What contributions have women during the military dictatorships made to the contemporary human rights struggles in Argentina and Guatemala?

“One of the things that I simply will not do now is shut up. The women of my generation in Latin America have been taught that the man is always in charge and the woman is silent even in the face of injustice…Now I know that we have to speak out about the injustices publicly… I am going to denounce them publicly without fear. This is what I learned.” María del Rosario de Cerruti, a Madre (Women in World History, 2007)


During the military dictatorships in both Guatemala[1] and Argentina[2] , the murder and disappearance of thousands silenced and terrorised the two nations. Civil society was forcibly closed by both regimes who implemented counter-insurgency tactics to suppress the opposition forces. Many innocent civilians were also affected by the violence despite their lack of involvement in either side of the conflict.

Women, mainly mothers in Argentina and widows in Guatemala[3] began to mobilise in response to the repressive military regimes. Helen Safa believes the root of this resistance lay in the traditional role of women as caregivers in Latin America (1990). She suggests that the self-identification and gratification that women derive from motherhood and marriage is vital to ‘the tenacity of family in Latin America’ (1990, p.364). Women, therefore, began to resist in an effort to break the silence and find their lost loved ones. “Activist mothering” (Afflitto and Jesilow, 2007, p.113) and “movement midwife” (Kurtz, 2010, p.1) are two concepts used to describe the women’s movements that grew out of the dictatorships. Both tconcepts can be used to analyse why and how women in these two countries organised themselves and affected change.

Argentinian organisation, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo (the Madres) are probably the most famous women’s group fighting for justice. The Grandmothers (the Abuelas) campaign to identify the stolen children of their disappeared children has also grown and continues to be politically active today. In Guatemala, the Group of Mutual Support (GAM) and the National Council of Widows of Guatemala (CONAVIGUA) led the way. The contributions of individual women in the struggle against human rights violators must also be recognised. Rigoberta Menchú Tum, Rosalina Tuyuc, Hebe de Bonafini, and Claudia Paz y Paz must all be considered as ‘agents’ of change, rather than recipients of it (Kandawasuika-Nhundu, 2013).

This paper will explore four important contributions made by these women to the struggle to end human rights violations and to tackle impunity for previous violations. It will begin by exploring the important role that these movements had in bringing women out of the home and into politics. Traditional roles were changed for ever. The next issue to be discussed will be the contribution made by these movements to the voice of women in Guatemala and Argentina today, for both civil and political human rights issues and economic and social issues too. The third contribution was the strengthening of national solidarity through human rights activism. The fourth and final contribution to be discussed in this paper is the creation and maintenance of links with the international community.


Georgia Booth
This is the introduction to an essay written for the MA in Understanding and Securing Human Rights at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies. The rest of the essay and its bibliography can be found in the comment section.

[1] Guatemala’s 36 year civil war began with a US-sponsored military coup in 1954 and continued until the Peace Accords were signed between the government and the guerrilla group, Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (UNRG). The UN-sponsored Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH) stated that the Guatemalan government was responsible for 93% of the 200,000 deaths and disappearances during the civil war (1999). This figure is largely undisputed. 83% of people killed were of the indigenous Mayan population, though many human rights and social activists in urban settings also became targets.

[2] Argentina’s civil war began in 1976 when the Peronist government was overthrown in, yet another, military coup. Tactics used by the Argentinian government included torture, arbitrary detention in clandestine detention centres, assassinations and “death flights” (prisoners were sedated and then thrown from airplanes into the sea. The National Commission on Disappeared Persons (CONADEP) estimated 11,000 disappearances while the Madres put the figure at 30,000 (Women in World History, 2007).

[3] This is a generalisation based on the focus of much of the literature analysing these women’s movements and on the names of the various women’s organisations that were formed. These two countries have been chosen as a focus so as to allow for more detailed analysis, rather than providing an overview of Latin America as a region.


2 thoughts on “What contributions have women during the military dictatorships made to the contemporary human rights struggles in Argentina and Guatemala?

  1. The Politicisation of Motherhood and Marriage

    What drove these women to stand up to the ruthless governments at the time? Belluci who interviewed a Madre, Nora Cortiñas, concluded that the mothers of the disappeared are collectively experiencing ‘childless motherhood’ (1999). She argued that if motherhood is defined by the existence of a child, and similarly if one considers wifehood to be defined by the existence of a husband, the women in Argentina and Guatemala were unable to fulfil their traditional roles as mothers and wives (1999, p.83). These women collectivised because of their shared loss of what defined them as women. They were driven to find answers. In doing so they transformed the traditional role for women as caregivers in the private home, into women as political activists (Afflitto and Kesilow, 2007), (Safa, 1990).

    The Madres began to meet in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires and walk around the square alone or in pairs. The forced destruction of their family led the Madres to literally take themselves out of the privacy of the family home and into the public sphere. With their white headscarves they would meet at the same time each Thursday, an embodiment of the social and familial impact of the “Dirty War”. Bosco described this public activity as a ‘performance’ of motherhood (2006, p.343), a performance that the authorities in view of the plaza found difficult to ignore . GAM and CONAVIGUA in Guatemala were similarly public in their activism. They would organise demonstrations and marches throughout the cities. Holding pictures of their lost ones forced the people and government of Guatemala to look into the faces of those who had been killed or disappeared.

    Rigoberta Menchú Tum is a key example of how women have challenged their traditional gender roles in the face of human rights violations. Having lost her mother, father and brother during the conflict she became politically active through involvement in the Committee of the Peasant Union (CUC), which her father has previously been a member of. Menchú taught herself Spanish and was involved in the education of the indigenous population to equip them to resist the dictatorship (The Nobel Foundation, 1992). Symbolically taking her father’s place, she became a representative of the Mayan Quiche people and specifically the female Quiche population. She was driven by loss and the necessity for change, into political participation. Wearing the traditional traje, she is a colourful, visual representative of indigenous Guatemalan women in the political arena. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 and has run twice in the presidential elections, in 2007 and 2011. While she was unsuccessful in both elections and there was controversy regarding her prize, the politicisation of women in Guatemala is evident . Women’s activism transformed the role of women from passive actors into political activists. Menchú illustrates this contribution to the on-going campaign to secure human rights. Because of the actions of women like Menchú and women’s groups in the both countries, the State became the ‘arena of confrontation’ (Safa, 1990, p.354).

    Expansion of Goals and Longevity of Change

    The political arena thus opened up and women became legitimate players. The endurance of this change is the second contribution to be discussed in this paper. Women continue to make their voices heard but they have developed the focus of their demands to include economic, social and cultural rights as well as civil and political.

    Rosalina Tuyuc, co-founder of CONAVIGUA, continues to work on human rights issues linked to the past conflict in Guatemala. Having lost her father and husband during the conflict, she challenged the State’s actions and CONAVIGUA leads exhumations, provides legal aid and emotional support to survivors and victims’ families. Tuyuc also took part in recent debate in the New York Times about reconciliation in Guatemala. Speaking alongside academics and journalists she continues to be involved in contentious issues of impunity and the rule of law in her country (NY Times, 2013).

    It would be impossible to analyse the contributions of influential women working on human rights issues in Latin America without mentioning Claudia Paz y Paz. Elected as public prosecutor in 2010, Paz y Paz has continued the work of groups such GAM and CONAVIGUA who initiated and continue to contribute to the transitional justice process in Guatemala. In addition to attempting to address the crime and drug problem in Guatemala through the Commission against Impunity (CICIG), she has been pushing through human rights cases from the war. The prosecution of five ex-military officials for the infamously brutal Dos Erres massacres occurred under Paz y Paz after delays of nearly 15 years (Doyle, 2012). Like the Madres and members of GAM in the seventies and eighties, Paz y Paz continues to work despite the threats made against her regularly. As the women before, here Paz y Paz continues to challenge injustice and inequality, not just in the ‘hyper-patriarchal society’ of Latin America, but also in the male dominated arena of Guatemalan politics (Ramirez-Boscan, 2013).

    Argentinian organisation, the Abuelas, is also still campaigning for justice for past atrocities. Searching for their grandchildren who were stolen during the military junta, the Abuelas worked with scientists to develop a genetic test called ‘Grandparenthood Index’ (Delgado, 2012, p.50). This DNA test is revolutionary and has led to the identification of eighty-seven lost children (Abuelas, 2013) and has inspired the founding of HIJOS, the organisation of stolen children in Argentina campaigning for justice for their disappeared parents. It is clear to see that this campaign started and has continued as a family-oriented one inspiring human rights activism in the face of injustice and impunity. The longevity of this familial activism is an undeniable legacy of the mothers’ groups that began in Buenos Aires in the 1970s. Hebe de Bonafini, co-founder of the Madres, is also still a human rights activist who has led the Madres since the split in 1986 . Described as ‘a huge political all and public relations tool of [Kirchner’s] administration’, de Bonafini is very much involved in current politics in Argentina and with the help of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the Madres have altered their advocacy work. The focus of the organisation is now the campaign for anti-poverty (Kelly, 2011). Shifting the demands to include economic and social rights has been a strategic move, and one mirrored by women’s movements across Latin America. The Madres, for example, recently received 187 million pesos for social housing projects, for example (ibid.) .

    Ramirez-Boscan discussed the role of indigenous women in the recent 57th Commission on the Status of Women (March 4- 15 2013). Indigenous female representatives not only discussed problems facing women today, but offered solutions and demanded mechanisms to eradicate violence against women (2013). We are witnessing the political participation of women in global discussions which is partially a result of the women’s movement in Latin America during the military dictatorships. Women found their voices and continue to use them to demand not only their civil and political rights but also to make economic and social demands.

    Strengthening National Solidarity

    The collectivisation and politicisation of women during the military dictatorships in Guatemala and Argentina made an important contribution to the human rights struggle in the strengthening of national solidarity. Women’s groups were particularly important in bringing together women from across the country, irrespective of locality, class or race. GAM’s marches were made up of both educated, urbanites and illiterate Mayans. Similarly in Argentina, the Madres were not made up of women from all socio-economic background. The women had suffered mutual loss and it was this shared grief that brought people together. Afflitto and Jesilow reiterated this, suggesting that it was women’s groups that provided the link between individual motive and participation in social movement (2007, p.102).

    In Guatemala the ‘survival’ of the movement relied on the interdependence of members (Afflitto and Jesilow, 2007, p.122). The same can be said about Argentina. In both cases, the women, in groups, searched for truth during the conflict and for justice after, relying on each other. The genocide of the indigenous population in Guatemala became the concern of students in the city (Afflitto and Jesliow, 2007, p.126). Social anthropologist Myrna Mack, for example, was assassinated in 1990 for trying to expose through her research, the plight of the indigenous Mayans at the hands of the army (Forster, 2003). From this example, one can see that there was a collective sense of being Guatemalan, rather than Mayan or ladino. Kurtz suggested that this motivation for collectivising was ‘family rather than politics’ (2010, p.1).

    Looking for loved ones provided similarly common sense of purpose in Argentina. Cortiñas said ‘our biological children became 30,000 children’ (Belluci, 1999, p.86). This illustrates clearly how individual grief turned into a national movement. The fact that Madres walked at the same time in their town or city’s plaza each day reiterates this: Women across the nation would walk together each week (Bosco, 2006, p.347). These women’s movements operated in an open space, ‘across which flowed social relations’ regardless of geographical location (Bosco, 2006, p.342). The strengthening of national solidarity created a solid platform from which contemporary women’s movements could campaign.

    TANs: Creation and Impact

    Women’s groups in both Argentina and Guatemala have become part of a transnational advocacy network, or a TAN (Keck and Sikkink, 1998). Consisting of various international and domestic organisations and individuals with common values and goals, TANs are characterised by ‘reciprocal and horizontal patterns of communication and exchange’ and have been particularly instrumental in affecting human rights change in Latin America (Keck and Sikkink, 1998, p.8).

    The setting up of the Commission against Impunity (CICIG) in Guatemala, for example, was the result of pressure from both domestic organisations and foreign governments. Helen Mack, the sister of the assassinated anthropologist Myrna Mack, met with a US Embassy representative, David Lindwall, in 2001 (WOLA, 2008, p.5). She represented various human rights organisations in Guatemala and spoke of their shared plea for a commission to tackle impunity in Guatemala. David Lindwall was an influential actor at the time in Guatemala and while CICIG wasn’t set up until 2006, the role of the women’s organisations in contributing to its creation is undeniable (ibid.)

    This sort of collaboration with external actors and organisations, and the development of international advocacy, began during the conflicts. Afflitto and Jesilow credit GAM with increasing international attention on Guatemala in the eighties (2007, p.104). Leaders of the organisation who had not already been targeted with violence, were receiving threats and asked Peace Brigades International for protection . These links with international organisation is also evident today. GAM currently works with Oxfam on a campaign to eradicate violence against women, a serious human rights problem in Guatemala (Oxfam, 2013). The continued contribution of women, and organisations founded by women, to the creation and maintenance of a TAN campaigning on human rights issues, is evident.

    In Argentina the Madres worked in a similar way to garner support from the international community. During the 19787 World Cup, the Madres appealed to the football teams and supporters who were in Buenos Aires. As a result of their advocacy work, a number of European players appeared in the plaza in a display of international condemnation for the actions of the military junta (Safa, 1990, p.3). Amplifying their concerns at the international level was a brave tactic that led to other domestic civil society actors finding their political activist voices. Kurtz suggests that the madres inspired clergy men and labour leaders across Argentina to speak out against the government (2012, p.2), demonstrating their social as well as political impact.

    International advocacy work, through integration into TANs, has, and remains, vital to the campaign to end human rights violations. TANs still operate with individual women and women’s organisations in both countries, working to secure basic human rights and also justice for previous violations.


    Groups like the Madres, the Abuelas, GAM and CONAVIGUA remain cohesive and active three decades on from their creation, showing their contribution to national, and female, solidarity in the face of human rights injustices in Argentina and Guatemala. During the military juntas in both countries, the death and disappearance of children, husbands, and other family members led women to collectivise, politicising their traditional roles as mothers and wives. This transformation of women from caregivers in the private sphere, into political activists, became a lasting trend. Safa called it a ‘new form of doing politics (nueava former de hacer politica) in Latin America’ (1990, p.359).

    Finding a political voice as a result of organising during the dictatorships not only changed the role of women but also gave women a voice for other human rights issues. As has been demonstrated in this paper, individual women and women’s groups continue to be active and have expanded their mandates to include economic, social and cultural rights.

    The building of national solidarity was a contribution has also proved the test of time. In a recent interview, one madre said that the women were ‘still together, sharing out love and the love for our missing children’ (Bosco, 2006, p.347). Organisations in both countries continue to bring together victims of human rights violations from different backgrounds, localities and races to campaign together for justice for past violations and contemporary socio-economic injustices. The final contribution that women as ‘agents of change’ during the military juntas, have made to contemporary human rights struggles is the creation and maintenance of TANs. Working with international civil society proved instrumental in ending abuses and has contributed to the longevity of women-led human rights campaigns in Guatemala and Argentina.

    This paper has analysed the contribution of women to the campaign for human rights in Latin America. Rather that viewing women through the lens of victimhood, this paper has shown the women’s groups that were founded during the conflicts in Guatemala and Argentina have contributed invaluably to the contemporary campaigns, by women, that tackle gender inequality, impunity for past violations and other human rights issues that persist in these countries.

  2. Bibliography

    Allifito and Jesilow (2007) The Quiet Revolutionaries, University of Texas Press, Austin
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    Bosco, F. (2006) ‘The Madres de Plaza de Mayo and Three Decades of Human Rights’ Activism: Embeddedness, Emotions and Social Movements’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers’, 96 (2) pp.342-365
    Buenos Aires Herald (2013) ‘Carlotto Calls to Investigate “Civilian Sector’s” Role in Dictatorship’ [online] Available at http://www.buenosairesherald.com/article/127154/estela-de-carlotto-calls-to-investigate-civilian-sectors-role-in-the-dictatorship [Accessed 26/03/2013]
    Commission for Historical Clarification (Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico) (1999) Guatemala: Memory of Silence [online] Available at http://shr.aaas.org/guatemala/ceh/report/english/toc.html [Accessed 12/03/2013]
    Delgado, A. (2012) ‘Memory and Truth in Human Rights: The Argentina Case. The Issue of Truth and Memory in the Aftermath of Gross Human Rights Violations in Argentina’ [online] Available at http://scholarcommons.usf.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=5502&context=etd [Accessed 15/04/2013]
    Doyle, K. (2012) ‘Justice in Guatemala’, NACLA Report on the Americas, 45(1) pp.37-42
    Forster, C. (2003) ‘Myrna Mack: A Guatemalan Hero’ [online] Available at http://www.solidarity-us.org/site/node/631 [Accessed 21/04/2013]
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    Keck and Sikkink (1998) Activists Beyond Border, Cornell University Press: Ithaca and London.
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