One year ago on March 8, 2017, 56 teenage girls are locked in a room in a government-designated safe house for troubled teens. The night before one girl tried to escape. To punish her and deter others, they are not allowed to leave the room. Bathroom visits are not permitted. Food is not provided. Soon a fire breaks out (maybe one of the girls seeks to force the hand of the state-run facility. She sets her mattress on fire.) The decision comes from on high. Fire or not, the doors are to remain locked. Thirty-nine girls die that day. Some take longer. In the end only 13 have survived. I remember reading about the incident. My heart ached. Their families were in my prayers. I was furious with the men who condemned these girls to death out of a complete disregard for their right to live.
While in Guatemala City, before our mission team heads to Pachaj where our work will begin, we attend a museum with an installation commemorating their torment. Fifty-six pictures drawn by Central American artists are displayed. I am undone as I look at each picture trying to capture the essence of each girl and the evil that befell her. One picture reads, “What irony, that in the country of eternal Spring, the flowers die from apathy.”
Guatemala has a long history of ignoring the needs and rights of women. Domestic abuse is rampant. On average, according to the U.N, at least two women are violently killed in the country every day. Since Guatemala finally made killing women illegal with its Law Against Femicide and Violence Against Women, according to the National Forensic Science Institute of Guatemala, violent deaths of women are on the rise.
Our trip to the museum sets the stage for my participation in two women’s retreats in Xela. Indigenous women, some of whom have never been to a restaurant, will be loved and pampered at a retreat center near their village. Juanherlinda from Pachaj, Sandi Thompson Royer (our PCUSA mission partner) Betty Carrera from CEDEPCA and Bonnie Orth from Mayfield have planned and prepared for the retreat. I will lead the women in a bible study that highlights God’s love for each one of them, their worth before God, and God’s call to partnership with God. We will talk about domestic violence and name it for the sin it is. Together we will support and encourage each other to stand against it for ourselves and one another.
I look around at the women, joyous, playful, with little ones, tied on their backs and know that so many of them have a darker side to their lives. There’s a knowing sadness for their mothers, sisters, friends, who flinch when touched and protect themselves by seeking to be invisible. I wonder how much difference this one day will make in their lives. The need seems overwhelming. So I keep before me the words of the Talmud, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”