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Meet the woman breaking the pattern of violence in Guatemala

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Photo: Ilene Perlman/Oxfam America Photo: Ilene Perlman/Oxfam America

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Yadira Leticia Tziná Mendoza explains why she’s taking on a taboo and helping other women realize their rights.

If Yadira Leticia Tziná Mendoza is the face of things to come, then women in Guatemala have a lot to look forward to. I met Tziná Mendoza in early March in Santiago Atitlan during a field visit to gather information on Oxfam’s work with women who are striving to break free of the gender-based violence that plagues so much of Guatemalan society.

For two years Tziná Mendoza, now 23, had been the coordinator of the municipal women’s office there, where Oxfam has been working with a local partner on preventing violence against women. It was a job that placed her, in her early 20s, at the critical intersection between women who were just beginning to understand their rights and the legal help they desperately needed to realize them. Her job, often, was to accompany women in their first forays into the judicial system to file complaints against abusive partners. Since many of the women didn’t speak Spanish, Tziná Mendoza served as translator, slipping in and out of their native Tz’utujil.

She admits to being surprised in the beginning at the volume of cases—and intimidated, too, when having to discuss the details, especially with older women.

“There’s a taboo here,” said Tziná Mendoza. “They don’t want to talk about their lives.”

But in Guatemala, violence against women is a deep and long-standing problem, one that finally triggered the enactment of a law against femicide in 2008. And Tziná Mendoza is among a growing number of women determined to see the culture change—starting with her own family.

“In my case, I’m a little rebellious,” she told me, a warm and steady smile on her face. “I changed my role: What the man can do, I can do, and what I can do the man can do—that’s why they call me feminist.”

And that’s why she started to insist that her brother—her only one—help with some of the household chores that formerly fell to his four sisters, as the work does in many Guatemalan homes. Tziná Mendoza has convinced him, and her parents, to see things from her point of view.

“When someone gets married here, she’s told she has to be subject to her husband until death.”

That’s her charm—a cheerful persuasiveness inspired by conviction and her own journey toward embracing her rights, a journey she is now helping other women take.

“I would say there’s a high percentage of violence [in this region],” said Tziná Mendoza. “One of the issues is when someone gets married here, she’s told she has to be subject to her husband until death.”

But with the help of advocates like Tziná Mendoza, women are learning that there is a way out of the misery that traps them, that they can find work outside of the house and support themselves—independently. That’s where the municipal women’s office comes in. It’s a place where women can gather, receive training, and learn new skills that will help set them free. And until recently, it’s a space they had to themselves. But a change in local policy is now forcing the women here to share their office with other municipal functions, depriving them of the privacy they need to discuss the deeply personal matters of domestic violence.

Tziná Mendoza looks grim as she talks about it.

“One of the rules that exists for the creation of the offices for women is they have to have their own space,” she says. “In this case, they changed everything.” The mayor promised her, she added firmly, to find a solution.

Though Tziná Mendoza is no longer coordinator of the office, that hasn’t cooled her fire: She is now studying to become a social worker. And I get the feeling that if I were to come back to Santiago Atitlan someday, Tziná Mendoza will have found a way to hold the municipality to its promise—a promise that means a great deal to every woman striving to lead a life free of violence.

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