By Emily Wilkes
O God, hear my prayer,
and do not hide from my plea.
Attend to me and answer me.
A young Mayan girl has watched her father get into her older sister’s bed every night for years. Because she’s growing older, she knows her father will soon climb into her bed as well. She turns to CEDEPCA, the Protestant Center for Pastoral Studies in Central America, for help. They strategize, taking the young girl’s context and resources available to her into consideration. On the night her father comes to his young daughter’s bed, he lifts the sheets to discover his daughter wrapped in a bag, tied with rope. The father is overcome with shame and leaves the family. He never touches his young daughter.
My heart is in anguish within me,
The terrors of death have fallen upon me.
Fear and trembling come upon me,
And horror overwhelms me.
Alicia is seventeen years old. When she spoke of her dreams for her community in Guatemala, her eyes shone with a deep inner confidence. She has attended workshops with CEDEPCA since she was thirteen years old with her mother. As she accompanied her mother, she slowly began absorbing the lessons her mother was learning: la violencia contra la mujer es contra la imagen de Dios—violence against women is violence against the image of God.
Many of Alicia’s childhood friends are now pregnant or on the verge of marriage. At CEDEPCA, she’s listened to countless stories of women trapped in the cycle of violence, raped and murdered at the hands of husbands, fathers, stepfathers, and uncles. Alicia recognizes the path her friends are on and wants so much more for them, yet feels intensely stigmatized when she tries to tell them so. “People make fun of me,” she explains. “My male classmates try to throw away what I accomplish. They try to change my reality. But if somebody doesn’t struggle, then nothing is accomplished.”
Next year, Alicia plans on attending the university to become a civil engineer, own her own business, and invest in her community. She says CEDEPCA gave her the audacity to dream of a better future for herself and for her community. “Somebody who protects themselves is somebody who loves themselves,” Alicia says. “I want my friends to love themselves.”
So I said,
‘Had I the wings of a dove,
I wanted to fly away and have rest.
See, I wanted to flee far off,
and settle in the wilderness,
so hurry to my refuge,
away from the blast of the wind, from the storm.’
In October, ten women embarked on a journey to Guatemala to listen to the stories of women who have survived sexual violence. Nearly 45 percent of Guatemalan women have suffered some instance of violence in their lifetime and, in many ways, the country’s history has been shaped by sexual violence. When the Spanish invaded Guatemala and conquered the indigenous Mayan population, the religious discourse they imposed claimed that women needed to have as many children as possible to produce more field workers. This legitimized rape and shaped how women understood their worth, as dictated from an oppressive God. Fast-forward a few hundred years to the 20th century, when over 200,000 (primarily indigenous Mayans) were murdered in a 36-year internal armed conflict. Six hundred communities vanished. Violence against women was used not only as a weapon of war to suppress anyone who resisted the genocide, but also as a method of wiping out Mayan population. Rather than attack the guerillas, the military dictatorship’s strategy was to “destroy the seed” of the guerillas by raping and killing their wives, mothers, and daughters. Femicide, the murder of a person based on her gender, wasn’t declared illegal until 2008.
O Lord, confound their speech;
for I see violence and strife in the city.
Day and night they go around it on its walls,
and iniquity and trouble are within it;
ruin is in its midst;
oppression and fraud do not depart from its marketplace.
Our delegation sought to understand how the Guatemalan church is responding to sexual violence. CEDEPCA, the organization Alicia and her mother are involved with, is a faith-based non-profit that offers education and accompaniment with those who suffer from violence. They not only want to dismantle the machismo woven in and throughout their culture, but they also seek to dismantle the violence internalized within women.
How is it possible to deconstruct such a violent way of understanding yourself and the world? CEDEPCA’s answer is a woman-centered theology, taught through a process that aims to empower people who are marginalized socially and politically and who may not have more than an elementary school-level education. Through classes with titles like “It’s Marvelous to be a Woman,” women are taught to read Scripture through the lens of their lived experiences. Read in this way, the Bible can be a source of liberation rather than a tool of oppression. Scripture has the potential to liberate us from cycles of violence, both cultural and internal.
Our group listened to a panel of women who had participated in CEDEPCA’s workshops. Courageous women spoke about how reading Scripture from a woman’s perspective has impacted their lives. Many cried as they shared their stories of abuse, how they can now articulate that what they’ve experienced is not what they’ve deserved. Dios no quiere las mujeres sufran ningun tipo de violencia – God doesn’t want women to suffer any type of violence.
The Scripture passages woven throughout this article are from Psalm 55, which I invite you to read as though it were written by a woman who experienced sexual violence.
Yes, if an enemy had abused me,
I would have borne it.
If a foe had set himself over me,
I would have hidden myself from him.
But you: one of my own,
my companion, my friend,
with whom I enjoyed sweet fellowship,
walked in the crowd in the house of our God.
Healing spaces are a critical piece of a healing journey. For many Guatemalan women, the church is the only space where they can gather safely and freely, where their husbands allow them to go unaccompanied without suspecting anything. Here, women connect, share their experience and hope, and realize they have value. Here, women create a network of support with other survivors of violence. Here in the church, women organize, birthing new visions of an equitable society.
Women create many healing spaces outside of the church walls as well. Our group visited Las Poderosas Teatro (The Powerful Ones (feminine)), a theatre collective made up entirely of women who have experienced sexual violence. The shows, which they write, direct, produce, and act in themselves, are biographical; the women’s stories and experiences are woven into the performances. They seek to expose different forms of violence: psychological, patrimonial, ecological, social, and sexual. They perform educational workshops about violence in rural parts of the country; after one workshop, a man stood and said “I can’t believe the harm I’ve done to my wife.” Through theatre, the women of Las Poderosas have found not only a healing outlet through art, but also in their activism, knowing their work has tangible effects in the lives of the women and men who see their performances.
Corazon de Mujer (Heart of Woman) is a weaving cooperative made up of female indigenous survivors of the internal armed conflict. They share stories, support each other in their efforts to gain literacy and educate their children, and build enterprises for a better livelihood. They weave beautiful fabric from home so they can still attend to their everyday household needs, yet also contribute to the wellbeing of the household. With the additional income, their families are thriving and can afford to send their children to school. The women of Corazon de Mujer found financial interdependence and a healing space through meaningful work.
For I, I call to God,
and GOD will rescue me.
At evening, at morning, at midday I lament and moan,
and he will hear my voice.
He will rescue my life for salvation
from the quarrel against me,
For they are too many about me.
How do we imagine reconciliation in this context? A few years ago, there was a rift between CEDEPCA and the IEPNG, the Presbyterian Church in Guatemala. For the first time in three years, these two groups were brought together for an all-day workshop to combat sexual violence from a faith-based perspective. Our group from the United States bore witness to the reconciliation of these two groups on either end of the progressive and conservative spectrum. Some women had traveled up to twenty-four hours to attend this workshop. We worked, played, laughed, cried, and prayed together. It was a day of healing, hope, heartbreak, and reconciliation.
I learned in Guatemala that reconciliation is first an inner process of recognizing God within us. Recognizing that we, as women, also bear the image of God. When we are reconciled to the beauty of God within us, our reality comes into focus. We see we are not alone in our experiences. We see we deserve more than to be trapped in a cycle of violence. We begin to recognize when others are trapped, and seek to disrupt violence internalized within others. When we see the image of God in ourselves, the image of God in the other also comes into sharper focus. We see beauty. We see that violence is not what God wills for us. In Guatemala, our hearts were cracked open in heartbreak, filled with beauty and hope, esparando (waiting and hoping) for God to weave our hearts together in solidarity and love.
But I, I trust in you.
This article was first published on Emily Wilkes' own blog: Heartbreak, Hope, and Reconciliation in Guatemala [November 15, 2015]