Who knows what March 8 is?” Rebeca Lane is half-way through her hip hop show and the question seems almost trite after 30 minutes of singing about reclaiming identity and feminism. Everyone looks around; it’s a no-brainer.
“International Women’s Day.”
“And what do you do on International Women’s Day?”
People mention flowers, marches, and a feminist dance party.
“I’m going to tell you about one of the most iconic cases in the last few years,” Lane says.
At each of her four performances on Canada’s East Coast during her first tour in the country, Lane dedicates a song to the 56 girls who were burned in a fire while stuck under lock and key at a state-run safe-house on March 8, 2017. Forty-one of the girls caught in the blaze died immediately from smoke inhalation and injuries or in the hours and days following the fire.
Lane tells the story of how youth who had been taken into the care of the state and placed in the shelter — both boys and girls — had reported torture, sexual abuse, forced prostitution, and violence while in the safe house. “Nine of the 56 girls were pregnant at the time they were killed. And they didn’t come pregnant to the shelter,” said Lane. They were made to eat rotten food and lived in inhumane conditions.
On March 7, the guards at the safe house opened the gates – for reasons still unknown – and those in custody left. “It looks almost like they were framing this, it was like they wanted this to happen,” says Lane, who knows the minute details of the case. They were hunted down by hundreds of police and forced back into care. The police separated the boys into the cafeteria and the girls were locked up into a small classroom (about 13 by 33 feet) with 22 mattresses.
After being cramped up for more than 12 hours with no food and not allowed to go to the bathroom, the girls started one of the mattresses on fire to call on the police to open the doors. But the police didn’t respond. Instead, according to some of the survivors, police taunted the girls, calling them whores and saying that if they were brave enough to escape the night before, they should be brave enough to withstand the fire. Later, police claimed they couldn’t find the key to release the victims. Lane explains that the girls were locked up for nine minutes before the door was finally opened.
“This has completely changed March 8 for us. We have a state that still massacres people,” says Lane, drawing a connection to the country’s 36-year internal armed conflict. She compares the fire in 2017 to the burning of the Spanish embassy and almost everyone in it in 1982. Lane has been working with a small group of women to support the survivors and their struggle for justice and to give some happiness back to the girls – there is a go-fund-me campaign to pay for an upcoming birthday party.
But Lane is quick to add that while the state upholds and perpetuates the system of violence, most of the attacks against women are at the hands of their boyfriends, husbands, fathers, brothers, and lovers. “They are killed in the name of love,” she says.
These murders are often framed as crimes of passion, but Lane and other feminists aim to shift the narrative to recognize them as femicides. Activists also labeled the death of the 41 girls in the shelter fire last year a state femicide, drawing attention to role in the tragedy of government negligence and neoliberal policies that disenfranchise the most vulnerable.
“Every month, 62 women are killed violently. That means 15 women per week. Last year, there were 739 violent deaths. This year alone, until the end of September, there have been 588 — 373 by gunfire, 144 were strangled, 63 killed by knife. Eight women were dismembered and 1,034 young girls under the age of 14 were raped and left pregnant, unable to get a legal abortion,” Lane reads from a recent report by one of Guatemala’s largest national newspapers from her phone.
“We are living this post-war moment. But it’s weird, because living there, you feel the war never ended,” she says. “There are so many armed groups in Guatemala, you don’t even know where the violence is coming from sometimes. But the Guatemalan state has a lot of responsibility in violence against women.”
Lane is a self-described “artivist” who uses music and poetry to expose and condemn state violence in Guatemala from the genocidal internal armed conflict in the 1980s to today.
During her first Canadian tour, organized by the Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking the Silence Network with stops in Halifax, Antigonish, Charlottetown, Fredericton, Toronto, and Montreal, she highlighted shocking statistics of violence against women in the Central American country and the role of the state in perpetuating misogyny. “There’s a very schizophrenic way of seeing us either as saints when we’re mothers and whores when we are not,” she said. She also drew parallels between state violence in the 1980s to what is happening today, through songs like “Cumbia de la memoria” (Cumbia of Memory).
“Sexual violence in a war is evil. When there were massacres in Guatemala, they slaughtered all the men and raped the women and let them live because they wanted them to bear their children,” Lane explains. “And many women were forced to bear the children of the enemy. Coming back to the community was a thing of shame.” There has been a very long process to support women victims of sexual assault from over 30 years ago, says Lane, to help the women in their healing and to free themselves from guilt and shame.
Lane lives as an outspoken feminist activist in a country that is both unsafe for women and hostile toward human rights defenders. When asked about her work in the face of these dangers, Lane expresses that she sees no other option but to raise her voice in the face of injustice, even though she knows she could be risking her life.
“I do feel endangered. But in Guatemala it’s so easy to get killed by anything,” she said. “I’d rather speak out instead of doing nothing.”
She adds that she constantly remains aware of her surroundings and takes precautions to avoid putting herself in unnecessary danger. This includes being selective with where she performs if she thinks it could be an unsafe environment in which to speak out about gender violence. She notes that she performs only sporadically in Guatemala and is also careful when she is touring other countries where violence against women is rampant.
But despite the challenges that come with it, Lane explains that she also feels empowered by other women and draws strength from their support to continue raising awareness about feminist issues and fighting for social justice.
“I feel I have a protective energy from all the women who trust in my work,” she says. “So that’s why I rely on my energy and the energy of my ancestors and the fact that I am aware that speaking out is my gift in this life, this comes with protection too.”
Lane’s track, “Ni encerradas ni con miedos,” (Neither locked up nor with fear) is a mantra for her activism and poetry. “Outside, it’s a battlefield and my body has become a trench … Security, no more violence in our homes. Security, no more harassment in the plazas. Security, no more guns in the streets. Security. Community. No more soldiers.”
Using her voice as her weapon, Lane’s message hits a resounding chord with her more than 50,000 followers on social media. Though she knows there are trolls who try to bring her down, she won’t give up on the feminist struggle.
“I want to live, not survive. Go out on the street and not feel like I have to defend myself and that your words can’t offend me and your weapons can’t attack me,” she sings. “I want to build a country that allows me to laugh, smile, dream, sing, dance, live.”
Jackie McVicar coordinated Rebeca Lane’s tour to Canada through her work with the Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking the Silence Network. She has worked closely with human rights defenders in Guatemala since 2004.
This article was first published by Upside Down World.