Finding Routine After Trauma

The women at Pa’nibal have lived far from what anyone I know would ever call a “normal life”. They are part of a painfully outdated machismo culture that has consistently made it clear that the lives and wellbeing of women are not valued. Roughly one third of Guatemalan women are married before the age of eighteen. Loopholes allowing the marriage of minors existed until 2017, when child marriage was officially banned in Guatemala, yet the practice persists out of tradition and poverty. In many impoverished regions girls are married off as a way to either avoid the extra cost of raising them, or for the benefit of dowries. The government funds education through the sixth grade. Yet many children leave school early to help with family businesses or to work elsewhere. According to the United States Department of Labor, Guatemalan children between the ages of seven and fourteen are engaged in some of the “worst forms of child labor”. The department cites, among other things, children involved in sexual exploitation, domestic work, dangerous agricultural tasks, and mining.

These are the realities many women at Pa’nibal share. Some began working young, and/or left home at an early age. Some were married and had children before they reached adulthood. Few have ever been in a stable household setting. For many it took years of suffering and sacrifice to escape their situation. Yet now, at Pa’nibal, they work and learn and spend time with friends. It has become routine; a grounding, supportive reality.

Pa’nibal functions much like a typical family household would. Everybody living here is expected to take on responsibilities in an effort to keep the house running. This includes but is not limited to things like cleaning, cooking, and making grocery runs. It’s like living with roommates. The purpose of this is to begin to prepare the women living at Pa’nibal for independent life. Currently, they are in a structured safe-house that helps them stay on their feet. Pa’nibal is their support system.

This “family” dynamic comes with the same obstacles roommates in developed countries might face. Everybody is expected to do their part, and sometimes people just don’t want to participate. Mealtimes are some of the most chaotic times of the day at Pa’nibal. Everybody has to cook meals. The responsibility changes day to day, and nobody is exempt from cooking. If someone doesn’t know how to cook, they are taught.

In any home there are picky eaters, or people who will eat anything, people who love salty food, people who love spicy food, and everything else in between. Needless to say, it’s near impossible to please everyone. Pa’nibal is no exception.

To set the scene: women trickle into the dining room for dinner. They are returning from work or school, sometimes from vocational training or their rooms. Fourteen people sit around a long table. Some bring in chairs from another room, others stack plates and silverware or bring in pots of steaming food. Children yell and laugh and hover around their mothers. They tug at sleeves and beg for more or less of one thing or another.

“More beans mom!”

“Please mom? I want more atole! I ate all my rice!”

Occasionally a telenovela or the radio plays in the background and people argue about turning it up or down, or just off entirely. Somebody will mutter about the saltiness of the food, or the type of fruit used to make the juice that day. It’s an exhausting but extremely human dynamic. One that anyone who has experienced a family dinner would be familiar with.

Getting to know the women and kids here has been a process. I’ve lived here for a month, and what I’ve learned is, in many ways, this is a home full of normal drama. What sets Pa’nibal apart is that without it many of these women would never have experienced that “normal drama”. Their pasts are full of trauma that many of them never imagined they would escape. Now, it is apparent that these women’s pasts are gradually turning into just that; the past. Pa’nibal is providing them with a new life, and an opportunity to make the most of it.

A Resident’s Story

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.

Maria (far right) posing with other residents. Soon, she will be living with her parents in Guatemala City.

Anita (far right) posing with other residents. Soon she will leave Pa’nibal to live with her parents.

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.