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Guatemala: ‘I don’t feel safe’ - Guatemalans denounce anti-abortion law

by Jeff Abbott

Guatemala City, Guatemala – With chants of “this pro-life government doesn’t value our lives”, hundreds of people during the weekend converged on the Guatemalan Congress to show their indignation at a new law they say threatens the rights of women and members of the LGBTQ community.

On March 8, while hundreds were commemorating International Women’s Day, Guatemala’s conservative-controlled Congress approved the “Protection of Life and Family” law in a 101-8 vote. There are 160 seats in Congress.

The legislation labels LGBTQ people “abnormal” and prohibits the prosecution of anyone who carries out a hate crime against the community. It declares a family as one involving a married man and woman, outlaws same-sex marriage, and restricts the ability of schools or other educational institutions to provide inclusive sexual education outside of the nuclear family.

Abortion is already illegal in Guatemala – with the only exception being if a pregnancy threatens the mother’s life – but the law also increases the penalty for women who undergo the procedure, whether induced by a doctor or due to a miscarriage.

“With the increase in these restrictive policies and legal initiatives, they put the LGBT+ population and women in a situation of high risk,” Homero Fuentes, a 33-year-old activist with LGBTQ rights group Visibles, told Al Jazeera.

“These [initiatives and laws] allow hate speech to continue to be promoted,” he said. “This materialises in a scenario of discrimination, of violence, and to the point of [violent] crimes.”

Conservative nation

A day after the law was approved, Guatemala’s conservative President Alejandro Giammattei held a ceremony to declare the Central American nation “the pro-life capital of Iberoamerica”. Congress had already declared March 9 “the day to celebrate family and life”.

Guatemala is a religiously conservative country that has largely resisted or undermined efforts to adopt progressive legislation.

The law was originally proposed in 2017 by Congressman Anibal Rojas Espino of the conservative VIVA Party. His proposal received a great deal of support from Evangelical Christians and was accompanied by 29,000 signatures from backers of the initiative.

Yet many elements of the current legislation – including elements that potentially threaten constitutional rights in Guatemala – led its previous supporters, including the conservative Family Matters Association, to raise concerns this time around.

Amid that widespread condemnation, including from international human rights groups, Giammattei on March 10 threatened to veto the law, urging Congress to shelve it instead of forcing him to exert that presidential power.

Ahead of Giammattei’s announcement, the opposition issued an official objection to block the legislation from reaching the presidency, arguing that it violated the country’s constitution and international conventions. The law will come under review Tuesday.

“It is a regressive law in every sense,” Ligia Hernandez, a congresswoman with the opposition Movimiento Semilla (Seed Movement), told Al Jazeera. “It affects many people in this country. They are going to use this law to criminalise women, and to incite hatred.”

Sense of fear

Claudia Rosales, who works with the Sexual and Reproductive Rights Consortium, a coalition of NGOs, said the law has worsened a feeling of fear that already prevailed among women in Guatemala.

In 2021, more than 80 percent of all assault complaints that women lodged with the public prosecutor’s office went uninvestigated, daily newspaper Prensa Libre reported.

The country also recorded 709 femicides last year, according to data from the Mutual Support Group, known by the Spanish acronym GAM. The Guatemalan Human Rights Ombudsman’s office also documented at least 32 killings of members of the LGBTQ community in 2021, and at least nine killings since the beginning of 2022.

“I don’t feel safe as a woman,” Rosales told Al Jazeera during a protest against the law outside of Congress on March 10.

“[Guatemala] does not protect women’s lives,” she said. “And the day something happens to us, the justice system does not want to give an adequate, effective, and prompt response to the problems we face.”

Regional trends

Guatemala’s law runs counter to a so-called “Green Wave” in the wider Latin America region in favour of decriminalising abortion, while marriage equality rights also have been witnessed in some countries, such as Chile. It also comes as the Giammattei administration has sought to grow closer with US Republican lawmakers.

“We are permanently defending what little rights we have,” Ada Valenzuela, director of the National Union of Guatemalan Women, told Al Jazeera about the prevailing atmosphere in the country.

“Women in Guatemala we are facing a new inquisition,” she said. “It is one that affects us all.”

But backlash against the law, as well as Giammattei’s veto threat, pushed the president of Guatemala’s Congress, Shirley Rivera, to say lawmakers would check whether it is constitutional.

The legislation will come up for further debate on Tuesday, while more protests have been called for that same day, as advocates say their fight is far from over – even if this particular version of the law is ultimately halted.

Hernandez, the opposition politician, warned: “It could be reborn at any time [under a new name].”