Mexican journalists launch project documenting the impact of violence on women by reflecting on their own stories

In the 10 years of the violent Drug War in Mexico, journalists have rarely had the time to reflect on how the violence affects both them and the people around them.

For this reason, when the journalists of Pie de Página, an independent site from the Mexican network Periodistas de a Pie, conceived a project to make sure these years of violence did not go unnoticed, the journalists and their families became part of the story.

“We almost never talk about the problems we have or what we have had to face in the coverage of victims in these 10 years. We are always busy, trying to tell what happens to others, but we do not turn to see what injuries or consequences have been left in our own lives,” Pastrana said. “I personally was interested in seeing how our daughters live. And it was a good experience because our daughters also heard each other, we all crossed, activists, journalists, interviewees and interviewers.”

The story “Mama went to war,” which tells the stories of daughters of activists and journalists working around violence, became the first of a series of 12 articles that make up the project “Women facing the war,” which was recently launched on the site.

According to Pastrana, the text “had a greater effect than we expected,” which she believes is probably due to the fact that many colleagues identified with the topic.

This topic, which was not planned from the beginning, directly touched Pastrana, who said that although an unusual subject, at some point it has become a topic among her colleagues. According to Pastrana, sometimes there is “a little feeling of guilt” for putting the families in a situation that they have chosen as journalists.

And it is the families that are precisely the first targets when a woman journalist or activist is threatened, a crucial difference from threats against men.

“There are two kinds of threats to us because of their work. To our male colleagues, the threat is almost always ‘I am going to do it,’  ‘I’m going to undo you.’ In the case of women journalists in Mexico, there are two characteristics that have been common and a pattern that has been followed in recent years. One is in all the sexual connotations that exist or with an involvement in personal life, not professional. And many other threats go against the family, ‘I’m going to do this to your family,’ or ‘remember that you have a daughter, ‘remember who you live with, before ‘I’ll do it to you,’” Pastrana explained.

The unheard voices of the war

“Women facing the war” is a journalistic project in which the team at Pie de Página tries to continue with their usual work making a record of memory, but this time they give voice to “memory that we were not listening to,” with a focus on women, as explained by Daniela Rea, coordinator and creator of the project, to the Knight Center.

“We had been reviewing a project from Colombia in which there are 1,300 testimonies of Colombian women and what they had explained was how the women’s body is the last stronghold to which violence arrives and is deposited [...] Even their own bodies are like part of this last territory fought in a war,” explained Rea, who added that they were also inspired by the work of Nobel prize winner Svetlanta Alexeiévich.

After months of planning and seeking financing, they began producing the 12 stories that make up “Women facing the war,” and on Jan. 15 published their first story. In this first week, they have already published three, and the objective is to publish two a week on Thursdays and Sundays.

Based on the idea of the woman’s body as war territory, stories can be read by taking a tour of the body. Each one of the articles is linked to a particular verb, which represents a part of the body.

The idea of the verb arose from the team’s previous experience covering these types of stories. According to Rea, some articles may relate to a verb that somehow functions as a “tool” used by each person to react to violence.

For example, the group realized that the stories could be related to verbs like “to rebuild” or “to defend.” However, the words were only defined after the 12 stories were completed.

“We had not thought of the words in a woman’s body,” Rea said. “But then, talking to the designer, they said ‘if the territory is the body of the woman, each verb can be linked with a part of the body.’ So it was a very natural ending.”

Doing the project, the journalists discovered things they might not have expected. One was that violence in some areas of the country could have started 20 years ago, well before 2006, and that left them with the sensation and sadness of having “arrived late” to these places.

One event that particularly impacted Rea was that of the teachers interviewed in Culiacan who assured her that the good thing about the upsurge in violence after 2006 was “that people from other parts of the country finally began to come, to see, to understand and investigate a violence that we have 20 years of living,” in the words of the journalist.

It also meant confronting “awkward responses.” While the project did not necessarily have the intention of finding people who “were doing things against the war,” they were not prepared for hopelessness.

“One of the teachers said to me, ‘I do not want to do anything, I’m scared to death, I do not want to tell my students not to be hitmen, because hitmen have come to threaten me so I don’t mess with them. I do not want to, I do not want to be a hero, I want to save my life,’” Rea said. “In that case, it was very important to modify our listening because there are answers that as a journalist you are not comfortable with. So it’s like should I omit the answer or what, or should I push her so at the end she will tell me that she wants to fight for the good of the country. In other words, I think it was just like contradicting the very objective of expanding the space in which violence has touched people. That part was difficult.”

Nevertheless, they understand that all of these stories are necessary, not only for the memory of the country, but for the interviewees as a way of recognizing their pain. Rea remembered, for example, the case of displaced women who claimed that nobody ever asked them anything, but that what most hurt were their abandoned memories: photos, albums, objects. “But how could I say that my memories hurt, having so much death,” the woman said, according to Rea.

The three stories published so far are based on text and images, the latter as photographs or illustrations. But some of the future publications use video as a narration tool.

“We would like very much that, just as it was difficult for us as journalists to rethink listening, the reader also gives the possibility as not to say ‘I have already read this story.’ What we are looking to do is to dig a little deeper to find spaces where violence has gone when we don’t know how, or where or when,” Rea concluded. “May we come closer to hearing these stories that are very sensitive and very intimate, but that reveal to us how far this violence has permeated.”

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.