I have been working with Pa’nibal in Sacatepéquez, Guatemala for the last two months, specifically helping with communications. You can read more about me and my role in my first post, here.
Guatemala is one of the most dangerous places in the western hemisphere to be a woman. The women living at Pa’nibal have been betrayed by lovers, husbands, mothers, fathers and institutions claiming to be there to help but in the end exploiting them for their own gain. I am in the middle of a house designed to help women recover from some of the most abhorrent backgrounds. So, coming into this, I knew that these women’s stories would be difficult to hear. But in reality, it was much more difficult than I could have imagined. I have nothing in my life that is remotely comparable to the hardships these women have gone through. Reacting and relating to the stories they tell is something I am still doing my best to navigate. Living in a house with several women, none of whom speak my first language, is certainly a challenge. In an effort to force myself out of my tendency to “hermit”, I try and ask everyone how they are when I see them in the house. It’s silly, and an incredibly small thing. But it forces me to talk more than I normally would. This is my Spanish class.
Anita (name changed for privacy), is a short term resident at Pa’nibal. She’s been here for about a week, and in that time she has been a quiet and kind presence. She’s often seen sitting in the garden or in the living room, and she spends lots of time with the residents’ many kids. Pa’nibal is providing a safe space for her to recuperate leading up to yet another transition for Anita — moving back to be with her parents. In the course of a year, Pa’nibal is a temporary home for as many as thirty women like Anita who just need a safe place to stay for a short period of time, often after surviving a major conflict.
When I ask her how she’s doing, Anita always tells me that she is mas o menos, or just so so. She has been pointing to her jaw or her arms, complaining of pain and then moving on. A few days ago, I once again asked her how her day was going, and in response she shook her head and again gestured to her arms. Only this time she elaborated:
Because my husband did like this [she twisted her arms out in front of her] He also did like this [she grabbed her own ponytail] and dragged me [she made a sweeping motion with her hand, gesturing up and down the stair and hallway]
I had no idea what to say. I had known that Anita was staying at Pa’nibal as a result of domestic violence. But hearing it from her was hard. Watching her demonstrate what happened to her was even harder. If I was in the United States and a woman I knew had been attacked and beaten, I’d tell them to get help, call someone, do something. But Anita has done that. She’s here. Pa’nibal exists to help women in complex situations like Anita’s. I am certainly not in a place to say anything comparable to advice. I could not tell her I know what it’s like, I could not nod as if to say “ah yes, I know what you mean.” No one is looking for an anecdote. In my position I felt all I could do was apologize, and empathize as best as I could. Sometimes empathy is all we have to offer.