Quetzantenango (Xela), Guatemala – In a secret location within Xela a group of women and children are celebrating Christmas. From the street one would never guess that on the other side of a normal looking door reside this group of women who have to hide in fear of their husbands finding and abusing them. This is a step of progress, before they were here they would hide the atrocities committed against them behind closed doors. By tradition women are not allowed to voice themselves in this community and still today many are denied access to education or allowed to work. This suppression of women has left them unaware of their human rights and accepting of atrocities such as gender based violence (GBV). The extent of this is evident when looking at the women in the shelter – most of them only decide to come here once they feel their abuse has become life threatening. In an attempt to save and restart their lives they come into hiding. And there is reason for this, there were approximately 800 femicides in 2009 alone.

The Director of Nuevos Horizontes points out that the root of this violence is not drug, alcohol or poverty related, nor linked to the recently ended civil war as so many think. The root is far deeper than that, it is entrenched in social and customary traditions that have been around far longer than any of the above mentioned issues. So to stop GBV, one has to look at changing lifestyle instead of eradicating the likes of alcohol etc that only provoke abuse. Not to say that the above issues must not be addressed. Nuevos is activating the first steps in this change. Away from abusive households – where often if women speak out they will be shunned by their community for defacing their husband – they are free from abuse and are taught their rights. On top of this skills are also taught so that once they leave the shelter they will be more employable and able to support themselves, ideally in a neighboring town away from the dangers of their past.

It is the day before Christmas and I am at the shelter. I have met two girls aged 13 who have been raped by family members and recently gave birth to their children in the shelter. Everyone is gathered together and presents are being handed out. I watch one of these mothers open their gift while they cradle their newborn. It is a doll in a bright pink box. Her face lights up with the fascination of a child. There is a good chance she has never owned a doll before. In the commotion the baby awakes and the fascinated child quickly turns back into a mother. I wonder what kind of games she will role-play with her doll while her baby sleeps? Will this doll beat the other dolls or live in harmony? As children grow up witnessing abuse it becomes accepted and there is a far greater chance they too will become abusers if they learn that this is how to deal with matters.

I leave the shelter thinking of what Ive just experienced. I relate it to other accounts of abuse I’ve documented in Thailand, Malawi and South Africa, in high and low income class brackets, and in a variety of cultures. It is always the same. The manipulation of one to feel worthless, to feel dependant on the abuser, how it affects not only the abused but the entire family.

I get angry at those who raise a fist to another, at those who put their lives and often their children’s lives at risk by returning and living with abusers, at the condition in general. I realize it is deep rooted, always psychologically, and goes far beyond the actual act of beating another. So how do we move forward? How do we stop this? We have to travel to the root of the problem to find out why the most advanced species can also be so primitive.

Today I will start to search and implement equality. What ever is in my power. What will you do?

Links:

Nuevos Horizontes: http://www.ahnh.org

Stigma and Abuse: visit: