Editors’ note: One of the intentions of our writeshop was to create a safe space for participants to reflect on and write about the connections between their personal experiences of gender inequality and their research on gender. This blog, shared anonymously, tells the story of a young woman confronting her own experience of domestic violence and taking action to rebuild her life.
It’s been almost eight years now.
The memory is still fresh in my mind. It was a rainy night of July 6, 2011, and my baby boy was only 5 months old. I was in the dining room of my parents’ house, watching the TV news about the disappearance of Cristina Siekavizza.
Cristina, 33, went for a walk around her condominium in Guatemala City and never came back. She left behind her two little children. Her husband Roberto Barreda reported her as being kidnapped. But, according to the investigation, that’s not what happened.
Her family appeared to be a happy, but the reality was different. Evidence suggests that Cristina had restricted access to money, friends or family. She was also a victim of domestic abuse. After a disagreement about their son’s birthday party, Roberto allegedly beat her until she was unconscious. Her body was never found. Eight years later, she is still missing.
To me, Cristina represents all women who struggle to maintain the institution of family despite facing domestic violence, including psychological and emotional abuse.
The trial has not begun; justice is very poor, especially for women in Guatemala, a country with one of the highest rates of violent deaths for women (9.7 out of every 100,000), according to a UN report. In 2012, the Public Ministry reported that the crime of violence against women was the most reported crime, with a total of 51,790 complaints. But here’s another reality. That same year, only 2,260 complaints, or 6.4%, of all reports of violence against women resulted in a formal accusation.
But Cristina did not die in vain. Many women, like me, have raised up their voices to end domestic violence. Her story also inspired me to join a research institution, an institution working, among others, to promote gender equality by integrating gender considerations in its work. I hope to help make an important contribution to new research, and change public policy that will benefit women and society in general.
Christina’s story also inspired me to end my own nightmare. I was 30 at that time of her disappearance. I was married, my baby boy was born. And I myself was victim of domestic violence.
My son was only 10 days old when I was violently thrown out of our home by his father, my husband at the time. He was angry our newborn baby cried too much and wouldn’t let him sleep all day or go out and get drunk with his friends. My “husband” forced me to buy food with my savings so he’s have money to buy alcohol or go out to party. He asked me to visit my parents no more than once a month, because, as he said, “your parents put ideas in your head.” He forbade me to wear dresses because I would be provocative to other men. He showed up at the university, where I taught economics, by surprise to make sure I not talking to other men. As he used to say, “to take care of you.” He asked me to stop going to the supermarket, because other men would talk to me or look at me. He even asked me to change my obstetrician, because he was a man.
I saw myself in Cristina’s story. At that moment, as I watched the news, I felt in my heart that the right thing to do was not going back to the nightmare and make an innocent person, my son, suffer. Yes, I mean that place where I use to live with “husband” was not home. I remember feeling deeply sad and at the same time safe and protected at my parents’ house.
But it wasn’t until I got to know her case, and hold my baby boy in my arms, that I realized that I was in an abusive relationship. I had chosen my abuser to be the father of my baby. I felt very afraid, that I had made a huge mistake, and that my life was over. But after that fear came calm. I understood that I was able to get out of an abusive relationship and that I had a new opportunity to live.
I realized not only the many signs of domestic violence, I saw how violence against women is normalized by my society. I also saw signs of gender disparity. I understood that, as a woman, I had value and that my role in society went beyond being a housewife. What kind of value? I had family that surrounded me with love, I was a professional, an economist, I had a job, a great one. I was brave. I had a baby boy with lovely blue eyes, bright skin, and fine baby nose, a baby to fight for.
After the nightmare ended, I had a second chance to embark on a better path with my life. The love of my family gave me the strength to face a difficult divorce. My family kept filling me with love to take care of my baby, now a boy, with love and patience. Their support made me feel that I had been born again.
Sometimes I think I learned the hard way. But I feel very proud and happy that I learned the lesson sooner and not later, and did not endure the same fate as Cristina.
I know now and truly believe that women have a very important role in society. A woman is a daughter, mother, sister, granddaughter, professional, friend, but also a human who sometimes gets sick, has dreams, loves life, and has the same rights as any other human being in the world. Women are as valuable and capable to do things as men. Capable of working and bringing sustenance back home. Be the head of the household, take care of our health and that of our family. To express an opinion, to lead projects, to start a company, to lead a team, to travel, to defend and take care of ourselves.
After I decided to get divorced, I felt I was free from the prison I was in. I now understand that it is not a sin to be a divorced woman, but it is an act of courage to overcome a marriage of abuse and violence. It is brave to stand up and fight for yourself.
From Cristina’s case, many women, like me, have found the strength to get up and make their own path.
My own story inspires me to work in a field that highlights gender differences in different areas of society. I have been training myself to approach the gender gap in research. I am sensitive of the issues and understand the difficulties that women face.
But the most important and valuable thing is that change is lived here at my organization. Some of the management spaces are held by professional, capable and committed women. Some of them also play an important role in their families. When I assumed the direction of the department of economic research, apart from trusting in my work and ability, my bosses gave me a valuable message: “We know that you are a mother involved with the development of your little son,” they said. “We will also understand and support your needs in that important role.” This was a great support and a trigger to assume more responsibility for my work, and to make a difference with our research and advocacy work in favor of better conditions for women.
After this episode in my life, I feel I have been born again. I am very complete woman, and I feel capable and powerful. Now I know I am responsible to educate my boy to become a man who respects and recognizes the value of women in society.
As for Cristina, finally, on May 1 of this year, the judge in charge of this case ruled to send Barreda to face trial for the crimes of femicide, child abuse and obstruction of justice.
I hope one day she can rest in peace, when justice is done with her case.
These are the author’s personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of Gender at Work or IDRC’s Think Tank Initiative.