Despite progress in recent years regarding women’s rights and gender equality, the issue of sexual violence and trauma against women remains a taboo subject.
M. Brinton Lykes, co-director of Boston College’s Center for Human Rights and International Justice and professor in the Lynch School of Education and Human Development, and Alison Crosby, associate professor at York University’s School of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies, have been exploring the topic for years, which has culminated in their recently published book, Beyond Repair?: Mayan Women’s Protagonism in the Aftermath of Genocidal Harm.
In the book, Lykes and Crosby discuss how Mayan women have sought, and continue to seek, justice for the harm they suffered at the hands of the Guatemalan state during the early 1980s at the height of the 36-year Guatemalan Civil War, drawing primarily from eight years of research.
Lykes said she initially became interested in gender issues and human rights by getting involved in anti-racism work in high school. Her fascination with the subject further blossomed during her undergraduate studies at Hollins University, where she received her bachelor’s degree in philosophy and religion in 1970, she said.
Lykes then attended the Harvard Divinity School, where she learned more about liberation theology, a set of Latin American ideologies concerning social class contradictions and impoverishment. She received her master’s in divinity degree in 1973.
From there, Lykes began focusing on gender issues, specifically violence against women, which was especially prevalent at the time among African American women in the Greater Boston area, she said.
“I bumped into feminism, or gender issues, because in divinity school in those days, there were very few women,” Lykes said. “And the men looked at the women as if we were there to meet husbands which had never occurred to me.”
While in divinity school, she traveled to Nicaragua, where she met some men and women who had fled the massacres in the highlands of Guatemala during the early 1980s. This would eventually spark her interest in the Guatemalan Civil War and the atrocities Mayan women faced as a result.
“What they talked about and how they expressed themselves about who they were converged with some long-standing interest I had in psychology and the assumptions of individualism,” Lykes said. “That was the beginning of what turned into almost 30 years of living in Guatemala … in the midst of their 36-year armed conflict.”
Crosby, on the other hand, became interested in human rights as a student at the University of Cambridge. She spent a summer in Montreal, Canada working for a community center that worked with mostly Latin American refugees and communities in exile. After graduating, Crosby continued to work with these communities—primarily those of Guatemalan and Salvadoran communities in exile in Mexico and El Salvador for several years.
“That sort of sparked my long-term interest in women’s movements and organizing within these very deep-seated, conflictual situations,” Crosby said. “[That] led to me doing research with Guatemalan refugee women’s organizations as they were organizing to return to Guatemala, and this question of ‘How do you go back home when home is changed and you have changed?’”
Crosby said several women’s organizations in Guatemala, Peru, and Colombia were beginning to work with women who had survived sexual violence during armed conflicts. As a result, she began to aim at helping Mayan women share their stories about what they had experienced in Guatemala while working for Inter Pares, a Canadian social justice organization.
“In the Guatemalan context, for example, there had been a truth commission process after deciding the peace accords,” Crosby said. “But the issue of gendered violence and sexual violence wasn’t highlighted as much as it could perhaps have been.”
After both having individually worked in Guatemala—Lykes through Equipo de Estudios Comunitarios y Acción Psicosocial (ECAP) and Crosby through Unión Nacional de Mujeres Guatemaltecas (UNAMG)—the two eventually met through a mutual friend. Later, Crosby invited Lykes to help facilitate a regional workshop for mental health promoters in 2000.
From there, they decided to pursue research with 54 Mayan women seeking redress and reparations for the violence they had suffered during the war, who were participants of a previous UNAMG project. This research would eventually culminate in Beyond Repair?, Lykes said.
In the eight years that they spent researching in Guatemala with UNAMG in collaboration with ECAP and Mujeres Transformando el Mundo (or Women Transforming the World), another non-governmental organization, Lykes and Crosby utilized Participatory Action Research (PAR). PAR is an approach to conducting research that involves researchers and participants working closely together in an effort to understand and solve whatever issue they are addressing. They both found it important to partner with the Mayan women, rather than merely treating them and their suffering as regular research subjects, Lykes said.
“Sometimes, those of us who are educated in universities think of ourselves as the knowledge creators and don’t recognize with sufficient humility … a sense of the limitations of our own knowledge systems,” Lykes said. “So we were very committed to trying to … not do work that took the place of others’ work, but rather partner with people that were already on the ground working.”
Lykes had previous experience with PAR in Guatemala prior to her research with Crosby, during which she and her co-workers helped women share their pain through theatre, drawing, and other participatory forms of visual and dramatic art. When Crosby invited her to collaborate in another PAR workshop, she suggested incorporating creative arts as a way to give these women a means of expression, as well as to shed light on Mayan traditions and knowledge systems.
“I bring not professional expertise in the arts, but rather an appreciation for the arts as resources to facilitate people communicating with each other across other dimensions of their lived experiences,” Lykes said.
Making the research participation-based was especially important to Lykes and Crosby, due to the specific subjects they were dealing with—namely sexual violence and trauma.
“[The Mayan women] were very clear when we started our research … that they didn’t want to have to retell their stories of harm yet again,” Crosby said. “We’re quite critical of human rights regimes that seek individual stories of harm that don’t contextualize broader experiences of both violence [and] resistance.”
Rather, Lykes and Crosby were more interested in how the Mayan women were collectively responding to and working to address the blatant human rights violations they had experienced in Guatemala. They specifically aimed to understand the women’s point of view by focusing on their engagement with intermediaries, or a group of women’s rights activists, lawyers, psychologists, and researchers—Lykes and Crosby included—who came from more western-based knowledge systems.
“It’s not our place to give voice to indigenous women—they have voice—but rather to understand the complexities of power dynamics and regimes,” Crosby said.
From conducting their research through the PAR method, Lykes and Crosby were able to better understand how the Mayan women were reacting to the violence they had faced in Guatemala, allowing them to properly represent them and their experiences in their book. Though Mayan women are commonly seen as nothing more than victims in prior research, especially from a more Western perspective, Lykes and Crosby wanted to focus instead on their individual experiences dealing with their trauma.
“There’s a tendency in feminist circles to say all women are victims of violence,” Lykes said. “And we were saying that actually, violence is different as it impacts different contexts, different communities, and it’s expressed in different ways.”
One especially memorable moment for both of them in their research occurred during a brainstorming exercise in one of the workshops, in which the women had to explore the different ways in which they understood the word “reparation” in their native languages through collage.
One particular collage read “Violencia contra la mujer,” or “Violence against women,” with an image of a woman carrying a heavy load below, which Lykes and Crosby would eventually come to discover was a reflection of the participants’ experiences with difficult manual labor and impoverishment.
“They were pushing us to extend the understandings of sexual violence against women documented in the courts and in transitional justice efforts to include poverty and the materiality of their everyday lives,” Lykes said.
In keeping with their goal to portray Mayan women as survivors rather than victims, Lykes and Crosby made the unique choice to refer to them as “protagonists” in their book. One of their primary arguments in Beyond Repair? is that Mayan women were acting as protagonists by actively coming together to pursue justice for what they had suffered in Guatemala.
“To sort of have pushed for the acknowledgement and recognition of rape as a crime was a critically important human rights accomplishment,” Lykes said. “On the other hand, it led to what many feminist scholars have called a hyper-visibilization of women as rape victims, that is, as if that’s all of their lives.”
In many ways, Lykes said thinking of women as protagonists taking active initiative toward getting redress for what they had experienced required a significant shift in thinking. Lykes said she still questions how we should be using the word “protagonist” itself, even outside of the context of what she witnessed in Guatemala.
“We had to open our minds in some way to thinking differently about this and the language of ‘protagonist,’” Lykes said. “I’m [asking] this again with graduate students: is [protagonism] identity? Is it self? Is it multiple selves?”
Since its release, the book has garnered positive feedback, even winning the 2021 Raphael Lemkin Book Award from the Institute for the Study of Genocide.
“We’ve heard from feminists in Colombia that they’re using it [in courses] and in Mexico as well, as well as in Guatemala,” Crosby said. “So it’s nice to hear it’s being taken up in many different ways in the academic sphere.”
Daniel Kanstroom, co-director of the BC Center for Human Rights and International Justice alongside Lykes, said what sets her apart from others is her dedication to caring for the people with whom she works.
“[She is] an incredible human rights activist and teacher with a really deep commitment to the people who she works with,” Kanstroom said.
He also said Beyond Repair? perfectly represents her work and reflects her character.
“I think the book is a really significant reflection of that work … even for people who are not particularly interested in that particular group,” Kanstroom said. “But it shows what can be done when you really engage with people and think about their rights and the struggles that they go through.”
Beyond recognition from their fellow academics and activists, Lykes and Crosby were also able to see how the protagonists themselves reacted to the book and their research during a book tour in Guatemala. In addition to giving everyone who had participated in the research a copy of Beyond Repair?, Lykes and Crosby also invited them, as well as some local Mayan intellectuals and activists, to speak about their thoughts on the book at their tour events, said Crosby.
“[They] don’t read and write, but interestingly, the book was still incredibly important to them to receive,” Crosby said. ”It’s something to pass on to their children and grandchildren.”
Featured Image by Steve Mooney / Heights Editor
Photo Courtesy of M. Brinton Lykes
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