Rigoberta Menchú Tum is a Guatemalan Indigenous rights activist who became the first indigenous person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992.
Menchú was born in 1959 in Laj Chimel, Quiché, Guatemala Her family were of K’iche descent, and lived in poverty as a result of their Mayan heritage, as, like many other countries in the Americas, Guatemala has experienced great tension between the descendants of European immigrants and the native Indian population. Menchú helped her family on their farm from a young age, and was educated at several Catholic schools. As a teenager, she became involved in social reform through the Catholic Church and began campaigning against the human rights violations committed by the Guatemalan armed forces during the country’s civil war (1960 – 1996).
Menchú’s father, Vicente was also involved in political activism, and the family were accused of taking part in guerrilla activities, including organising against abusive landowners. This led to Menchú’s father being arrested and tortured. After his release, he joined the Committee of the Peasant Union (CUC) and in 1979, Menchú herself joined the organisation. That same year, her brother was tortured and murdered by a military death squad. In 1980, her father was murdered during the Burning of Spanish Embassy, and her mother was raped, tortured and subsequently murdered.
Menchú threw herself into her activism, and became far more involved in the CUC, teaching herself Spanish along with other Mayan languages. She protested labour and human rights abuses, including a strike in 1980 for better working conditions for agricultural workers on the Pacific coast. She became a member of the radical 31st of January Popular Front, and worked to educate the Indigenous population to resist military oppression. Menchú was a prominent activist, and her actions came to the attention of the military and she was forced to flee to Mexico in 1981, where she continued to organise to fight against oppression in Guatemala and the struggle for the rights of Indigenous people and became a well-established public speaker. In 1982, she founded The United Representation of the Guatemalan Opposition (RUOG). A year later she gained international recognition for herself and brought the human rights abuses occurring to the oppressed in Guatemala to the attention of the world following the publication of the book I, Rigoberta Menchú, in which she details the horror of her life, and the lives of other Indigenous people in Guatemala.
In 1992, Menchú became the first indigenous person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in fighting to achieve social justice and mutual reconciliation in Guatemala. Menchú used her prize money to found the Rigoberta Menchú Tum Foundation, which promotes the rights of indigenous people around the world. Following the end of the Guatemalan Civil War, Menchú has campaigned to bring members of the Guatemalan political and military establishment to justice. In 1999, she was forced to file a complaint in Spain as persecution through the Guatemalan courts would have been impossible. In 2006, seven former members of Guatemala’s government were finally extradited on charges of genocide and torture.
In 2006, Menchú, along with fellow Nobel Peace Laureates Jody Williams, Shirin Ebadi, Wangari Maathai, Betty Williams andMairead Corrigan Maguire founded the Nobel Women’s Initiative to fight to strengthen work done in support of women’s rights around the world. Menchú is also a member of PeaceJam, which works to create young leaders committed to positive change in themselves, their communities and the world through the inspiration of Nobel Peace Laureates who pass on the spirit, skills, and wisdom they embody” and travels the world to promote this message at PeaceJam conferences. She is also a member of the Fondation Chirac’s honour committee, which works to promote world peace, and served as the official spokesperson for the United Nations International Decade of Indigenous Peoples from 1994 to 2003.
In addition to her activism, Menchú has also been involved in politics, forming the indigenous political party Encuentro por Guatemala and unsuccessfully standing in the 2007 election. Two years later, she founded the Winaq political party, and in 2011 stood once more for presidential election, but unfortunately lost. Menchú continues to fight to Indigenous rights, and currently serves as Good Will Ambassador for the Peace Accords in Guatemala and is president of the company Salud para Todos (“Health for All”), which aims to offer affordable generic medicines to indigenous people in Guatemala.