Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Guatemala Journey: Part I

I have returned and am processing so very much.

It was a very intense and very unique opportunity and experience.

I begin at the beginning... The home we stayed in - our "home base" in Guatemala City -- like most homes and business in Guatemala, has steel entry doors to protect inhabitants from crime. No one opens their doors without knowing who is knocking.

Below is our room.

It can feel somewhat claustrophobic, or stifling at times living under such cautious scrutiny; so cloistered inside.

However, in the rear of the home is a patio which is just lovely and a way to enjoy the cool Guatemalan weather. We had several meetings on our patio.

A few of our meetings with survivors of violence against women were held here at home base, and also a meeting with women who organizing for work place rights - two of whom travelled 12 hours each way by bus! But the rest of our meetings got us out via van excursions.

Violence against women in Guatemala is so prevalent that the daily newspaper lists approximately two murders a day. While officials are still defining and redefining what exactly constitutes femicide...whether it must legally contain all five characteristics - it is clearly a result of cultural machismo , cultivated by years of war and training men in violence and killing, and often aggravated by alcohol consumption and rampant racism. All of these factors are then layered over by impunity and re-victimization of victims.

722 violent murders of women took place last year and already more than half that number so far this year. An AlJazeera video was produced on gang violence against Guatemalan women and released while we were there. This is a link to the VCU blog of our delegation.

A spokesperson from ASOCIACION NUEVOS HORIZONTES (New Horizons) an organization that provides help to victims of domestic and other types of violence said that 99.9% of Guatemalan women experience domestic violence, and many of the murders are the direct - or hired hit - result of such domestic disputes while much crime in general results from the narco trafficking. Most of the women killed are killed by their husbands, not gangs, as the government often portrays it. Many are found dead in the streets having been dragged there after the fact, and many of these crimes occur after women have filed complaints of abuse and/or have sought orders of protection.

Anna Glady's Ollas of the Human Rights Ombudsman's office told us that the police often pick up alleged perpetrators and drive them around the block so it appears if hey are veing apprehended, but in reality, just let them go.

What separates crimes against women specifically is the viciousness. Drug and gang killed are shooting. Women, however are raped, tortured, mutilated, dismembered, decapitated, wraped in barbed wire...body parts strewn in different locations as a message. These crimes are committed for one reason and one reason only: because they are women.

Impunity Reigns

The police are very corrupt and often do not know how to properly investigate a crime scene and protect evidence -- or simply do not care to. Ww were repeatedly told from all sources that any woman who wears nail polish, or has tattoo, or is wearing a short skits is labeled a prostitute or a "nobody' and o effort whatsoever is taken to find the perpetrator of her rape, kidnapping and/or murder.

The victims are re-victimized and their families given no justice.

An excellent source, is a 2007 BBC documentary entitled "Killer's Paradise" which is viewable in 15 parts on YouTube. It's a POWERFUL, MUST SEE!

The violence, victimization of the victim and lack of investigation, occurs regardless of the status of the women, as it has with Gladys Monterroso, attorney who was kidnapped, tortured, burned and raped and who came and spoke with us, as did Rosa Franco, a mother seeking justice for the murder of her 15-year old daughter Maria Isabel Franco.

Rosa was offered and refused reparations, including having a street named after her daughter as is done for other notable women who have been killed, such as Myrna Mack Chang.

Myrna was an anthropologist documenting the displacement of indigenous peoples. Her sister, Helen Mack, started the Myrna Mack Foundation, a major NGO fighting these crimes in her memory. They released a report entitled "Impunity, Stigma and Gender" and English summary of which is located at this link.

Hearing first hand victims reports was extremely triggering for me, being a survivor of acts of domestic and stranger violence myself. This visceral reaction was not expected.

Many of the delegates were social workers who had chosen that career path and chosen to come to Guatemala out of a great deal of human compassion. We all bring our life experiences and training with us to the table. And so, I sensed, at times, some were acting as observers there to analyze, theorize, and contextualize the stories we heard as source material, as studying and reporting on the social, political and economic struggles facing Guatemalan women will be of great value.

I, on the other hand, have been an advocate for the rights of marginalized, coerced, voiceless women - many suffering from PTSD - for more than 30 years. All of my activism has been in peer self-help support. I am thus unaccustomed to dealing with women's pain from the outside looking in or in a professional/client clinical or detached manner, but rather as an equal.

Perhaps the difference is best explained in this illustration:

Sympathy: I am sorry for your loss. What can I do to help you during this difficult time?

Empathy: I feel and understand your pain; my grandmother passed away last year as well.

Some delegates seemed to "admire the courage" of the women who had endured, and their "bravery" to share their testimony. And while I did as well, I also knew that they HAD to tell their stories and that they did not ask to be heroines. I knew of the importance of having their experiences validated; that these things did happen to them, or their daughters, though they were expected to remain silently in shame in fear.

I felt this subtle divide, and it was painful on many levels. It was at times for me a disturbing, albeit totally unintended, objectification of those being "interviewed" as "subjects" of a research project rather than sharing with them on a level as I was unable not to and which at the same time brought me great pain in reflecting on my very personal connecting experiences to their abuses, and re-victimization. I felt -- perhaps unwarranted -- the solicitousness of those who believe that we mothers who have lost our children to adoption are somehow noble or brave for "letting them go" while also expressing some sense of pity for our loss.

As I am trying to process all of these thoughts and feelings... I was also moderating comments that had been sent while I was away, when a comment dated July 15 on the post "Why I am Going to Guatemala" caught my eye in a way it had not previously. The anonymous poster suggested that some of the Guatemalan mothers whose children had been kidnapped are just making it up, having regret after voluntarily placing their children for adoption!

And so...I have a great deal to process as I share with my experiences...

A LOT more to come including a very special trip to a Mayan village and all that relates specifically to adoption and the kidnapping and trafficking of Guatemalan children. ...and how and why it is part and parcel of violence against women as reported to us by Norma Cruz' daughter, Caludia Maria Hernandez, on her behalf in the offices of her Fundación Sobrevivientes (Survivor's Foundation).

I had a productive additional day's stay which included a visit to the privately run children's home and a meeting with Anna Escobar who miraculously reclaimed her kidnapped daughter before she had been sent out of Guatemala for adoption...along with photos of her and her daughter!

Stay tuned...

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