Photographer Gaia Squarci has documented her encounter with a Mexican woman who pressed charges against her ex-husband for rape. A poignant multimedia story.
According to the UN Spotlight Initiative in the first four months of 2020 emergency calls related to violence against women and girls in Mexico increased by 53%, adding to the fragility of a country already facing a widespread problem of femicide. When he was asked to address the issue, Mexico’s president Andrés Manuel López Obrador stated that “Ninety percent of those calls that you’re referring to are fake”.
In response to the current situation, Hotel Posadas, a local chain, started to collaborate with UNICEF, UNFPA and more than 30 governmental institutions to offer a free stay for up to a week to women running from domestic violence and their children, while a more permanent living solution is found for them.
The guests welcomed through the program are treated like any other customer and they receive psychological assistance by phone, at no charge. The hotel personnel also attended a training to appropriately assist guests who went through trauma. So far more than 60 women benefited from the initiative, in 13 different cities.
In a hotel room with closed curtains I met Flor and her youngest daughter Talia, whose names have been changed to preserve their safety. Talia, 6-years-old and watching The Grinch on TV, was bright and curious, somehow as innocent as disturbingly perceptive. Flor had a warmth to her and a tenacious love for life, but when her smile faded it was impossible not to notice an expression of dread instantly glimmering in her eyes.
I invited her to my room for a long talk early the next morning, when Talia was still sleeping. Flor stated that she had pressed charges against her ex-husband 10 times in the last 25 years and her claims had fallen into silence, in a system plagued with corruption.
"Sometimes I was wounded much worse than now,” she said. “There was an occasion when my older daughter, who at the time was 13, got a sprain in the leg to defend me, but my ex-husband bribed the public prosecutor and paid a fine, so he wasn’t arrested. I just convinced myself I was destined for this life”.
During the first months of the Covid-19 pandemic, Flor separated from her husband, who struggles with alcohol and drug addiction, and she went to live with her parents. In the months following the separation he took Talia away from her for weeks, and Flor had to get her daughter back asking for custody.
In this audio piece, Flor tells about the violence she suffered at the hands of her ex-husband once she had already left him, and about her decision to press charges against him for rape.
"I asked my children to forgive me, but I had to do it. I asked them to forgive me because he is their father, it’s sad that they’re living through this situation. But they told me they’re proud of me. That for the first time I could do something for them.”
Flor's two older children now have families of their own. She and Talia stayed in the hotel room for about a week, while a shelter accommodation was being found for them. Usually, hotel rooms of families with kids are messy, with clothes and objects scattered everywhere. When I entered theirs, I first thought it was tidier than usual, then I realized it was just empty. They didn’t have the chance to bring much with them. The hotel was a temporary solution, but a safe, clean, private space where Flor could forget about fear and economical pressure, even for just a few days, helped her regain the energy to look towards a new start.
After her ex-husband was arrested, Flor started receiving death threats. Upon her arrival at the hotel she was asked not to leave the premises during her stay unless it was strictly necessary, and her mobile phone was kept off, guarded by the hotel personnel to avoid GPS tracking.
In this audio piece, Flor tells about the death threats she received from her ex-husband and then asks women in a similar situation not to stay silent.
"He could do what he did to me to other people, I couldn’t let him out of jail,” she tells. “I’m getting help from a psychologist also because I don’t want to tell my daughter words that could damage her. I’m trying to teach her: don’t ever let anyone harm you. I’m trying to teach her: don’t ever let anyone harm you.”
In this audio piece, Flor talks about the fact that her husband would beat her in front of Talia, and the psychological consequences of the trauma for the kid.
"I want her to feel safe close to me, proud of her mother. It’s a lot of work for me because I come from years of violence, but I have to succeed.”
I talked to Flor since. She said she was moved to a shelter where she is receiving help and assistance. Despite her frightening situation, the main emotion she expressed was gratitude, because she had finally been heard. Her husband is currently in jail waiting for a trial, and Flor fears that he might obtain a reduced sentence because of the friendships she claims he has in the police.
The last words she spoke to me caught me off guard. I realized that despite everything he did, he hadn’t broken her: “I’m not going to close the door to love, and I’m going to fight for it, but now I need to work on myself. I’ve never really known my husband and the day I’ll meet another person I want to go through this process, to really get to know him and be able to give myself completely. So that the day I create a family, I want it to be for the rest of my life.”
By Gaia Squarci
Gaia Squarci is a photographer who divides her time between Milan and New York, where she teaches multimedia at the International Center of Photography. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Time Magazine, Vogue, The Guardian, Der Spiegel, among others.
To know more about Gaia Squarci, visit her website.