Astrid Elias was buying school supplies when two men jumped out of a car and covered her mouth with a chemical-drenched rag, causing her to faint. It was 2007, Elias was just 14 years old, and she woke in a strange house with pains in her stomach, the men telling her she’d been gang-raped. They held her captive for three days, raping her repeatedly. They called her family to demand a ransom. Desperate, her grandparents paid $3,000. Elias was then dumped in a city park in Quetzaltenango, the second largest city in Guatemala.
“My life was normal. I studied. I was graduating from primary school. I had a high level of education. Everything was pretty, because I used to dream about being a lawyer,” Elias told Maria Hinojosa, executive producer and host of NPR’s Latino USA, who translated for the audience at an emotional Women in the World New York Summit panel on Friday morning.
“The worst moment was when the doctors confirmed that I had been raped,” Elias said. “That was the most difficult moment because, as a woman, you dream about giving yourself to somebody that you love. And they took away that moment from me.”
Elias was paralyzed with fear after her kidnapping. When she finally returned to school, after more than a year, her grandfather dropped her off and picked her up so she never had to walk alone. But then the kidnappers began calling her house. They made new threats, asking after “La Prenda”—“the Pawn,” which was their nickname for Elias. Elias eventually fled to the United States, in 2010, and was granted asylum in 2014. Now 23 years old, she lives in Los Angeles, where she attends high school and looks after her young son. “The moment I decided to not stay stuck in what had happened to me was when I came here and asked for asylum,” Elias said.
Perversely, Elias is one of the lucky ones in what the United Nations refugee agency has called a “looming refugee crisis,” as women try to escape “a surge in deadly, unchecked gang violence.” Of 16,077 women seeking asylum who were interviewed by US authorities over 2014 and 2015, 87 per cent were found to have “a credible fear of persecution or torture.” In many Central American countries, there is almost total impunity for murdering women for gender-related issues, often called “femicide.” Indeed, the problem has become so serious that the United States, in cooperation with the United Nations, is planning to open centers in Central America where people can apply for refugee-status without even reaching the border, as the Washington Post reported in January.
Elias and Hinojosa were joined on the Summit stage by America Ferrera, the actress and producer, and Lilia Aguilar, a former member of Mexico’s Congress. “In Mexico, every four hours a woman is attacked or killed just for gender issues,” Aguilar explained, adding that violence is not isolated to Mexican women but extends to women from Central America passing through the country on their way to the US. “They’re giving their kids birth-control pills in order not to get pregnant, because they could be raped,” she said.
Aguilar’s home state of Chihuahua has become notorious for violence against women, particularly in the border city of Ciudad Juárez, where hundreds of unexplained murders and disappearances have caused international outrage over the last decade—“Wave of Violence Swallows More Women in Juaréz” ran one characteristic headline by the New York Times, in 2012. “If you kill a woman, you probably aren’t going to go to jail,” Aguilar said: “But if you steal a cow then for sure you’re going to go to jail.”
For Ferrera, who has recently been in South Texas shooting a documentary about the lives of undocumented people in the Rio Grande Valley, part of the problem is the way the media is reporting the story. “It’s been interesting to see the coverage of what’s happening in Central America and Mexico and how it’s now affecting the United States in these waves of migrants, unaccompanied minors, and women fleeing violence,” Ferrera told Hinojosa. “We’re not bringing any nuance to the conversation. It’s all being thrown under the same umbrella,” she said, meaning people who are running for their lives are not being presented as distinct from economic migrants. “If we can’t even agree that there is a problem, how are we going to solve it?”
It boggles her mind, Ferrera said, how “little imagination” it takes to picture the kind of situation that must be facing somebody who decides to send off their children with “coyotes”— the colloquial term for people smugglers. “I may never see my child again, and that is, as a parent, my best option?”
Towards the end of the discussion, Ferrera offered a critique of proposals for immigration reform, such a giant wall along the Mexico-United States border: “There’s no wall you can build, there’s no amount of detention centers you can build, that are going to stop people from fleeing death,” she said, to rapturous applause.
Watch the entire “Women on the Run” panel here.
Additional reporting contributed by Karen Compton.