be at peace. That’s what I do now, and I like it so much.

“Come here and sleep the night here, I tell them. Tomorrow I will accompany you and we’ll start fixing things. Oh, how I would like to run a shelter for women!”

The 335 women Chávez gathered for the mayoral campaign, are now part of a formal organization they named “Flower of Atitlan,” headed by Chávez. She visits communities, gives talks on women’s rights, and accompanies battered women. Oxfam offers her training and educational material to use.

“Before, I didn’t feel the same strength I feel today,” says Chávez. “Everything that I’ve been through, it has strengthened me a lot. I’m not afraid anymore. If something happens, we shouldn’t keep quiet. We have to make it public.  We women have rights, too!”