A Discussion with Ginny Bouvier, U.S. Institute for Peace
Background: This exchange between Ginny Bouvier and Susan Hayward on July 2, 2010 focuses on Bouvier’s experience growing up within the Catholic Church, her exposure to liberation theology, and her growing commitment to issues of human rights and gender in Latin America. She emphasizes ways in which women have used and defied gender expectations to seek justice and to form bonds of solidarity. Women in the Catholic Church in Latin America have distinctive experiences that arise from the specific nature of armed conflict and dictatorship there and the challenges that women women have faced in finding positions of authority within the Church and other institutions.
Interview Conducted on July 2, 2010
Tell me a bit about your background, and influences that led to your current interest in Latin America, human rights, and conflict resolution.
I grew up in Connecticut, and was brought up Catholic. From early on, my social engagement was grounded in, but not limited to, the church. The church was a source of community and also provided opportunities for reflection and action. I sang in our church’s folk group and was involved in the usual bake sales, car washes, pancake breakfasts, clothing drives, Passover dinners, and sports activities. In addition, our church was actively involved in resettling Vietnamese refugees, and our family befriended a number of elderly people through a community-run program of the churches that provided meals and transportation to local residents in need. When race riots broke out in schools and cities in the 1960s and 70s, our church sponsored discussion groups and a number of other initiatives to address race relations. My family participated in a partnering program where our largely white, suburban parish was matched up with an African-American parish in inner-city New Haven. Over the course of my teen years, our families shared holidays, meals, and music. These experiences early on helped me to appreciate the potential of the church (and faith-based institutions) to be a force for positive change at the individual, community, and later on at the policy levels.
As I began to study the history of Latin America, the paradox of the church’s power to block change and its potential for liberation was one that shaped my intellectual quest. My undergraduate thesis at Wellesley College was an exploration of the role of the Catholic Church in the protection of human rights in Chile, and the conditions under which different levels of the church were likely to modify their positions over time. On a continent conquered by the cross and the sword, the church had historically engaged in alliances to protect the status quo at the expense of the poor and the indigenous. In the dictatorships of the late twentieth century, sectors of the Church began to break with the church-military alliance to seek peacemaking roles. By the time of Vatican II and the Latin American Bishops Conference in Medellin in 1968, the Church pronounced itself in favor of a preferential option for the poor and denounced the “institutionalized violence” of poverty. The Catholic Church played an especially important role in establishing institutional structures for confronting human rights violations in El Salvador, Chile, and Brazil.
My understanding of human rights in Latin America has been shaped by these events, by my readings of Latin American literature and history, and by my later work in the human rights field. I am particularly struck by the ongoing relevance of individuals like Bartolome de las Casas, a Dominican priest who championed the rights of indigenous peoples in the new world in the 16th century (although he had a blind spot for African slavery); and Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, a seventeenth-century nun and writer who created a poetic language to defend women’s right to think, study, and teach, and who challenged the gender roles of her time. Writing from a convent in Mexico, Sor Juana was censored and persecuted for her efforts. I have also been influenced by individuals like Paolo Freire, who developed pedagogies based on models of mutual learning and validation of the experiential knowledge of the oppressed, and the generation of thinkers who have come to be called liberation theologiansGustavo Gutierrez, Jon Sobrino, Marie Augusta Neal, and others who pioneered the reading of the Bible from the perspective of the marginalized, the poor, and the oppressed.
I was deeply shaped by my years in the 1980s working at the Washington Office on Latin America, an NGO established in 1974 by academics and Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish organizations to monitor human rights and U.S. foreign policy in Latin America. My time at WOLA helped me to appreciate the potential role of advocacy and policy in effecting change, and introduced me to hundreds of individuals working for human rights throughout the hemisphere. Sometimes motivated by faith and supported by hierarchical structures within the Church, and sometimes fighting to change these very structures, many of these individuals risked their lives for the possibility of peace and a more just future in their countries.
In Chile under the Pinochet years, in the peace movement in Colombia, in Argentina during the military dictatorship, in Central America during the civil wars, and in today’s Colombia, I have been impressed with the power of women coming together to demand change. I recognize, however, that this unity is not necessarily a function of gender, since women in Latin America have more frequently been a conservative force that protects the status quo than a force for change.
How are women involved in peacemaking in Latin America?
Women are working for peace within churches, political parties, unions, schools, governments, and NGOs. Women’s movements in Latin America, in working for gender equity, are seeking to deepen democratic culture and practices, which in turn is the basis for the creation and consolidation of peace. They continue to push for both the creation of new spaces and tools within existing traditional spaces, and as has been the customary practice, the creation of sites where they can “do politics” outside the ordinary channels from which they have long been excluded.
But you also have contradictions within the Church. There is obviously a glass ceiling for women within the Church, and women are still not allowed to preach. But at the same time, especially in these machista societies, women run the day to day activities of the churches, and they are sometimes able to create spaces within the Church to speak and act, to exercise leadership and authority, and to earn the respect of their peers.
How have women used the Church to leverage authority in Latin America, even given these institutional challenges?
Women’s role as mothers, a role particularly sanctioned by the Church, has been an important source of legitimacy and moral authority that permits women to engage in the public sphere.
Women have benefited from the protection of the Church in countries where meetings and public gathering were banned. I think of Chile, where women came to the Church for help in finding their missing children. And in the halls of the churches, and the hospitals, and the morgues, and the courts, they found all these other women whose sons and husbands had also been made to disappear. And they began to gather intentionally to stitch tapestries known as arpilleras, in the fashion of the old quilting bees, as a vehicle by which to share their stories and pain. And the Church would provide them with a place to meet, social and legal assistance, and would help them sell these beautiful tapestries.
This moral authority that is granted to mothers in some societies is particularly powerful, albeit potentially solidifying gender roles and stereotypes. I visited many groups of “mothers of the disappeared” throughout Latin America.
On one occasion, I accompanied a group of mothers in Concepcion, Chile, who had gathered at the Catholic Church offices and were about to march on the main plaza. It was a Saturday, a busy shopping day, and the plaza was packed. These women appeared on one corner of the square. Holding placards with photos of their children who had disappeared, the women began to march silently as they walked toward the center of the plaza. The crowds slowly cleared a path. From our side of the plaza, I could see a group of military who were gathering across the way. They had batons, wore uniforms, and they started marching towards the women toward a face-off. They marched towards each other, until they met in the middle of the plaza. The women stood there, and didn’t say a word. They just held up the signs with the faces of their disappeared children. The military were clearly disoriented. They halted, and then, after a minute or two, they simply turned around and walked away. As they did so, someone in the crowd began to clap. And then another, and another. The next thing I knew, the plaza had erupted into cheering. The women held their heads high and turned around and exited the plaza. That moment was incredibly powerful to me. The women were motivated by their children, they were stepping up for them, and that space for them to protest would not have been created if not for the Church’s protection and imprimatur.
Do you have any sense that women in Latin America approach peace and justice making in ways that are different from traditional or male-dominated peacemaking? (methodologies, activities, styles, issues they address, etc)
We need to be careful not to essentialize, but my experience working with peacemakers in Colombia suggests that women tend to be a bit more open to a self-reflective process and participatory methodology than the men. Women tend to have different institutional limitationsthe fact that they are often not at the top levels of institutions may mean that they are more open to institutional change. That said, I think both genders are marked by the same kinds of divisions due to ethnic, race, and class divides.
How can outsiders (NGOs, donors, governments) be supportive of women involved in peace and justice work through their churches in Latin America?
I think that outsiders often have a range of global connections and experiences that could be of interest and use to women involved in peace and justice work in Latin America. Further exploration of lessons (both successes and failures); and opportunities to meet counterparts from other national contexts can provide important supports to those working in conflict zones. Workshops and conferences like the one being held at Georgetown this week are useful ways to identify how outsiders can be more effective in supporting women peacemakers. Finally, I think donors have tremendous power to ensure that women do get a seat at the table and the opportunity to participate in decisions related to peacemaking. They can also help to set standards and international norms that consolidate that role.
What questions or concerns do you bring to our July conference on the intersection of women, conflict, peace, and religion?
I think the complexity of the world is calling on us to develop new languages and narratives that can accommodate multiple, non-linear perspectives. It is often difficult to find the language and the narrative to explore these kinds of multiple intersectionswe are more accustomed to the binary relationswomen and war, women and peace, religion and conflict, religion and peace. One of the challenges that we face is how to talk about these intersecting issues in a way that is conceptually clear and yet also allows us to identify paths forward for research, advocacy and policy.
Some of the questions I would flag:
1. How can women be a more effective force for peacemaking both within faith-based organizations, across institutional borders, and in creating spaces for dialogue and action that are truly multi-faith? (Are multi-faith initiatives more effective in the short and long-term?) 2. How can women use the strength of their positions and roles as women marginalized from power without locking themselves into positions of subservience? 3. How can we ensure that, in giving attention to the victimization of women in conflict, we are also empowering women as citizens and agents of change? 4. How can we recognize the particular strengths of women and men in peacemaking without reinforcing narrow stereotypes?