SAN PEDRO CARCHA, Guatemala – A group of indigenous girls in the northern Guatemalan village of Tipulcan have found in martial arts a way to gain confidence and claim space that formerly belonged only to men.
Once or twice a week, the girls, decked out in the traditional skirts of the Q’eqchi’ Maya people, practice taekwondo under the watchful eye of their coach, Dany Coy.
Every blow is followed by a exclamation that echoes off the sides of the mountains that dominate the Alta Verapaz region. And with each kick into the air, the girls of Tipulcan chase away the specters of the gender violence and harassment they have suffered.
Taekwondo “provides the girls with a physical and mental tool to defend themselves,” according to Coy, who has taught the Korean martial art to his two daughters and his son.
Coy, who has 27 years of experience in the sport, said that the girls he teaches, ranging in age from 8 to 17, were quiet and shy when he first met them.
Now, the budding taekwondo fighters walk the dirt roads of their village without fear, laughing and talking loudly in Spanish or Q’eqchi’, unconcerned about attracting the notice of would-be bullies or harassers.
“Before, people used to harass me at school. Men said they were more powerful than women and bothered us in different ways all the time,” 16-year-old Damaris Cucul told Efe.
Cucul, one of the standouts in the class, said she hopes to become a nurse and combine that profession with teaching taekwondo to the youngest girls in Tipulcan as a way of encouraging them to stay in school.
Another of Coy’s pupils, Miriam Cucul Sam, 17, won Guatemala’s 2019 national taekwondo tournament.
Sitting on a large stone, next to a corn field, she told EFE how the discipline of martial arts has helped her overcome obstacles that five years ago seemed as big as mountains.
“Now, I am not afraid of men. I can continue making progress toward my goals, because taekwondo taught me respect for myself, and now I just want to continue studying and try to be great in the sport,” she said.
Since 2015, when the project began, taekwondo and other self-defense techniques have gained a popularity among women in Tipulcan that would have been unthinkable before. But it hasn’t been an easy task.
Dany Coy lives in Coban, an hour away from Tipulcan by motorcycle. Until he got the bike, he used to stand along the roadside for hours waiting to hitch a ride with somebody headed to the village.
Additionally, the lack of equipment and support from the National Taekwondo Federation makes it difficult for him to organize the training sessions.
“We work with free equipment, and with the minimum that is necessary. Although it is difficult, it is worth seeing the progress they make in the sport and their lives ... wherever girls go in Guatemala, they face sexism,” Coy said.
The coach has tried to take taekwondo to nearby villages, but has encountered resistance from community leaders who do not want women to be involved in a sport they consider violent, something that Coy attributes to the sexism that still prevails in Guatemala.
The poor Central American nation suffers from high rates of violence against women – including murder – and has yet to devote serious resources to tackling the problem.
Only this year, between January and September, the Public Prosecutor’s Office registered an average of 572 daily complaints of violence against women, while UN Women informed that from August 2018 to November 2019 more than 2,520 alerts of missing women were issued.
During the first nine of 2019, the Attorney General’s Office received an average of 572 reports a day about violence against women, while UN Women says that more than 2,250 Guatemalan women were reported missing during the period from August 2018 to November 2019.