In light of the bravery of the anonymous victim and her demand for justice, my mind has been swirling with how do we respond as a culture when women are continually shamed into silence and then often blamed for sexual assault. If this is true in the United States, than it is ever more true in Guatemala.
I have lived in Guatemala for almost 6 years and every single Guatemalan woman that I have ever talked to has been sexually grabbed or groped on the bus, or while walking down the street. Every. Single. One. Women are so used to being catcalled while walking to their cars or through the market that most have stopped paying attention. I have heard men yell obscene and offensive comments at Guatemalan women, and foreigners alike. This kind of unjust and unacceptable behavior affects women of ALL social classes, skin colors, backgrounds and ages. I once heard an indigenous women share how she grew up learning not if a man touches you, but when, you remain quiet and don’t fight back so you don’t get hurt worse. (I was shocked) Once a former coworker from Guatemala City told me that every day she rode the bus the ayudante would pat her butt in a sly, sexual way. Her only option was to take a different bus or sit down quickly. (I couldn’t believe it.)
But then one afternoon near the end of my first year here, I was walking back to my apartment in Antigua on a sunny afternoon. A tall, dark haired Guatemalan was leaning against a brightly colored wall. As I walked passed him and in one quick swoop, he reached his hand under my dress and grabbed my ass. I was so caught off guard that I yelped and turned around to face him. He looked at me and put his finger over his lips as if to whisper “shhh” don’t tell. I was livid and angry and wanted to swear in Spanish, but I remained silent and kept walking. Who was I going to tell? I knew well enough no one was going to do anything. So I buried my anger and made a point to walk on the opposite side of the street when possible and to not wear a dress any more. But I know now that asking women to change what they wear or what they do is NOT the solution. That’s the dangerous script that rape culture promotes. The focus is on the woman, never the assaulter.
The sad reality for many women here, who experience exponentially more horrific things than a simple ass-grab in the street, is that they have no place to use their voice. No place to say it doesn’t matter what I do, or what I wear, you may NOT touch my body. They are often shamed into remaining silent. Guatemala has one of the highest rates of sexual violence in the world. And 98% of perpetrators go unpunished. What kind of message does that send to young men (and women) when a violent crime against another person has no consequence.
There are so few places that give women a place to share her story or demand justice, and there are even fewer places talking to men and boys about how to act respectfully and understand things like male privilege, consent and rape culture.
Of course there are always exceptions to every rule. I am married to one of them. And there are many other Guatemalan men who stand up for women, stop inappropriate jokes and show respect and kindness to people, all people. However, we need to do better, Guatemala. We need to talk directly to boys in our schools and homes; we need leaders and parents who don’t diminish their daughter’s worth by saying, “you shouldn’t have worn that.” I don’t know where to start, maybe a Facebook group where Guatemalan women can share their stories without shame? Maybe a town hall meeting for every NGO that works with youth, and particularly boys? Maybe some place to bring men AND women together who want to fight against this on a community level? If we can’t change the justice system, we can at least encourage more people to be like the two Swedish men on the bicycles that night. To speak up, stand up and do something when men are making a woman feel uncomfortable by joking or catcalling, or worse grabbing or harassing.
I’m not naive enough to think I can change an entire culture or system that is heavily bent toward machismo and an unjust criminal system, but I can be part of changing the conversation we have around women and men and sexual assault. And so can you. Will you join me? I’m not sure where this is going, but I have lived here long enough that failing to say something is not an option anymore.
P.S. If you know of people or resources in Guatemala who working toward helping sexual assault victims and preventing them, I would love to know more.