I spent more than a decade of my life, nights and days, thinking and writing about violence against women. It all started in the late ‘70s in Lima, Peru.
We, the inexperienced but resolute primeval feminists in the group Alimuper (acronym for Alliance for the Liberation of Peruvian Women), had been battling to stop, punish or at least acknowledge domestic violence against women. We printed pamphlets, created posters and slogans, spoke at schools and on the radio, and devised ways to raise awareness about this violent crime. We were not many activists, maybe a few dozen on our roster, but we marched with signboards and banners during evening rush hour, along the hectic avenues of downtown Lima, much to the astonishment of passers-by. The insults, guffaws and honks of impatient truck drivers were drowned out by our shouts, reverberating in unison through the old, narrow streets:
¡No más violencia contra la mujer!
¡Rompamos el silencio!
Battered women came to our little group in search of help. The descriptions of abuse will forever be etched in my mind. And also the pictures taken by the police, who were not receptive—to say the least—to these reports: the swollen bruises on a pregnant belly; the one-eyed girl staring at the camera.
The unspoken and undeclared war against women left them dead, wounded, captive and missing, in numbers comparable to soldiers struck down on silent battlefields. And nobody seemed to care.
I was amazed by the men’s actions. Was she not the mother of his children? Where did the cruelty come from? From where the premeditation? Some hit only on the torso and lower and upper thighs, knowing that those blows would be hidden under her dress when she went to work the next morning.
I was amazed by the women’s reactions. Why would she go back to the man who burned her nipples? Why would she clear him of all charges the night before we were going to take him to court? Why would she leave the safe house we provided and flee with him?
I was amazed by people’s acceptance and the tongue-in-cheek responses:
A man has to show who is in charge.
She must have done something to deserve it… or maybe she likes it.
Do not intervene. If you say something to him, she’ll turn against you.
I was amazed by the press’ twist on the facts. It was not that they kept silent. The news was printed along with lots of pictures, headings in bold and language implying those acts were normal and inevitable (I’m sure many of them geared to the amusement of male readers):
“Jealous dude ices wifey for cheating.”
“A brutal beating for his lover.”
“Kills the missus for washing neighbor’s jockey shorts.”
Over and over, the media condoned and trivialized crimes against women.
I felt compelled to write an investigative report about the responsibility of the press for the numbing of the public conscience. I had already collected dozens of newspaper articles. My plan was to analyze the content, graphics, tone and intent of the pieces to prove the responsibility of the press in the perpetuation of domestic violence against women…
…Until domestic violence exploded in my own home.
My intellectual musings, and my life, were interrupted.
It was an evening as any other. My husband and I had been having a discussion, fighting really. Fed up with his demands, I slammed the door and went out for a walk. I was strolling down the sidewalk when I felt a blow to the scruff of my neck. The claw of a gigantic bird of prey. The bones of his fingers pressed against my trachea. My husband dragged me back to the house by the neck, my feet scurrying to keep up the pace. With an unbound determination, he threw me inside, locked the metal security bar on the door, and placed the key in the hidden pocket of his blue jeans.
The furious beast, his frizzy hair standing on end and his muscles all puffed up, sat on the sofa with legs wide apart and hands grabbing each side of the armchair.
What do you do when you encounter a wild animal?
Do not make eye contact.
Curl up into a ball.
I went above and beyond: I appeased, apologized, petted, promised.
After hours of staring at me and glowering distrustfully, he fell asleep on the sofa. I remained vigilant throughout the night. Morning came. I prepared a café con leche, buttered a slice of toast, and blended up a papaya and pineapple juice for him. He left for work; I left forever.
It had been a matter of intensity. A little more and I would have been dead.
The experience forced me to look inward. Was I chain smoking and attending feminist meetings while my life was falling apart? What made me ignore the hundreds of red flags?
I not only left the marriage, I eventually left my home country. I left the chaotic and violent city of Lima, at the time engulfed in a wave of terrorism and antiterrorism violence.
My landing place was Spokane, a peaceful town in a corner of Washington state. Spring had exploded, the air was fresh and fragrant lilacs hung from bushes. The 100-year-old ponderosa trees shaded my walks along solitary boulevards.
It took me a while to recover, to stop looking over my shoulder, to stop distrusting the good-morning, have-a-good-day greetings of the neighbors.
I met nice people while teaching Spanish at a community college. After some time, a friend invited me to see a play. We arrived at the theater early in the evening and sat on a bench in the gardens overlooking the city. Ken, my friend, smoked, and I looked away at the designs the stars and the city lights sketched in the darkness.
A light much closer called my attention. In the last row of the parking lot, a 4×4 pick-up truck pulling a boat had stopped with the cabin light on and the engine running. Through the rear window I could see the shoulders and heads of a couple. The man raised his fists and moved his head as if he were shouting. The woman appeared and disappeared from sight.
“Look, Ken, they are fighting.”
We stood up from the bench to have a better view. Just at that moment, the passenger door of the truck violently swung open and the woman was ejected out into the middle of the road. The truck took off with a sudden lurch, the door slamming shut from the impact. We ran toward the woman, and as we approached we heard a loud revving. The man had stopped at the far end of the parking lot, intending to make a U-turn. The urgency of the truck’s movements foreshadowed danger.
“Get back!” Ken said to me. I jumped over some bushes and got off the pavement. Ken scooped up the woman from behind, grabbing her under the arms and pulling her out of the road. At the other end of the parking lot, the man was completing the U-turn and aiming the truck toward us. Just as Ken laid the woman in my arms, the truck angrily sped past the spot where she had fallen just moments before. Behind the bushes, the three of us were blasted with a hot rush of exhaust air, bits of concrete and the smell of burned rubber. With a loud screech, the truck disappeared down the hill.
The woman, mature in age, was like an infant in my arms. She looked consumed, with her matted blond hair, translucent skin and her flowery dress as thin and faded as if it had been washed a million times. A wave of tenderness rushed over me. Her head resting on my right arm and her heart beating lightly against mine, she raised her hand, touched my face, looked into my eyes and we bonded as human women.
While the paramedics checked her vitals and strapped her onto the stretcher, I understood domestic violence is a human rights issue, and all of us, women and men, regardless of our circumstances or of the country we live in, should always intervene and keep doing everything possible to eradicate this social scourge.
That is exactly what Peru as a nation, and its women in particular, have been doing these last decades, achieving considerable success.
The level of consciousness about domestic violence is high among the general public now, and there are solid measures in place for prevention, helping the victims and legally punishing the perpetrators.
Since 1997, a battered woman has been able to go to one of the many comisarias para la mujer, where she can receive social, legal and psychological counseling.
In 2011, the legislature incorporated femicide into the criminal code. The transgression carries a minimum sentence of 15 years in prison for those convicted of killing a woman who is an immediate relative, spouse or partner. The sentence is raised to life in prison when the victim is a minor, pregnant or disabled.
At the highest levels, the Peruvian government is committed to a national plan to reduce violence against women. It also has a Ministry of Women and Vulnerable Population, with emergency centers for women and a hotline to report abuses. The Office of the Ombudsman also receives reports.
Unlike in the past, Peruvian women today have these and other resources and initiatives at their disposal to face domestic violence.
Nevertheless, the crime continues to be rampant. The police receive more than 100,000 abuse reports per year, and nearly 100 women die yearly in the country at the hands of their partner, ex-partner, family member or a known man.
There is still so much to do in this unending war…
As the Peruvian poet César Vallejo wrote in his poem “The Nine Monsters”:
Ah, unfortunately, human men (and women)
There is, brothers (and sisters), much, too much to do.*
*The words in parentheses are mine. I’m betting that was his intention.
Photo via Shutterstock