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Fighting Femicide: Making Courts Work for Women

In Guatemala, Dexis supports counterpart efforts to bring justice to women victims of femicide and other forms of gender-based violence through the USAID Justice and Transparency Project.

Guatemala can be a dangerous place to be a woman. Women in Guatemala suffer from disproportionately high rates of violence and femicide, and now with pressures and restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of women being murdered is spiking.


Supreme Court Magistrate Delia Dávila confirms the prevalence of gender-based violence (GBV). “Violence against women is a structural phenomenon worldwide, and in Guatemala it is particularly widespread,” she says.

Guatemala also contends with a culture of impunity concerning crimes against women and a frequently inefficient justice system. Combined, this means while hundreds of femicides occur each year, convictions of perpetrators have remained shockingly low. Only about six percent of cases have resulted in convictions historically.

Yet changemakers like Magistrate Dávila are undaunted. As a Supreme Court Magistrate, member of the Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court, and President of the Supreme Court’s Commission for Women, Magistrate Dávila is a key counterpart of USAID/Guatemala’s Justice and Transparency Project. She and the Justice Project work together to improve access to justice, efficiency, and transparency in Guatemala’s justice system.

Guatemala’s Courts and Tribunals Specialized in Femicide and Violence against Women are a vital necessity for a host of reasons. According to UNODC, Guatemala’s regular courts are “often lacking the capacity and expertise to apply the correct approach and legal perspective to cases involving violence against women or femicide,” which could contribute to a mishandling of cases and revictimization of survivors. As such, specialized courts are crucial, not only for the powerful signal that they send about the value of women’s lives, but for the specific care and services they can offer survivors of violence.

Specialized court staff are trained in methods to appropriately treat women survivors of violence, such as how to avoid revictimization. They may offer specific facilities (e.g., Gesell chambers), which allow women to testify in a space away from the perpetrator. Additional support staff are available, such as social workers, psychologists, and childcare providers—all of whom support women as they go through trial.

The Emergence of Femicide Courts

“Guatemala has become a pioneer in having a specific law on Femicide and Violence against Women and the implementation of specialized bodies,” she says, noting Decree No. 22-2008, which the Guatemalan Congress passed in 2008 to provide improved access to justice for women. It requires the implementation of specialized judicial courts to attend to cases of femicide and all forms of violence against women.

Guatemala implemented the first Femicide Courts in 2010 under the previous Supreme Court in areas with some of the highest cases of violence against women in the country, namely Guatemala City, Chiquimula, and Quetzaltenango. However, despite the 2008 Law’s mandate to implement these specialized courts in all 22 Departments within a year, by 2012 only 10 Femicide Courts had opened. It wasn’t until Magistrate Dávila was President of the Criminal Chamber in 2017 that the Court began expanding the implementation of the femicide courts in earnest.

Magistrate Dávila prioritized the opening of additional Femicide Courts, ensuring that viability studies were completed, and that appropriate locations, financial resources, and personnel were identified. Her efforts were also critical in generating the necessary political will to make change possible. As a result, the specialized court model was successfully implemented in six new departments and has continued to expand in recent years.

Currently there are Femicide Courts in 17 of Guatemala’s 22 administrative departments, and the Supreme Court just approved the implementation of five additional courts, which will bring specialized justice to all Guatemalan departments (100% coverage), in compliance with the 2008 femicide law. As specialized justice services for GBV cases have expanded, so too has the percentage of resolutions in these cases.

The Supreme Court advanced implementation of Specialized Femicide Courts with key support from Dexis. Dexis staff applied their long history in launching criminal courts; provided relevant trainings (e.g., oral hearings, court management, electronic inter-connection, virtual hearings, treatment of women victims, etc.); helped define needs and establish management plans; and set up inter-institutional dialogue with other justice sector institutions.

The Future of Femicide Courts

Magistrate Dávila sees expanding specialized courts on femicide as a continuation of a much longer struggle for women. She says, “This work aims to continue the battles fought by many women martyrs who had the bravery to initiate the fight for the right to equality.” She has also been surprised by the number of male judges who want to work in these specialized courts. At times, defendants are angry that a male judge ends up “siding with the woman” by declaring a guilty verdict. However, these judges are simply applying the law, international conventions, and jurisprudence to resolve cases impartially and without sexist biases. As such, these verdicts are important in fighting stereotypes and machismo paradigms in Guatemala.

Magistrate Dávila wants to continue to promote the expansion of specialized court services to all municipalities, particularly through justice of the peace courts, so that they are accessible to women across Guatemala. To complement this, she also hopes to expand education and awareness campaigns, so that women and girls understand their rights and how the justice sector can work to protect them. Such efforts help ensure that countless women and girls have access to high-quality care and a clear pathway to justice.

Catherine Withrow and Kristen Walker support USAID/Guatemala’s Justice and Transparency Project and contributed to this blog.