Gender Based Violence TIG

Reflections of a Pandemic: A Glimpse into the Effects of COVID-19 on Guatemala’s Indigenous Population and Gender-based Violence (GBV) Survivors  

Carr.jpgBy Caitlynn Carr

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a whirlwind. In the United States, we have experienced a reality characterized by uncertainty, increased cautiousness, political divides, misinformation, social pressure to get “back to normal.” It still isn’t “over.” Having received a grant from the Fulbright Foundation to conduct dissertation fieldwork on gender-based violence (GBV) among Indigenous women in Guatemala, I experienced a combination of feelings ranging from anxiousness to travel and feeling re-connected to others, while understanding the need for travel restrictions and maintaining COVID-related precautions. The strongest feelings that I experienced, however, were concern and questioning what the “situation” was like in Guatemala and how COVID-19 was affecting vulnerable populations there and worldwide.

As applied anthropologists, many of us have wondered how the pandemic has affected individuals and families in our fieldwork locations; people we care about. For those of us dedicating our lives to researching and working with intimate partner violence (IPV) and GBV survivors, the last year-and-a-half caused many of us to worriedly wonder how life has transformed for persons (e.g., women) in abusive situations. Throughout the course of the pandemic, I wondered how shutdowns affected countries and communities with less economic security and resources. Factors such as economic dependence on male partners, the inability to leave one’s household, feelings of vulnerability, partners exerting coercive control, lack of transportation, economic insecurity, and hesitancy to leave due to fear and feelings of hopelessness serve as risk factors for IPV and GBV. But how has COVID-19 impacted rates and experiences of violence that already existed at epidemic levels? 

This newsletter served as an opportunity to reconnect with former research contacts in Guatemala to gain insight to how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the Indigenous population and women experiencing IPV and GBV. I interviewed Kate Flatley, JD, the Founder and Executive Director of the Women’s Justice Initiative (WJI), located in Patzún, Guatemala and Jessy, a Paralegal at WJI and Patzún native. The Women’s Justice Initiative is a community-based organization located in Patzún that provides legal services to Indigenous women in surrounding areas. Before discussing the ramifications of COVID-19 on GBV/IPV survivors, I first provide a background on the economic and education-related impacts of COVID-19 on Indigenous women and children. Because GBV/IPV is oftentimes rooted in educational and economic inequities, this ethnographic insight paints a larger portrait of the roots of IPV/GBV, and to potential future trends. 

During my conversations with Kate and Jessy, several key themes emerged pertaining to the “general COVID situation.” The most prominent themes include the severe economic impact suffered by Guatemala’s Indigenous population and the difficulties associated with virtual education. Due to early shutdowns, community markets were closed, affecting community members’ ability to secure staple food items for their families, able to sell their crops and earn a livelihood. As a survival strategy during this time, community members operated household stores to sell staple items and organized community markets of their own. Guatemala’s schools are still closed, adding to concern regarding (Indigenous) children returning to school after the shutdown is over, as well as whether families can afford for their children to return. Apart from health safety concerns, one of the reasons why Guatemalan children are not receiving any form of schooling is because virtual education is not possible for many low-income families.

“Guatemala was not and is not prepared to offer virtual education. We don’t have the resources. I spoke with one low-income family, and the most that they can afford is one smart phone. But the cost of Internet here has gone up. And if there are two or three children, how could they each participate in class on one phone? Many children in this situation can’t continue to study because they don’t have the resources and have dropped out. Why have they dropped out? Because the classes are online, they don’t have a phone, they don’t have a computer, and they don’t have money to pay for Internet.” -Jessy 

It is challenging for non-literate parents to assist their children with take-home work, making the situation even more complex, especially for those in rural areas. Additionally, many parents in rural areas leave to work during the day, thus leading to children being home alone while they are working.

Governmental corruption has prevented funds originally designated to the creation of field hospitals from reaching communities. In Kate’s words, 

“We’ve been facing the worst up until now in terms of caseload in Guatemala in terms of the entire pandemic. The severity is the worst that it’s been. Private hospitals are turning patients away and the public hospitals have actually started to turn patients away in August, too, at times. Just a total lack of resources. Real questions are on corruption and where the money has gone. The money was supposed to have gone to support field hospitals. And there’s just no supplies or staffing. So, it’s been bad.” 

Historical distrust in the government by Indigenous communities, compounded by racism and the lack of health professionals speaking Mayan languages has also prevented Indigenous populations from seeking medical care and from receiving vaccines. Kate shared how many people experienced fear because of seeing family members taken away after being diagnosed with COVID and dying shortly afterward. 

“I have heard stories of family members of who were diagnosed with COVID and they died two days later. They were sick with COVID for a long time and they didn’t want to acknowledge that or seek help. The fear and distrust of the Guatemalan government and the medical community was ramped up at the beginning of COVID because people were in suits coming to people’s house and taking them away and then putting caution tape around the house. People heard more stories about those who didn’t come back and died alone than those who did get better.” 

Vaccine accessibility is also an issue, especially in rural areas. As noted by Kate, 

“The government just hasn’t invested in that at all. And then actual access to vaccines at the Centro de Salud (health center).  I don’t know if it’s fair to say just among Indigenous populations. In rural areas in Guatemala, which are mostly Indigenous, there has just not been the same access to vaccines. So, there will be availability for a few days, and then it just won’t be available, and you will have to go somewhere else. For people who don’t have the resources to go somewhere else, to travel and do that, it’s just not feasible to get vaccinated.”

Like in the U.S., there are several myths associated with COVID-19 and vaccines. These myths reflect historical distrust in the Guatemalan government, as well as fear surrounding vaccines in general, especially considering historical experimentation on Indigenous population during the Guatemala Syphilis Experiment (1946-1948). During our conversation, Jessy noted, 

 “Many people believed that the government was trying to kill the Indigenous populations with COVID-19, that is was a “common cold, or a governmental strategy. They also believed that they were putting a tracking chip in the vaccines and that the vaccine would kill them. Some Indigenous people used herbal remedies instead of the vaccine.” 

GBV and IPV in Guatemala Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

After reflecting on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on Guatemala’s general population, our conversations then shifted to the pandemic’s effects on GPV/IPV survivors and WJI’s legal services. Jessy stated that women in rural communities were at a high risk of IPV and GBV due to the lack of Internet connection (therefore making it more difficult for them to seek help). The fact that their parejas (partners) were no longer leaving the house during the day to work also put them at an increased risk because they were spending much more time with their “aggressors.” Many women couldn’t seek help because they were at home with their “aggressors” all day due to lock-down restrictions and didn’t have telephone access. Jessy shared that many of the few organizations serving abused women shut down and had to change the way that they offered services, making it more difficult for women in rural areas to access them. One of the judges she worked for had reduced her staff reduced from five to two people for the same task. For many Indigenous women, the lack of transportation, channels of communication, access to services, and the language barrier[i], made the situation even more challenging. 

The Women’s Justice Initiative’s legal team could not provide in-person legal services due to governmental “shutdown” restrictions. However, their staff members (community coordinators, program coordinators, lawyers, and advocates) were among the only paid employees in Patzún during the early stages of the pandemic and mobilized to create a telephone hotline for survivors living with their partners during the shutdown. The telephone hotline enabled staff to share advice such as seeking support away from home, visiting or staying with family members, and the importance of neighbors supporting neighbors, as opposed to pretending that “violence wasn’t occurring next-door.” Kate mentioned that she cannot speak to the effectiveness of the hotline on reducing violence against women in Guatemala but stated that it was the best strategy for her team at the time because they could not offer in-person services. When their office reopened, many women sought assistance for economic rights at WJI.  

Kate stated, 

“Rates of violence against women in 2020 were down because no one was reporting. Survivors couldn’t report. So now, rates are up this year. A recent article that came out said that femicide is up 30% this year. So, that doesn’t mean anything except many women were killed last year and it was never reported. We’re still seeing the impact of violence in terms of the exacerbation of the violence that occurred during the closures and economic insecurity that continues, and children being at home because schools are still closed. All those pieces are leading to higher rates of violence. A lot of women were coming to WJI to seek legal services related to securing their economic rights (e.g., child court) there were a lot of economic needs.” 

Jessy, who helped lead WJI’s GBV hotline, stated that women would oftentimes call the hotline in “crisis mode,” but after a while, she was able to help them make decisions about what they were experiencing at home and whether they would prefer to stay at home or contact a family neighbor or neighbor nearby so that they could remove themselves from the situation. She went on to state that for women who are living with their in-laws, home life is even more complicated and potentially dangerous. 

 “Some parents would say, ‘He’s your husband, you have to listen to him.’ Or ‘You did something bad. It’s your fault.’ Situations like this are complex because these women are living with their in-laws. I try to tell them that it may not be easy to make a decision, but your life may depend on it.” 

When I asked whether survivors or survivors’ neighbors/family members would call the police, she stated that sometimes this occurred, but another challenge is that the police have limited resources and sometimes do not even have enough money to pay for fuel in their vehicles[ii]. Additionally, public buses stopped operating. This made it even more difficult for women to leave their partners when experiencing domestic abuse. 

The aforementioned factors demonstrate some of the difficulties associated with assisting GBV and IPV survivors during the COVID-19 shutdown. Overall, WJI’s work reflects the flexibility and creativity that many service providers had to utilize during the past year-and-a-half. Through the help of several advocates for the organization, WJI has also developed a needs assessment to decide where to direct services offered by their organization and their partners. 


This newsletter shares initial findings of how COVID-19 has impacted GBV and IPV survivors in Guatemala, particularly Indigenous women. As researchers preparing to (re)-visit field site locations, we must prepare for changed social landscapes, maintaining a safe space to conduct research, navigating communities with low vaccination rates, and potentially increased rates of violence against women, among other changes and challenges. It is our ethical duty as applied researchers to ask questions including, “How can we:” Provide a safe research environment for participants amid an ongoing pandemic? Bring the utmost empathy into the work that we do, especially during a time of crisis? Remain vigilant and empathetic as rates of GBV and IPV potentially worsen? Offer an applied anthropological perspective to enhance the services provided to post-COVID-19 survivors of IPV and GBV? There is hope on the horizon for relief, although the impact of COVID-19 will have long-term economic, educational, psychological, and physical effects. I encourage you to consider “what’s next” and how we may contribute to “whatever is next” through research, policy changes, and advocacy. 

Caitlynn Carr is a Ph.D. (Applied Medical Anthropology) and M.P.H. (Maternal and Child Health) Candidate at the University of South Florida. She has conducted research in Guatemala since 2011. In 2020, she won a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad (DDRA) Fellowship to conduct fieldwork for her doctoral dissertation entitled, “The Political Economy of Trauma and Healing: Intimate Partner Violence Research Acquisition among Indigenous Guatemalan Women.” Caitlynn has been a proud member of the Society for Applied Anthropology’s (SfAA) GBV-TIG since 2017 and currently serves as the group’s Student Representative. She also has experience working on research projects related to Maternal and Child Health and has worked professionally as a Domestic Violence Victim Advocate for Hispanic/Latinx women in Ohio.

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[i] Many of the Indigenous women in Patzún and surrounding areas speak Kaqchikel, one of Guatemala’s 21 Mayan languages. 

[ii] This problem existed prior to COVID-19 but has thus been exacerbated due to ongoing economic struggles. 

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