Fearless women: Rigoberta Menchu - Nobel Peace Center - Nobels Fredssenter

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Fearless women: Rigoberta Menchu

03. november 2017 Av: Liv Tørres

In this series, Liv Tørres meets fearless women who fight for what they believe in. Earlier, she met Luisa Ortega, the former Prosecutor General of Venezuela.

She is a political activist and an icon. She comes giggling to the Nobel Peace Center, her warm smile defying an early chilly autumn. She is known to the world as the activist for indigenous people’s rights, protagonist of the Maya culture and one of the most active Nobel Peace Prize laureates. 25 years after she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, she is still going strong, still an activist, still fearless and she still has her feet on the ground. She is now back in Oslo to attend the launch of a new report on the peace agreement in Guatemala.

Rigoberta Menchu at the Nobel Peace Center, September 2017 (Photo: Nobel Peace Center)

Rigoberta Menchu at the Nobel Peace Center, September 2017 (Photo: Nobel Peace Center)

“The most important thing we did when the peace agreement was signed in 1996, was to put a stop to the killings”, she says. “But peace is not made by an agreement or a piece of paper – it still has to be built every day.”

Born in 1959 in a poor peasant family and raised in the Quiche branch of the Mayan culture, Rigoberta helped on the family’s farm from an early age, picking coffee and cotton on the big plantations, where Indians were treated worse than animals. She and the other peasants lived surrounded by extreme poverty and oppression. She recalls how dictatorship committed the greatest atrocities, levelled villages to the ground, confiscated land, and murdered thousands of peasants, particularly Indians, hundreds of trade union workers and students, outstanding intellectuals and politicians, priests and nuns. Through systematic persecution, one million peasants were removed by force from their lands; 100,000 had to seek refuge in the neighbouring countries, 100,000 children were left orphans and more than 40,000 women were widowed. The practice of «disappeared» politicians was invented in Guatemala, as a government policy. Guerrilla groups were formed to fight the military regime and were in turn used as an excuse for the brutal militarization on the regime’s side. Rigoberta soon became involved in social reform activities through the Catholic Church, and whilst still a teenager, she became prominent in the women’s rights movement. Her, and her family’s, political work and engagement came at a price.

A high cost

The Menchú family was accused of taking part in guerrilla activities, and her father was imprisoned, tortured and burnt to death. Within a few years, her brother was arrested, tortured and killed by the military. Shortly afterwards, her mother also died after having been arrested, bestially tortured and raped. In her early 20s, Rigoberta figured prominently in strikes and demonstrations for better conditions for farm workers. She was first active in the Committee of the Peasant Union (CUC) and became later more political by joining the Popular Front and focusing mainly on educating the Indian peasant population in resistance to military oppression. She also run for President of Guatemala. She has in fact been active in politics her whole life, fighting for indigenous people, women’s rights and for an active civil society through organisations, politics, the UN and others. Despite the high personal cost she has had to pay for her political engagement, and after spending 12 years in exile, she has survived government persecution and has never given up. 25 years of not giving up.

Democracy must be built up as soon as possible, Rigoberta said when she accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992. But today, 25 years later and 21 years after the peace agreement in Guatemala, she recognises that democracy and peace are still being built in Guatemala and that it takes a long time. The living conditions of the Maya have yet to improve.

“The elites have not put the rights of the indigenous people on the agenda. Their situation is the same today, as it was during the war», Rigoberta says. «The work for peace continues,  and we still have a long way ahead of us. But we have created more awareness and more focus on cooperation.»

Being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize made a difference, said the laureate. “The Peace Prize is a light for the world. As long as the people of the world, and the Norwegians in particular, remember Alfred Nobel and the Peace Prize, they will remember Guatemala.”

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchu with Director Liv Tørres. (Photo: Nobel Peace Center)

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchu with Director Liv Tørres. (Photo: Nobel Peace Center)

«What are the biggest challenges in Guatemala?, I ask Rigoberta.

«Education is one. We need to focus on young people. Educate them and help them foster love for both their country and peace. We need to ensure we have good leaders, especially women and young people. And we have to leave fear behind. Fear paralyses us and prevents us from moving on.»

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