This week, Norma Andrade, a well-known women’s rights activist in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, was attacked. Her face was slashed as she walked her grandchild to school in Mexico City, just two months after she survived being shot near her home. Andrade’s offense that has drawn such violence against her? In 2001, she founded May Our Daughters Return Home after one of her daughters was killed – a crime that remains unsolved.
Femicide and violence against women have reached epic proportions in Mexico and Central America, making the reality very near impossible to ignore. In December, the Peace Corps made the decision to pull volunteers out of El Salvador, and to stop sending new volunteers to Guatemala and Honduras – a strong statement on just how bad things have gotten.
In correlation with the drug-related and organized crime that is relentlessly spreading throughout the region, women are suffering most. The history and nature of the violence is different in each country, but the net effect seems to be the same. On the brutal death of a close friend in Guatemala, Diana Santana writes:
“It’s not just that in a country with such a violent past one woman a day is killed, or that scarcely 2% of crimes against women are solved. That would be horrendous enough. But it’s also that the bodies of women who have been kidnapped and murdered often show extra brutality – sexual violence, torture, mutilation – reflecting a societal disdain for women.”
Last month, the Nobel Women’s Initiative led a delegation of 20 journalists and advocates – including Nobel Laureates Rigoberta Menchu and Jody Williams – to Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico to meet women like Norma Andrade and many others, with stories of sexualized violence and abuse, and names far less known.
The group held press conferences and meetings, hosted by local women’s rights groups, to bear witness to the pain and suffering, but also the fierce efforts of activists there (defensoras) working to counteract what must seem like a tidal wave of odds against them. “Our purpose was really to listen,” says Lauren Wolfe, a member of the delegation. “In each country, we meet with about 50 women, and listened to their stories of their own rapes, of their sisters’ murders, or their family members’ disappearances.”
For these women to risk their safety to attend these meetings, the importance of simply telling their stories must have been tremendous. Nearly all asked that their names and images not be used, and some requested that, even despite anonymity, their stories not be repeated for fear of repercussions, says Wolfe. One woman was beaten by police upon approaching the gathering, and showed up with a black eye. As she left, Wolfe said, she was again picked up by the police and thrown in jail. The freedom to speak about abuses is in as much jeopardy as women’s rights themselves.
While many of the stories gathered can be found on the Nobel Women’s Initiative website, many will find a home at Women Under Siege, a brand new initiative launched today, which Wolfe will direct. An innovative effort of the Women’s Media Center, Women Under Siege aims to broadly publicize – in the hopes of combating – violence against women, serving as a megaphone for the voices of survivors themselves and a clearinghouse for their recorded experiences. It will feature personal accounts from the likes of photojournalist Lynsey Addario, reporter Lara Logan, and survivors from Bangladesh to Bosnia, and Darfur to Democratic Republic of Congo.
“Documenting the problem allows individual victims to know they’re not alone or at fault, and allows the institutions of society to create remedies, from laws to education,” said Gloria Steinem, one of the initiative’s creators and a co-founder of the Women’s Media Center. “By making clear that sexualized violence is political and public, it admits that sexualized violence can be changed.”
Indeed. The journalist Mona Eltahawy, who was arrested, beaten, and sexually assaulted in Egypt tweeted that “the whole time I was thinking about the article I would write; just you fuckers wait!” She was “bruised but defiant” as she recounted her ordeal in detail to a global newspaper just days later. Providing a new space where women’s stories can be kept safe, and where they can tell their own stories of sexualized violence is critical for many reasons.
But stories are also just stories. Can they change the lived reality of women in conflict zones and misogynistic cultures? Can they leverage implementation of dormant laws and cajole corrupted law enforcement officials out of their jobs? That remains to be seen. But at least perhaps a global chorus of voices and first-hand experiences is a step in that direction.