In 2005 I spent two weeks living with a Costa Rican family. My host mother, Sandra, was a vibrant woman who liked salsa dancing, bright clothes, and chatting over meals and torrential rainstorms.
Sandra's husband, on the other hand, was a total contrast -- expressionless, reserved, and practically mute.
"I married him because he's not like the rest," Sandra told me. "He's never hit me, and he doesn't sleep around."
I found it odd that what Sandra's husband wasn't could justify their marriage.
What I didn't realize at the time was that Sandra was protecting herself from a reality that women face around the globe. According to the World Health Organization's latest report on violence against women, over one-third of all women (over 1.25 billion) have experienced physical and/or sexual violence. Moreover, thirty percent of all women who have been in a relationship have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partner.
Sandra's story remained with me for eight years, until I recently found myself back in Costa Rica evaluating the progress of Trócaire's Prevention of Gender Based Violence (GBV) Program. Trócaire, an Irish development agency, funds eleven civil society organizations in Nicaragua and Costa Rica committed to preventing GBV and responding to cases of abuse through psycho-social, community, and legal support. The program currently works with 850 women.
One of those women is Teresa. I met Teresa in Upala, Costa Rica at the Center of Migrant Social Rights (CENDEROS). Sitting in the middle of a cluster of adolescents, Teresa played the role of unassuming yet supportive mother. Little did I know the inferno she had been through to get to that seat.
Teresa moved from Nicaragua to Costa Rica with her family when she was eight. She lived with her mother and stepfather, whose relationship eventually dissolved. When she was sixteen, Teresa was forced to marry her step-father, who had already been abusing her for three years. For fifteen more years she experienced a constant mix of physical, verbal, and psychological abuse.
"He was in the war in Nicaragua," she said, referring to the U.S.-backed Contra War between 1981 and 1989. "He's still in the war."
Teresa's step-father/husband threatened her repeatedly with death. At the same time, he forced her to produce life -- six lives to be exact, even though Teresa did not want to bear him any children.
Eventually, Teresa found her escape. She applied for a non-profit housing initiative for low-income women and succeeded in securing a modest home. She packed up her children and moved to San José.
It didn't take long for Teresa's husband to force himself back into her life. After tracking Teresa down, he remained violent, his wartime trauma still untreated. On one occasion, he left the house slashing his machete and screaming death threats at the neighbors' children. A self-made outcast within the barrio, he ultimately left Teresa on his own accord.
Teresa continued taking advantage of every opportunity that non-profit organizations were offering in the area. That was what brought her to CENDEROS, where she participated in psychological counseling and gender training.
For the first time in her life, Teresa vocalized what she had undergone over the previous fifteen years. The act cast her into a tranced, zombie-like state. To this day, she can't recall any of the details of that session. She only remembers white.
Through CENDEROS, Teresa learned about the law and her rights. She acquired entrepreneurial skills and enrolled herself in primary school, since she hadn't finished the fifth grade. Today, she is close to graduating from high school. She plans on studying psychology at the university level so she can become a counselor for abused women.
"Despite the violence we've experienced, women can move forward," Teresa says. "We need organizations like CENDEROS. They show us that violence isn't the way to live. Many women have been able to save their homes. Others haven't."
"Migrant women residing in Costa Rica are exposed to sexual harassment, labor exploitation and increased incidence of rape, sexual abuse, and femicide," says Adilia Solis, Director of CENDEROS. "The conditions of poverty, poor health, rootlessness, and isolation of these populations, the feeling of helplessness that prevails among them, trigger the cycle of violence."
One of the main reasons for CENDEROS's success in preventing GBV is that it works directly with boys and men on reconceiving "masculinity" in hyper-machista societies. This involves deconstructing their upbringings, personal traumas, and how their surroundings have shaped their behavior. They come to learn that it is in everyone's interests to allow women to do basic things like come and go from the home when they choose, share control of economic resources, engage in training and income generating activities, and make decisions.
"When a man says that he's ready to change, it's incredible," Teresa says. "It's the beginning of a new kind of relationship."
While Trócaire's program works with over 770 men in Nicaragua and Costa Rica, challenges persist. There are men involved who still exhibit violent behavior, and there aren't enough resources to handle the overwhelming demand for individual psychological attention. But changing attitudes and practices prove that it is possible to unlearn machismo.
This prevention work, if replicated at a large enough level, could generate a new way in which men and women interact, inspiring healthier relationships while halting deformational cycles of violence.
The hope of these interventions is not only that women like Sandra and Teresa won't have to fear "the other" any longer. It's also so men and women can learn that "the other" is just a social construction -- something that facilitates expressions of violence on the basis of nothingness.