Today’s post is a bit of a change from the usual (though of course nesting is still involved). Today, I talk about my OTHER passion: human rights.
I just spent a week and a half in Guatemala, a country I’ve studied intensively for a number of years but never actually been to. As a specialist in genocide studies and lover of all things Español, the human rights situation in Guatemala has been on my radar for quite some time. For those of you unfamiliar with the history of this Latin American country, here’s a brief overview:
Guatemala has suffered from a history of military coups and dictatorships in combination with conflict over land rights and conflict between its Maya and ladino populations. From 1960 to 1996, tensions boiled over and Guatemala was embroiled in what is now called the Internal Conflict, or La Violencia. During this time, 200,000 people were killed or disappeared during this time and hundreds of thousands were displaced. In a report filed by the Historical Clarification Commission in 1999, 93% of the atrocities were committed by the military and 83% of the victims were Maya. Between 1980 and 1982, a scorched earth campaign was conducted in the Western Highlands, a primarily Maya region. It was later found by the international community that the actions of the military constituted genocide. During the internal conflict, violence against women, particularly sexual violence, was used as a tactic of “war.”
In the years since La Violencia, many of the military leaders responsible for the genocide have continued to hold positions of political power, and one of these men is currently favored to win Guatemala’s primary elections this September. This culture of impunity is one of Guatemala’s biggest problems.
Today, levels of violence in the country are as high as they were during the Internal Conflict. Domestic violence and femicide are growing problems, and as the price of nickel, oil and other natural resources continue to rise, foreign extractive companies are pushing indigenous people off their land, displacing thousands of families in often violent, brutal ways. Women, and particularly indigenous women, often pay the heftiest price during these confrontations. Community leaders who stand up for their communities’ rights put themselves in grave danger, and many have been threatened and/or brutally assassinated.
I went to Guatemala to flex my anthropological muscles. After a year of being unable to find a job in my field, I was feeling disconnected from the subject I am most passionate about. When the opportunity arose to join a human rights delegation sponsored by the ever wonderful Guatemala Human Rights Commission (based in Washington, DC), I jumped at it.
Myself, six other delegates and two GHRC employees spent 9 days in Guatemala meeting with Guatemalan human rights groups and indigenous leaders to learn more about their struggle against femicide, genocide, sexual violence, misogyny and the culture of impunity in modern day Guatemala. Seven years of studying genocide is nothing compared to 9 days of first person meetings. Reading the transcripts of genocide survivors’ testimony can never compare to hearing it straight from their lips. Studying about the land ownership struggles indigenous communities face cannot compare to meeting with displaced communities who have lost everything.
We met some incredible men and women, people who put everything on the line because they care about their communities, their families and their country. We talked with women whose terrible ordeals helped them become stronger, more empowered and more conscious of what it means to be a feminist. They are redefining what it means to be a woman, a mother, a wife, a Maya and a Guatemalan. We laughed and shared meals with these people, listened to them sing and watched them dance, played with their children and left hoping they felt a little less alone in their fight for justice.
On the last day of our trip, we took a mini vacation to Antigua, the ex-capital of Guatemala. Antigua is a beautiful city filled with cobblestone streets and lovely green spaces. For a few hours, we could pretend we were tourists too. I wanted to buy myself a souvenir, something that would not only remind me of how amazing Guatemala is, but the reason I went there. I finally settled on a little half-apron. Guatemala is known for its textiles, so the weaving and embroidery will always remind me of the country. In addition, I realized on this trip what a blessing it is to be free to choose to be a nester. I am not forced by cultural restraint to be domestic. I do not have to serve the men in my family or ask permission to go to the store or the park or to work. My home and body won’t be violated just because I live on resource-rich earth.
My little apron is a reminder of all these things. When I wear it, it reminds me why I continue to pursue a career in human rights work. Perhaps most unexpectedly, it reminds me that being a feminist is something I have always taken for granted, and shouldn’t any more.
For more information about the history of Guatemala and the current human rights situation there, go to: http://www.ghrc-usa.org/