I couldn’t stop looking at their aprons: handmade masterpieces woven of bright colors and sparkly bits. My mind goes immediately to the “vestments” described in the passages of the Torah detailing the clothing worn by the kohanim as they attended to their sacred work in the Mishkan, resplendent in shiny gold, sky blue, royal purple, and crimson, the color of the blood of the animals offered as sacrifices. The women all around us wear blue, the color of the Guatemalan skies, and red, the color of the blood of childbirth. They wear purple, too, and they look like royalty, these poor midwives, some of them illiterate, all of them smiling. I wonder if they wear these aprons as they do their work, the holy work of bringing new life into the world.
The women are part of CODECOT, a collective of indigenous women, midwives, healers and educators in the Quetzaltenango region of Guatemala, and I am one of 15 rabbis, traveling with the American World Service Global Justice Fellowship. The primary goal of the Global Justice Fellowship is to inspire American rabbis to become advocates for human rights. After a 30-year brutal internal armed conflict, there are still human rights violations in Guatemala. We’re here to meet Guatemalans engaged in advocating for their rights and to hear their stories.
The work of the CODECOT midwives is not supported by the government, yet the women travel long distances, sometimes at night, sometimes into areas where gangs prowl the terrain, sometimes — most of the time — without pay, to be with laboring Mayan women. After our tour of the CODECOT office/training school/communal gathering space/clinic, we hear personal stories from the midwives. One of them, a particularly gregarious woman, talks about being bitten by a patient’s dog. Her corn tortilla remedy: Quickly mix masa with water, flatten it into a tortilla, apply it to the wound … and then feed it to the dog! She belly laughs. We worry.
Our week-long sojourn in Guatemala included briefings by the leadership of UDEFEGUA (Unidad de Defensores y Defensoras de Derechos Humanos de Guatemala), which defends human rights activists working for social change. From 2008 to 2011, there were 1,286 reports of attacks against human rights activists; 55 of them were killed, sometimes by hired assassins. Attacks range from harassment and public defamation campaigns to rape and murder. Criminals, corporations and corrupt government officials use fear, trauma and bloodshed to suppress grassroots activists and to mute journalists. UDEFEGUA aids activist organizations develop safety and security plans for their offices and staff in order to minimize the risk of attacks. UDEFEGUA also provides mental health support to activists coping with anxiety and trauma related to threats, and supports victims seeking justice in courts.
The mission of UDEFEGUA relies heavily on a CICIG, the International Commission Against Impunity, a 2007 agreement between the UN and the State of Guatemala. CICIG provides for the investigation and criminal prosecution of groups that foster impunity and undermine the democratic achievements in Guatemala since the end of the internal armed conflict. In its 11-year existence CICIG has won the approval of the Guatemalan people and made significant progress — sending corrupt politicians, business people and leaders of organized crime to prison. Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales has called for an end to CICIG and taken steps to hasten its demise — but the people are speaking out. We witnessed demonstrations where hundreds, if not thousands of Guatemalans protested the president’s decision.
At our meeting with Charge d’Affaires David Hodge and other U.S. staff at the embassy, we were encouraged to lobby our own government leaders to address corruption and impunity in Guatemala. Because the next part of our rabbinic fellowship will take place in Washington, D.C., in March, we will be asking for congressional support to address the human rights crisis in Guatemala. While we are there, we will also seek legislative support for other issues identified as priorities by AJWS: raising awareness of the current atrocities being faced by the Rohingya people and other ethnic minorities in Myanmar, and endorsing evidence-based global health programs that support reproductive rights, LGBTI populations and women.
My participation in the AJWS Global Justice Fellowship has deepened my sense of awe in the capacity of the human spirit. How might my life look different if I, like the capeless heroes in Guatemala with whom we had the honor to meet, despite previous failings, formidable challenge and real danger, steadfastly refused to give up on the quest for dignity, safety and justice? I intend to find out — with or without the apron I bought in Guatemala to remind me of the quiet strength of the beautiful, formidable and gentle midwives in Quetzaltenango. PJC
Rabbi Sharyn H. Henry is a rabbi at Rodef Shalom Congregation.