The lost voices in the forest – The case of poor indigenous women in Guatemala
By Fabián Juárez, ASIES
Editor’s note: The first blog in our series reflected on why international development needs storytelling. In this blog, Fabián Juárez, a researcher at ASIES, tells the story of his encounter with a young indigenous woman, Maria, and how, through her story, he came to understand the profound experience of poverty and exclusion of indigenous women in Guatemala.
……..Sometimes, in the deep wild forests of Guatemala, weird inaudible noises appear. Noises that can’t be identified as wild birds or falling trees. These recurrent noises are different, they are not natural. Someone could say they resemble voices, but have become so normalized, that people don’t pay attention to them anymore……..
Last year, I attended a conference given by the Guatemalan sociologist, Marta Elena Casaus, an expert in racism and classism in Guatemalan culture. I remember well that she began her conference by saying, “Inequality in Guatemala is one of the root problems that affect our development. In our country it is not the same to be poor, as to be poor and indigenous, and even worst to be a poor and indigenous woman”.
At the time, this was new to me. I lived in Guatemala City, surrounded by buildings, traffic and busy people. I was one of the 4 out of 10 Guatemalans that wasn’t born in poverty, I got toys for Christmas every year, went to a private school and played with my friends on the weekends. I was aware of the poverty that was regularly seen in the streets of Guatemala City. But at the time I wasn’t aware of its magnitude and it didn’t occur to me that, as Casaus said, this issue affected more women than men.
In Guatemala, the lack of reliable statistics might hide some issues; nevertheless, surveys conducted by the National Statistics Institute and other government organizations offer evidence in support of Casaus’s statement. Statistics shows that indigenous women have the lowest accumulated years of education of all the other groups. In employment, according to the yearly National Employment and Income Survey, they earn less money, and most of them are in extreme or poverty situations. In short, the poor and indigenous women in Guatemala rank lowest in almost all inequality indicators in which information is present.
……..The shame, the anger and crying; all fade on their journey. These voices get lost in the deep silent Guatemalan forests that separate the city from the rural regions……..
From the beginning, these women are condemned to be poor. Despite the shocking evidence of these gaps faced by these women, little progress is being made. Few programs and projects are being implemented to reduce this gap and bring these women to equal conditions. One anecdote comes to my mind when I think about this. This was several years ago, during my first years of college. I was quite inexperienced and young, but my eyes were always open, I was full of energy and eager to learn.
I had the chance to volunteer for an organization called Techo para mi País, an institution that builds houses for poor people. I remember our group went to a little village in the poorest department of Guatemala, Alta Verapaz, in the north central part of the country where 83.1% of the population live in poverty.
This is where I met Maria, a 25-year-old indigenous woman. We were building a house for her and her family. At her young age, she already had two kids, Freddy and Luisa. She had been a single mom for quite some months and worked in a plantation from time to time. María had to walk more than 10 kilometers to work each day, only to receive less than the minimum salary, which in turn wasn’t enough to feed her two children.
One day, during our construction-break, we were talking and I remember asking her about her kids. She told me, with great calm and peace, that she had had four kids, but two of them died due to several illnesses caused by malnutrition. What shocked me the most was the normalization of the way she replied. I remember being frozen by her answer. I didn’t know if to cry, apologize or just hug her. “In this village we don’t have enough money to buy food, so losing a kid to malnutrition is quite normal,” she added. I didn’t catch at the time that this “quite normal” was not the regular definition, but the “normal” that, in her mind, made sense. The only normal she knew, the one you see when you see water coming out of a hose, or rain coming out of a dark cloud. In some sense you could say that she accepted the fact that what happened to her every day, was what was supposed to happen.
She told me later that when her husband was around, he and the boys were the first ones to eat. “First we have to feed the boys, because they are the ones who work and need to be strong, then my daughters and if there is enough, then me.”
She didn’t know that her situation wasn’t her fault. She had been born poor, fated from the beginning to lose a child and be discriminated against. Being an indigenous woman meant: being insulted, not eating and keeping her mouth shut. She didn’t know any other way.
……..Her voice was at the end, inaudible, lost in the leaves of the forest and normalized deep in the minds of the people of her own village……..
At first, I wasn’t aware or cared for these issues. I was a normal “capitalino” — a person who lives in the city. My mind and my efforts were somewhere else. Was I bad person?
I just hadn’t been able to hear the voices that came from the forest. The city horns, the political speeches and the everyday news in the TV prevented me from that. Since then, I now know a piece of the context. I heard one of the voices that came from the forest. I heard the crying and sorrow. Hearing and acknowledging these voices was my first step.
Now, I feel obligated to change something about it. I haven’t talked to María since then, I haven’t heard her voice in a while. I just hope she’s well.
Statistics might show a problem, but a number doesn’t have a voice, a face or a missing child. If we don’t make an effort to get a grasp of this stories and voices, if we don’t turn down the volume of the news for a couple of seconds, these voices will continue to blend with the sounds of the Guatemalan wildlife, with the sound of the fallen trees……..
These are the author’s personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of Gender at Work or IDRC’s Think Tank Initiative.
Fabián Juárez is a researcher in the Economic Department of ASIES, primarily focusing on industrial and economic development in Guatemala. He has a bachelors in industrial engineering and has worked in several debate and educational programmes.