Defender of the Week #1: Rigoberta Menchú

“We are not myths of the past, ruins in the jungle, or zoos. We are people and we want to be respected, not to be victims of intolerance and racism.”

– Rigoberta Menchú

‘Defender of the Week’ places the spotlight on individuals who have been tireless in their advocacy for human rights and the environment. This week, Rigoberta Menchú is Defender of the Week.

Mayan K’iche’ human rights advocate and Nobel Peace Prize laureate from Guatemala, Menchú has been credited with dedicating her life to ameliorating the lives of indigenous feminists in Guatemala, as well as publicising the rights of the nation’s indigenous population.

Menchú was born in 1959 in a poverty-stricken province in north-central Guatemala to a Mayan family and, from a young age, experienced first-hand the extreme adversity her nation’s indigenous people had to face. As a result, after leaving school, she worked as an activist protesting against human rights violations committed by Guatemala’s armed forces during the country’s 36-year civil war which lasted from 1960-1996.

The civil war (which began as a result of the United States helping to overthrow Guatemala’s democratically elected government in 1954) caused the deaths of more than 200,000 Guatemalans as the army took power. Furthermore, 450 Mayan villages were destroyed in a brutal military campaign that displaced 1 million people. Menchú’s two brothers, her mother, three nieces and nephews, her sister-in-law and her father were all killed in separate incidents but as a direct result of the violence. 

Nevertheless, she persisted; co-founding the United Republic of Guatemalan Opposition whilst being in exile in Mexico, and in 1999 campaigning to have the perpetrators of crimes committed during the civil war prosecuted before a Spanish court. Menchú has also worked with the Committee of the Peasant Union to advocate for the protection of indigenous land and also for fair wages for the Mayan people.  

As well as running for Guatemalan Presidency in 2007 and 2011; Menchú established the first indigenous-led party in Guatemala’s political history and joined other female Nobel Peace Prize laureates in creating the Nobel Women’s Initiative which aims to bring to the forefront global women’s and children’s rights. Additionally, Menchú is a member of PeaceJam, an international organisation which aims “to create young leaders committed to positive change in themselves, their communities and the world through the inspiration of Nobel Peace Laureates who pass on the spirit, skills, and wisdom they embody.”

Given that Rigoberta Menchú’s life has been documented in both books and documentary, she will forever stand as an important figure in the fight against ethnic oppression in Guatemala.

Phoebe Egoroff

Founder and of Jurist International, a website focusing on the latest developments in international human rights and criminal law.

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