A girl in her teens—her body smeared with dirt from the floor where she sits crouching in a corner of her house, her face streaked by tears, bearing bruises and tangled hair—the signs of a recent beating, leans her head against the wall and tries to steady her hand from shaking as she writes in her notebook: “Lord, what have I done? What am I paying for? Forgive me.” This is a prayer of sorts, looking to God for answers to her pain.
Margarita was kidnapped, raped and imprisoned for seven years—not in a dark cell where no one could find her, but in the midst of her family in a poor neighborhood of Medellin, Colombia. The perpetrator was a man who took her by force, made her his wife and mother of the children who were the result of his repeatedly raping her. In one moment, she became daughter-in-law to the man’s mother and sister-in-law to his siblings.
This is the true story of Margarita Gomez, as told by Colombian movie director Víctor Gaviria in his new feature film “The Animal’s Wife.” In September, I moderated a discussion on stage with Gaviria following the world premiere screening at the Toronto International Film Festival. As a director, he is well known for tackling issues that affect some of the most invisible people in society. He looks to film in the actual neighborhoods and with actors who have direct knowledge of the realities he narrates. He does this by working in some of the most marginalized barrios in Colombia and casting only untrained actors. In the case of this movie, he had the ongoing advice of the real victim.
One of the most important commentaries of the movie is the pivotal role of passive witnesses who, through their silence, normalize situations of abuse. This man that everyone called “el animal” was an ordinary, neighborhood delinquent. True, he was brutal—a real animal—but it was the family, neighbors and friends that surrounded Margarita that allowed his violence to continue.
The political philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote that “communities of judgment” create norms and standards of acceptable behavior. Feminist scholars in North America have taken this further by stating that feminism depends not just on the State, who should provide legal rights, protections, and enforcement, but also on having “communities of judgment” that condemn violence against women and create an irrefutable standard of normal that empowers women rather than victimizes them.
The normalization of violence against women is common across the hemisphere. The Americas—from North to South—provide comparative case studies as evidence. Canada faces a national tragedy with thousands of missing and murdered aboriginal women. The federal government has long ignored calls for a national inquiry and a plan of action. Last year, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People said that Canada was failing its aboriginal women. After decades of ignoring the issue, the Trudeau government finally appointed a special commission that started only three months ago to investigate the murders and disappearances. The question here is what did citizens, who have been witnesses to this femicide for decades, do to finally make the issue a national priority?
At the opposite end of our continent, this past year a woman was murdered every 30 hours as a result of domestic violence in Argentina. There are 50 sexual attacks per day on women, and 97 percent of women polled nationally said they have been sexually harassed in public or private spaces at some point in their lives. This year, women and men started marching in the streets to launch a movement that brought national and international media attention to the wave of gender-based violence that has grown in the region in the last few years. In June, hundreds of thousands marched carrying signs with messages like “Sorry to bother you but we are being killed,” “I don’t want to be brave, I want to be free,” and “Machismo kills. ” This had ripple effects throughout Latin America, and similar demonstrations have swept the region in the second half of this year.
The digital square has also been lighting up with hashtags like #NiUnaMenos (not one less), which started in Argentina in 2015 and #MiPrimerAcoso (my first harassment) which was launched from Mexico earlier this year. This call for action not only created a vast archive of cases of sexual harassment, but also helped women reflect on their everyday experiences with violence, and the relationships of abuse that are taken for granted simply because they are women.
I asked Gaviria about the institutions that are supposed to protect vulnerable people in society—the State of course—but what about the role of the Church, especially throughout Latin America where it has enjoyed a historically privileged position of power? To be sure, the Catholic Church has been notorious for its inconsistency: support of the poor and marginalized in many instances, but in others backing corrupt regimes, military dictatorships and economic elites.
We discussed the scene in the movie where Margarita is praying to understand what she has done to deserve this punishment. The Church does not have sole responsibility for creating a culture of guilt, shame and submissiveness among women in relationships of violence. Gender violence has multiple causes. However, in Latin America today, the Church has a unique opportunity to use its influence, add its voice to an uprising, and demonstrate its creed in action.
Tomorrow is International Human Rights Day, which symbolically marks the end of the campaign “16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence.” But as we know, violence is not subject to calendars. Neither is activism. Norms will change with collective beliefs of what is right, and what is unacceptable. To address this crisis of violence, we need to establish new expectations of conduct in all our public and private spaces.