Rigoberta Menchu Tum

By:Michael Connors Issue: Biennial of the Americas 2010 Section:The Americas Roundtables

Vision and Light


What many Latin American countries are going through right now is no less than a battle for the soul of the region, and greater partnerships are needed to help promote sustainable development. Many countries face unbearable poverty, a history of corruption, and a tragic legacy of bloody civil wars. Clearly, what is needed now is a renewed sense of collaboration and partnership to help bring down the barriers to success. And perhaps no one best personifies the soul of Latin America and exudes hope better than Rigoberta Menchú Tum.

There is a gentle intensity that lies behind the eyes of Rigoberta Menchú Tum. She is a woman who has experienced all the devastation that war has to offer, and yet she is a force for what is best in humanity. Of Mayan ancestry, many know of her family’s suffering in the bloody civil war in Guatemala that lasted for more than thirty five years. Despite her fear and outrage, she was able to turn the tragic loss of so many so close to her — both her parents, two brothers, a sister-in-law, and three nieces and nephews were killed by Guatemalan security forces — into a passion for peace. Her endurance is truly amazing.

In the tradition of the Dalai Lama and Reverend Desmond Tutu, she is a spiritual force that uplifts those around her. And her participation at the Biennial of the Americas was an inspiring example of her leadership.

While the Biennial was an ideal forum in which to highlight the issues that most concern Tum, including indigenous people’s rights, poverty, war, and women’s rights, perhaps no other organization better reflects Tum’s values more than the Nobel Women’s Initiative (NWI). Looking at her work with the NWI is an ideal way to encapsulate her stance on moving Latin America and the global community forward. It is well-known that war, disease and pestilence tend to predominantly impact women and children. In a recent report published by the Economic and Social Council, it is noted that, “Evidence shows that the loss of women’s income more adversely affected children and caused generations of families to remain in the poverty trap than the loss of men’s earnings.”

“Healthy and educated women are empowered, both for the shorter term and in an inter-generational sense as their daughters grow and learn more. This leads to better decision-making on the welfare of the family and the community, a better-balanced demographic, and improved social and economic conditions in which to live within the cultural context that applies in each case,” said a study from World Population Day. Both governments and individuals around the globe are coming to understand the importance of empowering women. "We must support all of the women who fight in conflicted areas; who are making a culture of peace, who are in mediation processes for peace, or who are educating for peace, creating peace leaders." - Rigoberta Menchú Tum

Tum clearly recognizes the importance of women on a global scale, but she also has a unique and powerful perspective that begins with her relationship with the six other members of the NWI.

She understands that in order for meaningful relationships to develop between industries, nations and continents, people must first have meaningful relationships with those around them. During our interview, she noted that, “The Nobel Woman’s Project has various motives, but one of them is the solidarity among the six living female Nobel Prize winners. We have to have a deep connection, a profound solidarity, a sisterhood between us. We must support all of the women who fight in conflicted areas; who are making a culture of peace, who are in mediation processes for peace, or who are educating for peace, creating peace leaders.” This statement reflects her profound understanding of the problems women face, and she has a true grasp of the solutions. Unless women are empowered as leaders and have full participation in the policy-making arena, mothers, wives, daughters and sisters all over the world will continue to suffer the disproportionate burden of poverty, violence, and subjugation.

As the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) stresses, “There is a direct link between increased female labor participation and growth. It is estimated that if women’s paid employment rates were raised to the same level as men’s, America’s GDP would be nine percent higher; the euro-zone’s would be 13 percent higher, and Japan’s would be boosted by 16 percent. . . Women perform 66 percent of the world’s work, produce 50 percent of the food, but earn ten percent of the income and own one percent of the property.”

Only by close collaboration and a model of inclusion, can barriers start to crumble. Tum’s passionate commitment to women’s causes, as evidenced by her participation at the Biennial, brings hope and guidance to those in the world who truly wish to make a difference. She will stand at the pantheon of great religious leaders when her history is written, and all people will be the beneficiaries of her life’s work.