I was talking on the phone with my parents last night and they asked me if I felt safe in Xela. I thought for a bit and realized I couldn’t honestly answer yes to that question, no matter how much I wanted to. It certainly didn’t put my parents’ minds at ease when I said no. I said no because I am a woman in a country with the third highest femicide rate in the world, 10 out of every 100,000 women here are killed simply for the crime of being women in Guatemala. I don’t want to scare anyone, I’m safe during the day and I know what precautions to take at night, don’t walk alone and preferably always be with a man; but I feel the need to talk about the place of women in Guatemala. I’ve been thinking about this post for a while so bear with me, it will probably be rambling and disoriented, but I need to write it.
The hardest thing for me to deal with personally about living in a country where I am dramatically less safe than my male counterparts has been losing my independence. As many of you know I am a fiercely independent, often stubborn person who really does not like having to be taken care of. Here I can’t run alone in the mornings, because while one would think the mornings are a safe time (bad people have to sleep too right?) they aren’t as safe as one would think. This might be because Xela doesn’t really wake up until 8 am and the streets are very empty at 6 am, leaving no audience to judge the gropers of the world for grabbing women’s’ breasts on the way to morning yoga. This happened to a woman in our group. Not shortly after that, there was another groping, at 8 pm walking alone to the central and very busy park to meet someone, and an assault. In both incidents the women were told not to do anything that could provoke the attacker into escalating into violence. This advice, while sound, pissed me off, because it places the responsibility on the victim’s shoulders and inadvertently encourages this sordid behavior on the part of the men.
I am lucky. I have not had anyone touch me or assault me, but I have heard every single awful thing men can think up as I pass in my running clothes on the way to the gym or track. It does not matter if you are wearing sweatpants and a jacket, covering every inch of skin imaginable, they will still cat call you. However, it does get worse when you show any skin at all; a knee length skirt will receive calls of “baby I love you” or “take of all your clothes”. This last phrase was said in Spanish, which I’m assuming they thought we couldn’t understand. I am tired of having to consciously know where every single man in my immediate vicinity is and what he is doing. I am tired of having my running shorts be seen as me asking to be raped. I am tired of not being able to run my favorite loop in Xela, the little mountain El Baul, because a group of men with machetes tried to rape a woman on Valentine’s Day at the top. I am tired of my body being simultaneously viewed as vulgar and as something to be taken without my consent. I am tired of being afraid of men. Before this trip I was aware when men passed me on the street, but I didn’t cross the street to avoid them like I do now. I know not all men here are bad, but there have been too many incidents, too close to home for me to not think twice when I see a man walking towards me after sunset.
To finish this rant, it is not just extranjeras (foreign women) who are targeted, the women here pay the same price we do. It was a Guatemalan woman who the men attempted to rape at the top of El Baul and it is predominantly Guatemalan women who make up those sobering statistics in the beginning of this post. I feel that a large part of the problem is the tradition of machismo, the idea that men need to be hyper masculine and always in control to be real men. There have also been theories about the potential correlation between the violence experienced in Guatemala during the civil war and the extremely high rates of domestic violence/femicide that exist today, but I don’t know enough about these theories to do more than introduce them. All I can say is that I will forever be grateful for the relative safety of the places I have lived before, Ventura and Davis, and hope to live in the future, Portland. I sincerely hope that progress will be made here in regards to the place of women in society and the danger we face because of it.