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People, Social Issues

Rigoberta Menchu Tum, indigenous rights, street crime, international issue, guerrillas

In Guatemala the wide gulf between a small, wealthy elite and a large, impoverished lower class is very evident. The inequities worsened in the 20th century, as the population increased and more resources were devoted to producing exports. Although a significant middle class has developed in urban areas, some 40 percent of Guatemalans survive on less than $U.S.1 per day. It is estimated that 17 percent of the population is undernourished. According to 1987 statistics, the top 10 percent of the population received 44 percent of the income, and the bottom 10 percent received 0.9 percent.

Poverty affects both urban and rural Guatemalans, but rural residents, including most of the Maya population, generally live under harsher conditions. More than 70 percent of rural residents are classified as living in extreme poverty, compared to 36 percent of urban inhabitants. In the period 2000, an average of 81 percent of Guatemalans had access to sanitation, but this figure was only 79 percent in rural areas. About 54 percent of the population has access to health care, but the majority of doctors are around Guatemala City. Malnutrition affects about 60 percent of young children.

The problems of the middle and poorer classes have been major issues in ongoing political struggles throughout the 20th century and into the 21st century. The widespread abuse of human rights has also become a domestic and international issue, after years in which the military-dominated governments repressed any opposition and massacred entire villages to discourage support for guerrillas. Rigoberta Menchu Tum, a Quiche activist for indigenous rights, did much to publicize the problem and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for her work. Recent governments have finally begun to curb human rights abuses, and 1996 peace agreements signed by the government and guerrillas promise protection for human rights, respect for indigenous cultures, and many social programs. In recent years, street crime has also become an important problem, with violent crime rising as poverty increases.



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