After spending over a week in the scorching heat of San Pedro Sula, Tegucigalpa offered a much needed respite. The mountains that surrounded the city reminded me so much of my beloved childhood home, Caracas, Venezuela.
Prior to this IWMF fellowship, I’d never worked on a gender violence story. Despite living in El Salvador for nearly three years, I’d always focused my work on migration and security issues. In El Salvador, women get imprisioned for miscarrying their children, and the country has some of the highest rates of domestic violence in the region. I witness violence against women everywhere in El Salvador, at differing levels: from outright physical abuse, to a hyper “machista” culture that openly views women as subpar to men. In Tegucigalpa, for the first time, I had the opportunity to document the stories of gender violence survivors.
I think every female journalist knows that sexual assault and harassment is a very imminent threat in our career, specially those of us working in high conflict areas. Perhaps my intentional choice to shy away from stories about violence against women was as a mean to protect myself – through ignorance – so the details of this reality would not inflict fear and, therefore, deter me from continuing to work in conflict zones. Yet, it’s a story that so visible throughout Central America, this self-imposed ignorance was starting to become insulting and out of touch.
My reporting partner and I visited Ciudad Mujer, a government-run facility that provided healthcare services to women at little to no charge. Within the center, they built a unit specifically for victims of gender violence, where women could seek mental and legal help, and – most importantly – have a safe space to file a police report against their aggressors. All of Ciudad Mujer’s staff are women, which further solidifies the feeling of safety, however elusive it may be in a country like Honduras, that often prohibits women from filing reports in near male-only police stations.
It’s important to understand why so many cases of gender violence go unreported, specially in Central America. The culture of distrust and fear of police, coupled with violent machismo and impunity makes it nearly impossible for women to report these abuses. Ciudad Mujer’s unit dedicated to gender violence hopes to address these concerns, and is staffed with psychologists and social workers that help women through trauma and legal proceedings.
The first woman we interviewed was Heidy Garcia Giron, a 34-year old woman that displayed machete scars which spanned across her cheek, arm, and back. Her partner had attempted to murder her after an argument. I expected Heidy to want to conceal her identity out of fear, but she insisted I photograph in detail each of her scars; she wanted the world to see what abusers were capable of. Heidy’s bravery and defiance made me question if I’d have even an ounce of her resilience after such a horrific experience, yet, without Heidy’s testimony countless of aggressors would continue to feel as if they live in a world where their abuse can go unnoticed.
My reporting partner and I continued our reporting at the Norwegian Council where we met a family of five – a mother and her daughters. Their story was so surreal, that it is still difficult comprehend why something so horrific could happen to this family. At the Council, we met a 14-year old girl that had been raped repeatedly by her cousin – something she’d kept secret out of fear that her family would be harmed if they found out. One day, she was found naked and abandoned in a field, which prompted her father to call the authorities. It was then when the young girl admitted that her cousin had been raping her.
From prison, the girl’s cousin began threatening each and every one of her immediate family members, starting with her father. Within months, the young girl’s father has murdered in front of her mother and younger sister.
As I sat and heard her mother’s desperate plea for help, I felt almost like an impostor. She cried: “Please help me get my daughters out of this country, they will kill us all. They’ve already began with my husband.” I froze for a moment, then proceeded to fan the woman’s face as she grasped for air in the midst of her cries. It’s moments like these, hearing these particular stories, that I wonder what’s my role as a journalist. I certainly don’t have the power to help this family get asylum, although they deserve it almost immediately. All I could do was sit and listen.
When it was time for me to photograph the young girl, I wanted the experience to give her even a sliver of joy. I began brushing and fixing her hair, commenting on the beauty of her eyes. She smiled, shyly, then giggled when I said she’d be the model for the afternoon.
We walked around the grounds of the Council, looking for creative spaces to photograph her while concealing her identity. After each round, I’d ask her to review the photos and give her opinion. The idea of photographing a survivor of sexual assault quickly dissipated, and we began having fun simply as two young women that enjoyed photography and the creative process behind it. We cracked jokes, she took direction exceptionally well and, together, we created a beautiful body of work. During the interview with her mother, I felt so helpless and useless. But after photographing her daughter and sharing those couple of hours of laughter and joy, I realized that perhaps that’s the only mission I had: to share a simple moment of fun.
I always try to see beyond the pure story that leads me to the subjects I work with, be it survivors of gender or sexual violence, gang members, deportees, etc. For me, my work is about identifying and connecting with the humanity of each individual I encounter. The more I work in journalism and documentary filmmaking, the more I am convinced of this: people simply want to be heard; all we ever want is for our story to be told. It is up to us – as journalists – to tell these stories as ethically and compellingly as possible. And, more importantly, to grow and evolve after each assignment that we complete. That’s the blessing of this career.