Enduring Violence

by Cecilia Menjívar

Enduring Violence is the culmination of several years of research I conducted in Guatemala, where I had the opportunity to interview and converse informally with Maya and non-Maya (ladina) women in two semi-rural towns and to talk with a variety of people who are in one way or another connected to the women, such as medical professionals, priests and pastors, government officials, etc. In the course of our conversations and interviews, the women related experiences that signaled suffering arising from deep inequalities in their lives. I listened carefully and noticed that even when they did not mention instances of physical violence, the women brought up other forms of suffering brought about by extreme control over their bodies and movements, gossip, humiliations, threats, vulnerability and fear, experiences I came to categorize as the women’s “private terrors.”

Enduring Violence takes an in-depth look at the women’s “private terrors,” that is, the violence that the women habitually experience in their everyday lives that cannot be seen easily, counted, measured or even reported because it is part of life, of the social environment in which they live. It is violence often suffered in silence, and even when women turn to other women—friends, relatives, co-workers—for comfort and support these acts do not translate into direct resistance or organized responses. For instance, women would experience “nervios” (nerves), a constant state of physical and emotional anxiety about not having enough food to feed their children, or about fearing infidelity and experiencing the threat of abandonment on the part of their husbands. Sometimes “nervios” would result from “bad tongues,” as the women referred to the gossip that affected their intimate lives at home, controlled their movements in public, and could destroy their lives because so much is based on their “good” reputation.  Based on a close listening of the stories of the women I came to know in Guatemala, I argue that for projects of gender justice to succeed, violence should be acknowledged even when it does not present itself in the form of visible wounds, bullets, and bodies.

It is important that even though many of the “private terrors” that women experience are perpetuated by men, I do not point to them as the source of women’s suffering. Instead, I turn the analytic gaze on the inequalities and humiliations that are sustained through social interactions as well as by a wide range of institutions. This approach allows me to make an important connection in my work. Even though I did not investigate directly the feminicide (the brutal killings of women because they are women) that is taking place in Guatemala today (as well as in other countries of the region), I argue that the experiences of suffering that I unveiled in my work pave the way for the more gruesome and extreme forms of violence, including the alarming growth in feminicide to occur.

The daily acts of control, the women’s self-recrimination for their own victimization, the humiliations, stigmatization, internalized submission, and multiple forms of social exclusion in education, health, and employment, as well as a general devaluation of women’s lives, are deeply linked to the brutal killings of women that are seen in Guatemala today. Seen from the approach I espouse in Enduring Violence, these killings are an expression of gender discrimination and unequal power relations between men and women and of institutionalized discrimination against women and as such are the precursors of the feminicide we see today.

The cases I depict in Enduring Violence may be relevant to other countries in Latin America, and perhaps other regions of the world as well. These cases exemplify how conditions beyond individuals’ behaviors result in women’s suffering and gender violence, with many parallel situations around the world. Women continue to be brutally killed in Guatemala today at a rate of 2 per day and the situation is no less grim in neighboring countries like El Salvador, which currently holds the top place in feminicides in the world. Thus, in an effort to link my research to broader efforts to eradicate gender injustices around the world and as a symbolic gesture of my dedication to make my research relevant beyond academia, all the royalties of Enduring Violence are going directly to the Global Fund for Women to assist with their projects to advance gender justice in various regions of the world.

Cecilia Menjívar is a distinguished professor of sociology at Arizona State University, and the author of Enduring Violence: Ladina Women’s Lives in Guatemala, reviewed in the December 2013 issue of Gender & Society. To read the review click here

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