Defensor/a: A Term to Refer to Indigenous Health Rights Defenders in Guatemala

Author(s): Benilda Batzin
Date: August 24, 2021
Country: Guatemala
Language(s): English


Versión en español: Defensor/a: un término que se refiere a las y los defensores indígenas de derechos comunitarios de la salud en Guatemala

In indigenous communities in Guatemala the concept of “defender”, or “defensor/a” in Spanish, is being used to describe community defenders of health rights. But how is this term understood, both by those who hold the position and by the communities they serve? In this post Benilda Batzin, executive director of the Center for the Study of Equity and Governance in Health Systems (CEGSS), discusses the use of this term by the Network of Community Defenders of the Right to Health (Red de Defensores y Defensoras Comunitarios por el Derecho a la Salud, or REDC-SALUD).

The members of REDC-SALUD are Guatemalan citizens, and the majority belong to an indigenous mayan population. REDC-SALUD volunteer health defenders educate citizens about their rights, accompany patients who have difficulty accessing health services, monitor health services, and advocate for health system improvements. In all of these actions they have the advice and technical support of the CEGSS, which has the primary objective of promoting equity and governance in the health system. To accomplish this CEGSS carries out various activities in different fields, including the monitoring of public health services, through their alliance with REDC-SALUD.

Some of the members of the REDC-SALUD health rights defenders and the CEGSS team. Photo provided by Benilda Batzin.

According to our grandparents, ancestrally and historically in indigenous communities there has always existed a guardian, a protector. This is someone who makes and applies justice so that peace, harmony, unanimity and the community as it is remains, and its existence and resistance is possible.

In Guatemala at least two different legal systems coexist – one known as formal or ordinary law, and the other known as the legal system of indigenous peoples (Pop Ac, 2015). Historically, indigenous groups have developed through their own legal and political systems. However, they have been invisibilized through western imposition. Due to this, indigenous peoples have developed what is considered a strong cultural resistance, through which their own systems have survived with their own logic and way of viewing the world. In other words, from their own philosphical vision.

In the assemblies for the exchange of knowledge and experiences between the defenders of REDC-SALUD, it has been shared that the gender-inclusive term “defensor/a” or “defender” is recently being used by indigenous peoples, as it is a term that has become popular with the passing of the years. In indigenous Mayan communities and languages the “defender” is ancestrally known as and called: Aj K’ak’alem K’aleb’aal (the guardian of the community), Aj K’amol Be’ (the one who guides the way), Yuwa ‘K’aleb’aal (community parent or leader), Li nataqlan sa K’aleb’aal (the coordinator, the one who directs or commands in the community), and Awa’b’ej K’aleb’aal (community parents, indigenous authorities or councils of elders). It is important to say that the roles that these people have attained have been delegated to them by the community due to their life trajectory, and the respect and admiration they have gained from the people. The community designates its trust in that person and delegates responsibilities and commitments to them and names them as a protector. Also, it should be said that the “defenders” (guides, parents or guardians of the community) consider it a pleasure to voluntarily serve their community and people.

Within the REDC-SALUD there are different male and female leaders who have certain specific functions, duties and responsibities as a “defensor/a”, which are:

  1. To contribute to and support people in the communities whose human rights have been violated
  2. To provide a service to the community, they identify themselves as caretakers and protectors of their communities
  3. To serve as intermediaries between the population and the authorities to carry out activities such as auditing, negotiations, management and advocacy
  4. To be communicators and promoters in outreach about human rights, in this case health
  5. To serve as protectors of vulnerable groups such as children, the elderly and women
  6. A male or female defender may also protect and/or represent people before state agencies/authorities
  7. To be an observer to detect future problems and seek solutions
  8. To serve as legitimate leaders in their communities, who possess leadership and credibility.

What other meanings has this term had, and how have you distingushed these meanings from those used by REDC-SALUD and CEGSS?

The defenders of the REDC-SALUD are clear about their duties, responsabilities and obligations towards their communities. As we mentioned earlier, this is a constant struggle between indigenous mayan communities against the western system that invisibilizes and violates the rights and ancestral knowledge of these communities.

The communities have had no problems with calling female and male leaders and local indigenous authorities “defenders.” It is important to mention that the community authorities have never been obligated to call themselves “defenders.” The recovery and promotion of the traditions, customs and values ​​of indigenous peoples has been respected. This is why within the network the additional names that the communities have assigned to the “defenders” are preserved, including:

  • Vigilantes de la salud (Health monitors)
  • Líderes y lideresas (Male and female leaders)
  • Autoridades comunitarias (Community authorities)
  • Cuidadores y protectores de la comunidad (Caretakers and protectors of the community)
  • Observadores (Observers)
  • Abuelas Comadronas de la salud (Grandmother midwives of health)
  • Terapeutas mayas (Mayan therapists)
  • Guardianes de la comunidad (Community guardians)
  • Guías de la comunidad (Community Guides)
  • Guía y principal de la comunidad (Community leader and guide)

How did the term “defensor/a” originate and how did you communicate its gender-inclusive version?

When the guidelines were defined and the meaning of “RED” (network) was developed, where both men and women would provide their contributions, this was a moment of reflection and analisis. We defined that the “network” is ancestrally linked to mayan indigenous communities, and that the grandmothers and grandfathers have always taught the importance of teamwork, promoting women’s participation, equity and gender equality. Remember that for the grandmothers and grandfathers the most important thing in life was to maintain an equilibrium between nature, the elements, energies and all living things. Finally, after a long process of reflection we concluded that both women and men have the same rights, duties and obligations within society. Participation and decision-making spaces within REDC-SALUD are equitable and egalitarian between women and men.

For more information about REDC-SALUD and CEGSS, please see the Accountability Note “Defending the Right to Health in Guatemala: Reflections of Two Indigenous Women on the Frontlines.”


Pop Ac, Amílcar de Jesús. 2015. Pluralismo Jurídico y Derechos Indígenas en Guatemala: los pueblos indígenas y sus derechos humanos. Guatemala.

REDC-SALUD health rights defenders and CEGSS staff were consulted in the writing of this post


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Benilda Batzin

Benilda Batzin

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Executive Director, CEGSS

Benilda is a licensed social worker and a graduate of the Mariano Gálvez University in Guatemala. In 2020 Benilda was named Executive Director of the Center for the Study of Equity and Governance in Health Systems (CEGSS). She is the first indigenous woman elected to this position. Benilda has over 10 years’ experience working with rural communities in Guatemala, running and implementing development programs and projects. This includes promoting citizen participation for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Rights to Health and the Environment, Human Rights of Women, and Gender Equity for an equitable and non-discriminatory citizen participation.