The Milk of Sorrow: Rape Survivors and the Symptoms of History

Mostly, the women of Ayacucho, Peru, don’t want to tell their stories of the armed conflict there. That’s because, mostly, their stories are of gang rape.

When medical anthropologist Kimberly Theidon visited war ravaged Ayacucho in 1995, she found “charred houses, abandoned farmlands, and innumerable mass graves converted the earth itself into another actor in this tragedy.”

The memories, she writes in Canadian Woman Studies, “settled in the mountains where so many had died, in the rivers tinged red by blood, and in the ruins that served as silent witnesses to the atrocities.”

What haunted Theidon, however, were her conversations with the women there. In their narratives, “other ‘historical sites’ emerged: the women’s own bodies, which incorporated these lacerating memories … When I remember the many women who feared breast-feeding their babies and transmitting their ‘milk of sorrow and worry’–it seems to me they offer an eloquent example of how painful memories accumulate in the body and how one can literally suffer from the symptoms of history.”

“During my research in Ayacucho,” Theidon remembers, “many women asked me: ‘Why should we remember everything that happened? To martyr our bodies–nothing more?'”

There is movement towards reparations for these women (a national victim registry contains the names of more than 2,000 victims of sexual violence). But if they will not tell their stories, how should the reparations process work? The women have “overwhelmingly chosen silence–even a smoldering silence–over speaking about abhorrent experiences. It is important to remember that in some cases rapes were used as a means of making women talk.”

So why not make the men talk? “I am compelled by the profound injustice of both rape and its narrative burden,” Theidon writes. “It is, of course, women who are incited to speak about sexual violence. There are silences that should be respected. However, there are others that should be disturbed–such as the silence maintained by the thousands of men who participated in, encouraged, observed–and perhaps attempted to stop–sexual violence.”

Source: Canadian Woman Studies (article not available online)

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