Bearing Social Witness to the Voiceless

By Marcelle Giesemann

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Photo by Oscar Keys on Unsplash

As I looked at the dusty clock behind me, I realized it was 5:00 p.m., still an hour left for my shift to be over. I was exhausted due to the hard day of work that I was near completing. My light blue scrubs were drenched in the sticky humidity that hung in the atmosphere and my legs were begging me to sit down. I stood next to the waiting room with my wooden clipboard in hand. As I rushed to call the next patient, a towering male figure with scruffy facial hair and a rough disposition stood before me. He began to speak in Kaqchikel, an indigenous Guatemalan language, and ordered a young girl to stand. I escorted both of them to a small room, walking in darkness as the sun had already set. Because there was no reliable electricity, I turned on a gas lamp. I began to ask the same questions that I had repeated at least fifty times that day—questions I had memorized. The first question was the age of the patient. As soon as I had finished the sentence, the man answered that the girl, Rosario, was seventeen. I was struck by our similarities and differences. Even though Rosario and I were both the same age, we led radically dissimilar lives. Rosario was already married and pregnant, while I was a high school student heading into my senior year and then to pursue my undergraduate degree in the United States. I then asked what the reason for her visit was and her male companion again did not hesitate to answer. As soon as he finished, I looked at Rosario, staring directly at the floor. It was clear that Rosario was fearful of him. Her eyes caught mine, and even though she could not speak for herself, her eyes told me of her sadness.

Rosario's husband had full control and power over her. Frustrated by him, I spoke to Rosario and looked into her eyes. I quickly understood that she could not communicate with me, as she had not learned Spanish in the few years she had attended school. Appalled, all I wanted to do was help her, but she was muted, not being able to express herself. As I took Rosario into a private examination room, her husband forced himself in with us. The only way I could ask Rosario to put on a robe was through her translator, her husband. Sadly, the bridge of communication that existed between Rosario and me was mediated through him. After her husband told Rosario she had to put on the robe, I asked the husband to exit the room several times, but he did not listen to me. It was only until my male superior, an American gynecologist, told him directly and firmly to wait outside that he obeyed. Rosario got up slowly, facing down and with a grim look on her face, feeling completely lost and alienated as the doctor asked me to translate her medical history into English. After Rosario had put on the robe, she uncomfortably sat down, not being able to look at the male doctor's face. I tried comforting Rosario by squeezing her hand and giving her a warm smile, and even though she couldn't understand me, I knew she felt safe in my presence. Her body tensed as the door creaked open and her husband reappeared in the door frame. I continued asking questions that were answered sharply by Rosario's husband, not even giving Rosario the opportunity to hear what was being said of her. She was trapped, not being able to use language to explain her pain. The doctor asked me to repeat in Spanish if this was her first pregnancy and her husband explained that they already had a newborn daughter at home, and that Rosario was unexpectedly pregnant with a second child.

Being a teen mother and forced into an arranged marriage was common for girls in Huehuetenango. Huehuetenango is considered one of Guatemala's poorest provinces, in which approximately 78.3 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and even more alarming, the poverty rates for some of Huehuetenango's municipalities climb up to around 95% (ASIES 3). With these high levels of poverty, women get married at a young age as it is often their only way to survive. Due to premature marriage, most poor girls in Guatemala do not have the chance to learn to read and write and are not able to learn the official language of the country, Spanish. All these girls have is their indigenous dialect, Kaqchikel, which can only be spoken with other indigenous people. If these girls were able to learn Spanish, they could finally have a greater voice. According to Ellen Wulfhorst, "An indigenous woman in Guatemala is more likely than all her fellow citizens to be sick, illiterate, poor and overwhelmed by too many unplanned children." Women in this position find themselves unable to break the cycle of poverty and remain in this position for the duration of their lives. I argue that women who are able to obtain at least a high school education are better equipped to navigate the high levels of gender inequality and the higher value accorded to males over females that exist not just in Guatemala but around the world.

As I said goodbye to Rosario, all I could think about was how having an education could have changed her life for the better. As soon as I returned to Guatemala City, haunted by my encounter, I spoke to my mother about the experience, and she shared how she and her sisters were subjected to the dominance of machismo when my grandfather died. As the eldest of three daughters, my mother had to fight to keep our family's business alive. Administrators and male workers believed my mom was unworthy of leading the business, but their level of machismo did not hold her back. My mother vividly remembers an instance when she was left in dismay by a worker named Jorge, who said, "Yo solo tomo órdenes de hombres," which, translated into English, means "I only take orders from men." To make my mother's governance of the farm more effective, she had to hire a male adviser to accompany her to supervise the farm. It was up to the advisor to give the orders to the workers, as they refused to take orders from a woman. Through this instance and many other similar situations, my mother had to rely on men as intermediaries for work to be accomplished. She did not hand over the family business to a male figure, which was expected of her. Instead, she worked to prove that she was capable of leading the business, and today our family farm is stronger because of her bravery, leadership, and determination. Although my mother received up to a college education, she also faced the consequences of a misogynistic society that is prevalent in Latin America. However, I still believe that education is the strongest tool to break the biased and unfair standards that elevate men above women.

My mother's college education is but one facet of her experience. She had a scholarship to obtain her master's degree, but my grandfather stood in the way of this achievement because he did not think a graduate degree was necessary for a woman and feared that my mother would meet someone and not return to Guatemala. Much like my grandfather feared, more education empowers women to make choices about their work, their income, when they marry, and the number of children they have. According to UN Women, it is demonstrated statistically that "[e]very additional year of primary school increases girls' eventual wages by 10–20 percent. It also encourages them to marry later and have fewer children, and leaves them less vulnerable to violence." When girls are able to continue their studies, the benefits they reap are evident and irreversible.

There are no words to describe how grateful I am for having the opportunity to continue my studies as an undergraduate student. I am sure that many women would want to be in my position. As a young Guatemalan woman, I will not tolerate second class treatment. I believe that it is my duty and responsibility to represent the women of Guatemala—and women around the world—who are silenced, oppressed and powerless. Rosario's despair motivates me to create awareness for the pressing issue of the oppression of women. The issue becomes a problem of voice, of who is speaking for whom and with what authority. Like my mother, I want to use my voice to bear witness to women's struggles. What I witnessed at the hospital is simply everyday life for women in Guatemala who are not given the opportunity, education, or the resources to speak for themselves. I want to live to see the day when Rosario can speak for herself. Although I don't know when this will happen, I must hope that someday her voice might be heard and that we might listen.