GUATEMALA CITY, Dec 27, 2010 (IPS) - Guatemala, it seems, is trying out a new image. As of this month, women are at the helm of the Public Prosecutor's Office and the Comptroller General's Office, winning their posts on merit, in what local activists are calling an important step in women's access to political power -- though "there is a long way to go."
"This represents progress because they achieved their positions after going through a selection process in which they were not chosen because they are women, but rather because they fulfilled the academic and professional requirements," Sandra Morán, of the non-governmental women's organisation Sector de Mujeres, told IPS.
Claudia Paz y Paz was named Public Prosecutor and head of the Public Ministry for four years and will be in charge of the agency for criminal investigation and prosecution, while Nora Segura is the new Comptroller General, with a five-year term and will be in charge of auditing government expenditures, beginning with the 2011 budget, of 6.8 billion dollars.
The two officials were chosen by the social-democratic President Álvaro Colom in mid-December from lists of candidates drawn up by the unicameral Congress.
Morán gave special note to the fact that the new Public Prosecutor was the only woman among the six finalists for the post, because "it is the first time that they have chosen a person with very high academic merits."
Paz y Paz, 54, holds a doctorate degree in human rights and criminal law from the University of Salamanca in Spain and has 18 years of professional experience. She has worked for human rights defence organisations and international agencies. Her résumé alone has won her broad support across the country.
"We hope that the women in these posts have the opportunity to make their own decisions, with real autonomy and with a sensitivity to the problems that we face as women," said Morán.
The new Public Prosecutor arrives with a tacit commitment to deal with the "femicides" that have afflicted the country, with 720 cases of murdered women in 2009 alone, according to the Human Rights Prosecutor's Office. That shocking figure has won Guatemala a ranking as being among the worst countries for violence against women.
Paz y Paz will have to face another scandalous fact: 98 percent of major crimes go unpunished, according to the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which operates under a United Nations mandate.
"This battle cannot be won by the Public Ministry alone, because its financial and human resources are insufficient. For this reason, I am calling upon society as a whole to unite," said Paz y Paz.
The new Public Prosecutor is not the only one to be met with the portfolio full of challenges in the public sphere. Segura, the new Comptroller General also faces some big hurdles in the fight against corruption.
On the Corruption Perceptions Index 2010, Guatemala fell to the 91st position, from 84 in 2009, on a list of 178 countries. The non-governmental anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International released the report in 2010.
Carolina Álvarez, of the Terra Viva Women's Association, told IPS that more women in "key" positions of power reflects progress, given the persistence of gender discrimination that Guatemalan women continue to face.
The activist said that civil society groups, and those that fight for gender equality in particular, see the presence of women in top public posts as an important achievement, and especially applaud the naming of the "most suitable" candidate -- Paz y Paz -- to head the Public Ministry.
Also this month, the president redesignated Blanca Stalling for another five years as director of the Criminal Public Defence Institute, which oversees the legal defence of accused criminals who lack the resources to hire a lawyer.
Furthermore, Colom named Heydi Gordillo secretary of the National Council for Migrant Services.
Cecilia Álvarez, of the non-governmental Guatemalan Women's Group, told IPS, "It's a good sign that more capable women are able to reach positions of responsibility." However, she believes the naming of several women to government posts this month is more a "coincidence" than a true expansion of women's power in Guatemala.
"The opening of spaces for women depends on many other factors, like the legislative reforms for elections and political parties," where the long- clamoured-for quotas for women's participation have yet to appear, she said. Guatemala is one of the few Latin American countries that have not incorporated gender quotas for party candidates in its electoral legislation.
Hélida Ramos, of the government's Indigenous Women's Defence Agency, said it is a positive change to have women in top political posts, but stressed that "there is a long way to go, especially in the case of indigenous women."
An August 2009 report on political participation stated that of Guatemala's 158 lawmakers, just 19 were women; of the 13 justices of the Supreme Court, only three were women; and in the country's 332 municipalities, only six have women mayors.
The situation of indigenous women, meanwhile, has much to be desired. According to official statistics, 40 percent of the Guatemalan population of 14.3 million is indigenous, and includes Maya, Garífuna and Xinca peoples. However, their organisations claim that more than 60 percent of Guatemala's 14 million inhabitants are indigenous.
Although they represent a large portion of the population, there were only four indigenous women legislators and one mayor -- and no justices.
"We indigenous women have not yet found spaces for expression in the decision-making process. The fight against discrimination and racism is very strong, and we must continue," said Ramos.
Figures from 2000 indicate that eight out of 10 indigenous Guatemalans live in poverty, while for the non-indigenous population the rate is four out of 10.
In the case of Guatemalan women overall, 51.5 percent live in poverty, nearly four percentage points more than men. And 73 percent of the women who have jobs are working in the informal economy. (END)