Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Sexual violence and migration

Although the Rios Montt genocide trial has not succeeded, to date, in bring the general to justice, it performed an important historic task. Not only was it the first time a former head of state had been charged with genocide and crimes against humanity in a tribunal in his own country, but it brought into public view the role of sexual violence in the Guatemalan armed conflict. The public sat transfixed for days as several Maya Ixil women described how they had been raped and brutalized by the Guatemalan military -- crimes that few had spoken about during or after the conflict. Sexual violence was clearly a tactic of the Guatemalan military, intended not only to humiliate and degrade the women who were its immediate targets but also to humiliate their male relatives, who were powerless to stop the assaults.  It also established a new model of brutalist masculinity, and helped normalize violence and particularly violence against women, which has reached epidemic proportions in the so-called post-war. 

Gender violence is a contributing factor in the migration of Maya women to the U.S., and it is also a part of many women's migration experiences, both during the journey north and once they arrive here. This was hammered home today in what started out as a casual conversation, on my part, not an interview. I sat down with a Guatemalan woman whom I will call Alejandra, in her late 20s, whom I met because she was part of a workplace action at a seafood processing company in New Bedford a few weeks ago. I knew that she had been through a training program on issues of domestic violence sponsored by the New Bedford Women's Center, and I wanted to talk with her about how we could create a space for women to talk about sexual violence and domestic violence. A few days ago I read the affidavit of another young woman in whose immigration case I am serving as an expert witness, and she detailed being raped in Guatemala and also by the coyotes on her journey north. 

I approached Alejandra just to see if she might be interested in helping organize an encounter or dialogue, and wasn't quite prepared when, with few preliminaries, she launched into her life story.  The youngest of nine children, she had been virtually abandoned by her mother as a young child; her father had been murdered when she was an infant, and her mother left her home alone when she went out to work. Alejandra was raped at age 12, and was taunted and scorned by people in her community for being a rape victim. She escaped from this by running away with a man when she was 13; she bore him two children, but their relationship was marked by violence as he constantly beat her, and her children were always trying to keep their father from killing their mother. After 7 years she decided she couldn't stand it any longer and set off for the United States. She went to her mother and said, "You weren't a good mother to me, you didn't take care of me, but I need you to take care of my children," and her mother agreed.

She came to the U.S. and specifically to North Carolina where one of her brothers was living but, Alejandra confided in me, her brother wanted her to become a prostitute. So to escape that, she wound up in a relationship with another man, who didn't bother to tell her that he was married until after she was pregnant. He was never concerned about his child, and so she went back to Guatemala with her young daughter and reunited with the two children she had left with her mother. But it was hard to support the family on the wages she could earn in Guatemala and so she left for the U.S. again after only five or six months at home. 

This time she came to New Bedford, where she had other relatives but again ended up in a relationship with a man who abused her. She put up with it, and then reached the breaking point. As she told me, "I began to value myself".  Her partner threatened to kill her if she left, and attacked her with a knife. She detailed her attempts to leave, and a time that he found her when she was sitting in her car after a doctor's appointment, and took out a bat and tried to break all the windows of her car. At this point she finally decided to call the authorities, and he was arrested and eventually sent to jail. She cooperated with the authorities and is now in the process of getting a U-visa (a special visa category for victims of certain types of crimes who cooperate with criminal investigations). 

I was honored and humbled by the trust she showed in telling me her story, as we have only met a few times in public events. But hearing Alejandra's story and reading the testimony of the young woman who detailed being raped by men who were threatening her family made me determined to find a way -- in addition to this blog -- to write about the experiences of women migrants.