For Debby Linares Sandoval, the challenges faced by transgender women in Guatemala are personal. Watching her peers struggle to gain access to basic healthcare services, and experiencing discrimination herself as a transgender woman, Linares began to realize the importance of not just advocating for human rights, but also actively participating in the broader political system to effect even greater change.
Over the past 15 years, Linares has worked as a human rights activist for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) organizations focusing on HIV/AIDS prevention and education. Linares observed that the LGBTI community and civic organizations needed to have their voices and interests heard within the existing power structures in order to make greater progress. If transgender women, as well as lesbians, bisexual and cisgender women, are elected to public office then the rights of the LGBTI community and all women will be better addressed.
“Most of my transgender friends do not have more than a primary education because they were forced to drop out of school due to bullying. Without an education, it is very difficult for them to find a job. Even if they are employed or had the opportunity to study, many are nervous that if they enter politics they may become targets of prejudice or even violence,” said Linares. “But if we don’t stand up for ourselves, nobody else will.”
It was her conviction that political participation is necessary which brought Linares to NDI. As the advisor on issues related to the LGBTI community on a project carried out through the Consortium for Elections and Political Process Strengthening (CEPPS), she is involved in reducing barriers to political participation for transgender women. NDI and its CEPPS partners seek to break down obstacles through a two part strategy: promoting institutional and cultural change, and gaining a voice in political life.
Shifting institutional practices and cultural beliefs takes time, but breaking down stereotypes and illustrating the challenges that transgender women face are important first steps. Linares recognizes that many government officials may not understand, or even recognize, that transgender women have difficulty accessing public services. In forums and trainings, she draws on her own experiences, and those of her community, to share the realities of day-to-day life. Her leadership is opening important spaces for dialogue and understanding.
“Visibility is the first step toward empathy,” Linares said. “Only once people are aware of and can understand the struggles of a community will they be willing to make changes that address their needs.”
Access to the government-issued personal identification document is at the center of a Guatemalan’s ability to take part in political and civic life. It is necessary for voting and running for political office, as well as for accessing basic services. But for transgender women, identification cards pose a unique challenge. Linares recounts stories of transgender women being asked to remove their makeup before having their identification card photo taken or being prevented from receiving their identity cards because their gender identity and physical appearance did not match the sex they were assigned at birth. The fee associated with receiving the identification document can also be a hurdle for someone without access to steady employment.
Linares and her CEPPS colleagues worked with allies within National Civil Registry (Registro Nacional de Personas, RENAP), the government institution responsible for issuing the personal identity document, to reduce barriers. Prior to the 2015 elections, the CEPPS partners worked with RENAP to waive the identification document fee for 19 transgender women. In coordination with the Ombudsman for Human Rights (Procuraduría de Derechos Humanos, PDH), United Nations Development Program and UNAIDS, CEPPS trained 337 RENAP staff members to issue identification documents in 11 departments on human rights for the LGBTI community. They also created concepts related to sexual and gender diversity. Following the sessions, RENAP leadership approved the incorporation of LGBTI-sensitive content within the institution’s Protocols for Public Support, thus further institutionalizing LGBTI rights within government institutions.
NDI also seeks to increase the participation and institutionalize change by supporting a coalition of 15 organizations that are building national consensus on public policies to defend LGBTI rights. The policy, which broadly addresses human rights in Guatemala, is being coordinated by the Presidential Committee on Human Rights (COPREDEH). By speaking with one voice, the coalition ensures that the needs of the LGBTI communities, and specifically the transgender community, are taken into consideration.
The 1996 Guatemalan Peace Accords signaled the end of the 36-year civil war in Guatemala and charted a path towards equality in the deeply divided nation. But for marginalized populations, the past 20 years have resulted in only minor gains for rule of law, social justice and the alleviation of poverty. The continuing challenges of the incredibly marginalized LGBTI community in gaining respect for the most basic of human rights clearly indicates the need for further changes.
Linares finds inspiration in giving a voice to the voiceless, and in helping to increase respect for human rights and equal participation in the political process, not just for the LGBTI community, but for all women. The march for equal participation is not over. Equal access to identification cards is a vital step to participation in public life, but as Linares notes, it is only one important step on a very long road to equality.
CEPPS is funded through a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development and combines the expertise of three non-profit organizations dedicated to democratic development: the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute.
Published on March 11, 2016