Guatemala’s Highest Elections Official on Political Rights and Women’s Advancement
Dr. María Eugenia Villagrán De León, President of the Supreme Elections Tribunal of Guatemala (TSE), has a history of transcending gender barriers and achieving great success. To her, ensuring that women have equal opportunities and are living in a safe country where they have political rights is a personal cause.
The daughter of former Guatemalan Vice President Francisco Villagrán Kramer, she has seen firsthand the sacrifices made for good governance and the rule of law. Today, she wants to expand these rights to all citizens.
IFES worked closely with Villagrán during Guatemala’s 2011 general elections. Among the work that was implemented was ensuring the electoral cycle was accessible to voters with disabilities and ethnic minorities. She answers some questions about her views and desires for her country.
How did you get involved in the field of elections?
Looking back at my life, my father, grandfather, brother and I were and are all lawyers by profession, so we can affirm we have the law in our blood. When my dad was elected as Guatemala’s Vice President in 1978, I got to know firsthand all that it means to exercise one’s political rights in Guatemala.
Along with my brothers, we lived through difficult moments that undoubtedly had an impact on our youth. This included death threats that kept us from leaving our house, the assassination of my father’s best friends [and] the taking of the Spanish Embassy in 1980. We saw the grief and the worry on our father’s face throughout these experiences, but he always maintained his desire for a better country. These circumstances left a mark on me and encouraged me to graduate as a lawyer — a career that I have developed in a number of areas within the justice sector as a Supreme Court Justice, a Constitutional Court judge, a judge and magistrate in the Court of Appeals and as Chairwoman of the National Disciplinary Court of Lawyers of Guatemala.
Since March 2008, I have had the honor of serving as Chairwoman of the TSE elected by the Guatemalan Congress [from] among 40 selected candidates.
What does it mean to you, as a woman, to have reached such a prominent and important position?
It means to embody it with humility, thanking Our Father for all the blessings I receive every day. It also means being more than 100 percent committed to my country and facing the daily challenges with courage from the moment I begin my workday. I begin work at 5:30 a.m. every morning by reading the nation’s daily newspapers, getting up to date on what is happening in the political sphere. I then begin calling my collaborators to take the necessary actions. What I wish the most is to leave my children a legacy of hard work and dedication with the satisfaction that their mother does what is right and fights for her beliefs and ideals.
Why is it so important that a country’s electoral system be transparent and efficient?
Especially in the case of a country like Guatemala, which has an emerging democratic system, it is important that its people can trust its electoral authorities and the transparent use of the resources that are assigned to [the authorities] through taxpayer contributions.
Also, as the electoral authority of the country, we watch over the faithful fulfillment of the country’s constitution and the exercise of political and civil rights. We protect the right to assembly, the right to vote in the electoral process. Now with a possible 2013 referendum, we are willing to face and encourage Guatemalans to resolve a historical territorial, maritime and insular dispute in a civilized manner and to be an example to other nations.
In your opinion, why is it important to have women in leadership positions?
After so many years of struggle to be included, women today have their chance to occupy the places and positions they are entitled to. I believe in women, in their abilities, devotion, work ethic, compassion, creativity and sixth sense. No matter what position they are in, women will exercise all of their qualities and gifts with excellence. If they are in a position of power, they will do this with dignity, ability and honesty.
How do you see Guatemala’s women today? What do you think are the greatest obstacles to their social, political and economic development?
Nowadays, women in Guatemala have overcome many obstacles. They are advancing when it comes to the recognition of the right to equality and not being discriminated. She has woken up and now goes to work just as hard as he does, and then returns home to fulfill her domestic and family duties alongside her partner. In the recent 2011 general elections, women in Guatemala broke records, as they turned out in greater numbers than men. This tells me that women in Guatemala are beginning to occupy spaces in which they will thrive.
In your opinion, what is the most effective way of promoting gender equality?
I trust that women have the strength to claim their rights in their own spheres. From an electoral point of view, the way to increase women’s participation is by seeking equality in the offices men and women hold. To achieve this, it is important to amend legal structures, such as the existing electoral and political party law, which fosters inequality. It is important that amendments put forth by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal seek balanced participation and fosters ideas, values and behaviors that benefit Guatemalan society. This is the most important reason for putting forth such a proposal – as it will give women a significant step forward.
As a woman, what is your greatest wish for the new generation of Guatemalan women?
That they feel loved in their homes, that they receive the love of father, mother and siblings and that they enjoy the opportunity of an education with values. That they have the opportunity to study and get ahead in life, but above all, that they grow in a safe environment in which they can exercise their rights.