The Street Where We All Want to Be Free
We spoke with Lidia Guerra, coordinator of the Observatory Against Street Harassment – Guatemala (Observatorio contra el Acoso Callejero Guatemala (OCAC Guatemala) about the group’s work, challenges and lessons learned. She also told us about the book they wrote, “The Street Where I Want to Be Free”(La calle donde quiero ser libre). Our interview below:
When was the Observatory founded and how is it organized?
We founded the group in June four years ago, and officially launched in November 2015. We are part of a Latin American network that began seven years ago in Chile. Everything began when I saw a story on the news about girls that were being harassed in the street, some men started to follow them and said they were going to rape them, and out of fear they decided to throw themselves off of a bridge to avoid being raped. I was outraged by this story and after my anger and indignation subsided, I started looking into what the government of Guatemala was doing about this issue. I think we have all experienced these forms of violence, but we don’t name them.
I found the observatory in Chile; I wrote to them and they supported us in forming a group with their same structure here in Guatemala. I reached out to my friends at the time, and to Pili, who was my coworker, as well as other acquaintances. We contacted a good group and we launched knowing that this would be a volunteer group. So far, we’ve had support from FCAM to pay for a few consultancies. I’m the director, Pili is an advisor and another member are in charge of communication. There are coordinators, five of us, with one person in charge of a group of volunteers.
How have you been able to sustainably retain volunteers?
It has always been a challenge because I think culturally, volunteerism in Guatemala is in its infancy. Sometimes we have the idea that being a volunteer is something we do when we have time, if I can right now then I’ll commit, but then work and school comes along, and I start letting volunteering go. I can say that the coordinators have largely been committed, sometimes it almost seems like a full-time job for many of them. With the rest of the volunteers, it comes and goes, it’s been hard to maintain. Right now there is a very active group, sometimes it drops suddenly and we have to recruit new volunteers, but the main idea is to keep working at it.
Our commitment is so strong, and we don’t need to be formally employed or have legal status to do our work. Even though this is always a challenge. As I said, we have five coordination areas: one is research, where we investigate how street harassment occurs in Guatemala; another is networking, which works in alliance with other collectives and members of the network; another is communication, which is the public face of OCAC and helps us to disseminate the results of our investigations and everything that we do; then there’s the interventions, this is where we work on designing educational activities or encounters, and activities to reclaim public spaces; and finally, there’s the legal-political area, which is where we have had some problems. This area currently has its third coordinator, the previous coordinators have been there for a time and then get scholarships to study abroad and leave. This has been the least stable area for coordination, and as a result we haven’t moved forward much, and as you know legal issues in Latin America need a tremendous amount of work.
What projects is OCAC Guatemala working on today?
Right now, we are in a process of revising our strategic plan, which ended in December of last year. When we launched the Observatory, we defined a plan for three years and we’ve learned so many diverse lessons. We’re going to review the strategic plan in each coordination area taking into account our time and resources. We always want to do a lot, but we can’t do everything. Having a strategic plan orients us about which priorities we should have beyond just activism, to include advocacy and go deeper into the issues.
We’ll also be launching the e-book “The Street Where I Want to Be Free” in June. We made the book last year; Pili had the idea to make a manual for teachers on how to prevent harassment. The idea evolved, it was a bit confusing and tense for us because we went from making a manual to writing a book for teens that works to prevent street harassment through four themes: 1) violence as a social construct and something that we experience in the social spaces that surround us; 2) what is violence against women; 3) violence in public spaces – which is where we explain what street harassment is; and 4) demonstrating sexuality and how we have been taught to be women and men.
We ended with a guide on how to meet new people, considering that that is what youth are attracted to – meeting people and developing different kinds of relationships. The book is a complete guide for this stage to be based in human rights and not harassment.
Has it been presented in schools? Have you created alliances with schools in Guatemala?
As part of this process we hired Virginia to do a mapping of schools in urban areas that belong to the Safe Schools Program, which is a program under the Ministry of Governance where support is provided to the National Police security program. Considering that these schools were already part of the program, we thought they may have more interest in violence prevention, and we were right.
Initially we were going to work in three schools, we chose a school for girls, one that was mixed and another mixed gender school but at the elementary level. The first two were high schools. In the end we were only able to work with two, the third did not want to commit to the program. As a lesson learned we realized that it doesn’t work for us to go to schools where other organizations are already working, but to go to schools where there are no programs and no organizations coming in. We have a list of teachers that have written to us because they want to use the book in their schools, what we are doing now with this list is providing a copy of the book so that they can explore the material and learn what they can do with it, and which resources work for them. We also built a methodology teaching guide so that the book we developed can be used as a resource in different subjects. The guide includes activities to use the book in classes like math, technology, music and art.
We didn’t want the book to be an excuse to take up time, because they have a set curriculum and tight agenda for each semester. It’s no coincidence that we designed it so some themes have an activity within the book. It was a really lovely effort and we’ll publish it digitally because we know that we can’t reach everyone with a printed version. If this resource was useful outside of Guatemala, we would be happy for it to be used.
We also sent the book to a girls and teen collective in Purulá, Baja Verapaz which is three hours away from Guatemala City. It’s a really nice project, the girls created their sisterhood club with about 40 girls. We sent a book to each girl. They are working on it without us, we just send them the books and the methodology guide. We are also going to send it to another group of girls that created their own sisterhood group, and there’s another organization of 150 girls in Antigua, Guatemala and the idea is that they can use this resource as part of a program they already have. They liked the book and we created this alliance so that they can use it.
How has the book been received?
There have been many lessons learned. We developed a good relationship with school faculty and teachers. We did workshops with high school teachers teaching first year students, first we gave them books and then we explained what we wanted to do. We decided to work with first year of high school because the students already feel more adult as they transition from elementary to high school. There have been a lot of challenges with teachers, in addition to the fact that every teacher works differently. We have had to adjust to how each institution works. In one of the schools, they did not allow us to give the book to the entire team of teachers in the high school, even though we were only going to work with first year high school student we wanted to give the book to all of the teachers so that they would take notice of it and use it without needing us present.
In the high school where we did have permission, half of the professors were not in agreement and they resisted heavily, even about the illustrations. They made comments like: this girl has an afro and she doesn’t identify with the girls in this school.
There were some that complained about the illustrations on the page where we explained concepts of gender and sexual education. That caused a lot of discomfort. The issue of sexual education is taboo, people refuse to discuss it. It was really hard. We were able to distribute the books. In the end the principal assigned two first year social studies teachers.
Coincidentally one was a man and he was hesitant to work on this issue. In one of the schools one of the teachers was open to working on it, but she claimed that she didn’t have time. I proposed that if she could give us some time in her classroom, we could come and talk to the students. I worked for two days with the girls, seven sections with approximately 250 students. We talked about street harassment and for our final activity I gave them sheets to write their testimonies on. A good number of girls had already suffered from street harassment. When you talk about these issues, other stories always emerge. A couple of girls came up to me ask me how they can report rapes of hypothetical friends, but that could be from a lack of confidence.
What has this project meant for you?
It’s been a challenge. We bet a lot on education. But the challenge of working with teachers around 40-45 years old is difficult, they don’t want to touch these issues, they’re afraid and some say it goes against their ideology.
Currently in Guatemala you hear a lot from the fundamentalist discourse about gender ideology and supposed imposition of the gender agenda. There’s a lot of disinformation. We thought we were going to be able to work more closely with teachers, but we learned that this issue is complicated.
One strategy we were assessing is whether to build an alliance with the Ministry of Education, given that, if we want to work together with teachers the mandate should come from leadership and be clearly written out, then then principal can give teachers permission to come to our activities. We have learned a lot about how the educational system works. We believe that we did achieve the objectives set out for this project, but it wasn’t so easy.
When does the book launch?
We launch the book digitally on June 13 at 6:30pm Guatemala time on Facebook live.
* This note was published before Facebook live on June 13.
Watch the Facebook live event on the page of Observatorio Contra el Acoso Callejero: http://bit.ly/2FBFamo
Download the book“The Street Where I Want to Be Free” http://bit.ly/2KLTSLQ