The dormant gender violence within us
The dormant gender violence within us
How awake are we to the harm we allow others to cause us and how keen are we to play roles doing the same
By Natalia Bonilla for WomenBeing Magazine
Pictures: courtesy of the author
I’ve been covering gender violence and conflict stories for more than 10 years now.
I’ve interviewed women and girls who have suffered through the most dire of circumstances: the murders of their daughters, being victims of rape, surviving sexual harassment, privation of liberty, economic violence and living in extreme poverty communities in Colombia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico and more.
In 2017, after reporting the femicides of 43 girls, burned to death in the largest state-run shelter for children in Guatemala, I got a horrifying revelation: in Latin America, not all women were valued the same.
Not by local or international media, not by the states, not by neighbors in the same community.
For some, this may be too obvious of an assumption about the state of women worldwide but for me it wasn’t.
As a journalist, I was so committed to shedding light to these stories thinking, perhaps naively, that things may change for these women if the media published their needs and the state was pressured to pay attention.
But as years pass by, the sadness starts to accumulate and to weigh heavily on one’s shoulders.
The Guatemala story was difficult to publish as a freelancer because, for some of my female editors back then, the story was “too cruel”, “too sad” or “too difficult to bear”.
For male editors, their reasons to turn down my pitch were slightly different: “the news is too local”, “43 girls are not enough, when it reaches 50 you let me know”, “are you a feminist? are you advocating for them?”
That story for me meant a breaking point in my career and life.
I couldn’t, and therefore wouldn’t allow myself to feed the “beast” of negative, cyclical, violent news anymore.
In June 2017, I began a small online survey to showcase how women experienced gender violence differently in Latin America and the Caribbean.
What began as a simple online exercise reached more than 398 responses in just one month.
Reading the testimonials from women like me, like us, touched my core and made me open my eyes to what womanhood meant for me.
For more than 2 years, I knocked on doors of several international NGOs to pitch the project and to widen its reach only to find answers like “398 women are good but better call us when you reach 500” and, when I did, “500 women are good but, not enough, write us when you have 1,000”.
My drive to make these stories known was so strong it took me a while to see how I was falling into a similar rabbit hole as the journalistic industry induced me to.
Women’s stories are valuable as long as they come in numbers.
A woman’s life is valuable as long as her ethnic/class/background characteristics in her society deem her so.
This is wrong.
So far, more than 700 testimonials from women in 18 countries comprise this independent project and I’ve met so many of them while traveling, even maxing out my credit card because I wanted to understand.
Why is gender violence affecting us all at every stage of our lives? Not only in Latin America,home of 14 out of 25 countries with the world’s worst records of femicides, but wherever, explicitly wherever we go or show up.
The recent chaos that arose on October 2019 due to a failed drug cartel operation in Culiacan, Mexico, made me think about the dormant gender violence within us.
Which triggers cause alarm in us women?
And which of those push us to seek and demand social change?
When do we feel the need to go to the streets and call out politicians and how long do those triggered trends last?
When do we feel the need to stop looking at the state as the only guarantor of our rights and begin caring for each other as sisters and as a society?
When do we perceive ourselves as valuable?
Is it when feminist activists, film actresses or organizations tell us so?
Have we lost our perception of self-value and given power to violence all around us?
I have found that there is a complex issue regarding the link betwee how valuable a woman’s life is and when and where her voice is heard.
Every country, every society, every community and every family is different.
Gender violence is portrayed as this big monster, product of a patriarchal system, but it is more than a heavy cloud on the sky taking over our lives. Once it is formed, it is felt within our homes and habits extremely close to our relationships.
How conscious are we of how it affects relationships of our own and of others?
How many times have we have heard of a woman who is being beaten by her husband, treated poorly by the judicial system or feeling scared about discrimination or the lack of job opportunities?
How many times have we lent our ears to gender violence headlines and how many others have we donated money to causes that seek to stop violence?
When do we actually reach…the breaking point?
When is it enough?
As part of my research, I’ve come to understand how we disregard the pains of others and how we can easily become numb to the suffering of those who are in the same or different position as us, something Susan Sontag explained so well in her iconic book Regarding the Pain of Others.
But rather than ending this article with a sad quote, I invite you to look closely at your surroundings, I invite you to reflect upon your own experience with pain and whether or not you have “normalized” it.
I encourage you to think of the blessings, curses and ‘all things in between’ of your gender, the privileges and sacrifices of your ethnicity or race and to recognise the ways in which you have unconsciously allowed violence or used it in your favour.
The dormant nature of gender violence is something we barely talk about amongst women because it is freaking frightening.
Our culture encourages us to embark on self-discovering journeys like Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love or self-empowerment methods to embrace our Artemis or Shakti goddesses.
It does not reward women who explore how harmful this systemic violence has been to them and their lineage and neither does it encourage us to explore our role in allowing or reproducing it over time.
It does not cheer women on to accept when they are complicit, too scared, vulnerable or helpless in daily life situations that are “too normal” to fight about.
It does not ask women to seek the root of the violence but rather implies we are the ones responsible to treat its symptoms in whichever beautiful and feminine way possible.
The more I interview women, the more I coach them, the more I live as one, the more I come to understand how we are tangled in this neverending story because even empowerment has its limits when it comes to stopping violence once and for all.
What I saw in Mexico a couple of weeks ago taught me we are all vulnerable to those who legitimize their authority through violence and guns.
Regardless of our sex, our level of empowerment or our independence, with violence we can be easily silenced. In fact, we may already be, we may have always been to others or our own selves in different areas of our lives.
What a woman’s life is worth is not necessary the “right” question to ask.
What’s any life worth, who determines its value and by which means is the one question that continues to be left…unanswered.
Natalia Bonilla is an international female leadership & business strategy coach, conflict journalist and news producer with more than 10 years of experience in 12 countries. She holds a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Puerto Rico, a M.A. in International Relations from the University of York, a Pg.Dp. in Peace and Conflict Journalism from the Autonomous University of Barcelona.
You can follow her on Facebook @nataliabonillaprojects, Instagram @nataliabonillainc and @luminainc.
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