Yesterday, as I joined with the women of our partner organization in Guatemala City to celebrate International Women’s Day, a phrase occurred to me: “I feel at home.” I greeted partners I had not seen in a long time and met new people, and there was something very familiar about being there. In the face of violence, poverty and displacement, these are women who reconstitute “home” in the circles of support they build together—like so many other grassroots women’s groups we partner with worldwide.
Here on the outskirts of Guatemala City, where many women and families have been displaced far from their homes by a history of violence and conflict, the question of home carries weight. Guatemala suffered through a 36-year civil war, only reaching a peace accord in 1996. During that conflict, US-trained and -funded military groups targeted rural Indigenous Peoples, killing over 200,000 and displacing as many as 1.5 million people. Acting in the interests of business elites, this sustained state terror was needed to force rural, Indigenous people to submit to land policies that favored agribusiness.
Years after the peace accord, people continue to suffer from the legacy of massacres, disappearances and displacement. Many who fled their homes first because of violence found themselves unable to go back when agribusinesses bought up their land and blocked their return. The structural adjustment policies advanced by international financial institutions like the World Bank only exacerbated poverty and landlessness. People sought refuge in shanty-towns around Guatemala City, where they now face serious health threats, lack of basic services and persistent violence. Women living in these circumstances now confront the constant threat of targeted killing, or feminicide, and the on-going failure of the government to prioritize their lives.
For women particularly vulnerable to these threats, grassroots women’s groups like MADRE’s partner, the Women Workers’ Committee, are indispensable. As I looked around yesterday, I saw women who are offering health services to women who have no other option. They are demanding rights for the women who work in maquilas (sweatshops) when powerful interests would rather brush those protections aside.
On this trip, I brought with me something I first wrote back in 1998, when I was just starting at MADRE. So much of it still holds true today:
The loss of home dislocates people from the continuity of community life, pitching them into a zone of isolated, privatized experience. People who have been driven off their land to the slums around Guatemala City are crowded together by the tens of thousands. But they often describe life in the shanty-towns as lonely and isolated. In fact, the many social mechanisms and cultural expressions that once enabled people to pool resources, to care for each other and to develop shared understanding, wither outside of the traditional environment in which they were developed. As these mechanisms deteriorate, so do people's sense of accountability and connection to each other. This distortion of culture and community is often the goal of mass displacement.
When women who are refugees, homeless, migrants or displaced gather together to organize, they defy the isolation and social breakdown that is homelessness. In MADRE-supported programs, women who have been uprooted and dispossessed are creating possibilities to come together, to share experiences and to support one another. Through their work, they reconstitute "home" for themselves and their communities and build a basis for overcoming their dispossession.