Image for Circles of hope: the Guatemalan women reviving Indigenous concepts of mental wellbeing

Circles of hope: the Guatemalan women reviving Indigenous concepts of mental wellbeing

Following decades of civil war, a community collective in Guatemala is using sharing circles to revive Indigenous concepts of mental health. After centuries of suppression, women are being empowered to find their voices

Following decades of civil war, a community collective in Guatemala is using sharing circles to revive Indigenous concepts of mental health. After centuries of suppression, women are being empowered to find their voices

Early mornings are chilly in Los Romero, a village high up in the mountains of western Guatemala. As in other predominantly Mam villages – Indigenous Maya people who have lived here since pre-Columbian times – households come quietly to life before dawn. Isabel Romero, a grandmother with long black hair, used to feel somewhat trapped in hers.

“I was afraid of speaking because I was cooped up at home. I didn’t go out,” she says, explaining that like many Mam women, her days were dedicated to the hard work of running a household with little money, and she rarely spoke with other women. “I worried a lot and had headaches.”

Residents of Los Romero live mainly from subsistence farming, growing maize, beans and squash, or grazing livestock. Almost 50% of the population is Indigenous in Guatemala, Central America’s biggest economy, but they do not share in its prosperity. Indigenous women in particular are discriminated against and dispossessed, with a life expectancy 13 years lower, and a maternal mortality rate two times higher, than the national average, according to the World Bank.

In Romero’s village and throughout the region, a community-based collective of women’s circles has been quietly improving Indigenous women’s lives, empowering them to find voices that have been suppressed through centuries of marginalisation.

It was a long process, but Romero’s headaches and fear are now a thing of the past. These days she gets out to workshops, meetings and women’s circles. She shares her knowledge of weaving traditional textiles on a backstrap loom and has a leadership role in the women’s group she co- founded: Buena Semilla (Good Seed).

The initiative emerged from Maya Mam women’s experiences, when French physician Anne Marie Chomat brought them together for interviews for her doctoral fieldwork in 2010- 2012. The simple act of gathering with others and sharing their experiences had a profound impact on the women, many of whom are still dealing with the traumatic legacy of Guatemala’s civil war.

There was a mentality that women were only supposed to be in the home. Now things are changing

During the 1960-1996 armed conflict between leftist guerrilla groups and the military, more than 200,000 people were killed, overwhelmingly Indigenous Maya civilians killed by the army. Another 45,000 were ‘disappeared’. A truth commission concluded that the state committed acts of genocide.

Some places were targeted more than others, and the area of Santiago Atitlán, where 18 Buena Semilla circles operate and volcanoes tower over one of the country’s biggest lakes, was among them. The army massacred, tortured and forcibly disappeared local residents. Many women participating in the circles lost relatives and experienced violence first-hand, leaving lasting fear and anxiety, explains Dolores Quiejú, the Buena Semilla coordinator in the area, 

“Women have said they were there when the military started to shoot,” she says. “There are women who say they were raped.” Court rulings have affirmed that the military used systematic sexual violence as a weapon of war.

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Isabel Romero outside her home in San Juan Ostuncalco. Image: James Rodríguez

Few efforts have been made to quantify mental health disorders in the country, but the University of San Carlos, Guatemala’s public university, conducted a national mental health survey in 2009. It found close to a quarter of the adult population was dealing with a mental health disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder was at the top of the list.

“There’s so much chronic stress and other issues that are not being addressed,” says Chomat, Buena Semilla’s international coordinator, who now lives in Canada. “So much healing happened in that space of women connecting with other women, getting out of their houses, realising: ‘I’m not alone’.”

Once Chomat’s fieldwork was finalised, several participants decided they wanted to continue meeting and with Chomat came up with the idea of women’s circles. With the help of a grant, the project got going in 2013 and now more than 300 women in two municipalities participate every week or two in circles, each comprising roughly 10 to 25 women.

If I have worries, I relax, I go out for a walk, I go to the forest, or I practise the exercises. There is healing in that

Wearing traditional embroidered huipil blouses and hand-loomed skirts, the women gather, arriving on foot via the dirt roads that weave through the villages. They meet in a home or community building, or outside when they can for the connection with nature. The circle opens with a welcome and a prayer and then the group engages in breathing and movement exercises. Next up is discussion of the nahual, the day’s name and energy according to one of the interlocking ancient Mayan calendars, traditionally used for ceremonial practices. “Here in Santiago Atitlán it is only maybe 20% of people who speak about [knowledge of nahuals], so we are reviving it,” says Quiejú.

Then it’s time for the sharing circle. “More than anything, it is speaking what they have in their hearts,” says Quiejú. But every time and each circle is different, even though the leaders all work from the same guide, she says.

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Project coordinator Sadi Garcia leads a discussion centred on the drawings. Image: James Rodríguez

Sometimes circles will have a guided meditation. Sometimes they’ll have a workshop to learn weaving, or another skill that can help them earn money. Sometimes they eat together. Sometimes they cry. Often they laugh. No matter what, they generally end with a group embrace.

Beyond the circles, women have developed friendships and lasting trust. Several women tell Positive News that incorporating the breathing exercises into their lives has also made a big difference.

“The exercises have helped me. If I have worries, I relax, I go out for a walk, I go to the forest, or I practise the exercises. There is healing in that,” says Julia Méndez, who facilitates three circles alongside taking care of her baby granddaughter, often strapped to her back swaddled in handwoven cloth.

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Women drawing their thoughts in a wellbeing exercise during a circle. Image: James Rodríguez

Chomat and other researchers conducted a randomised trial with some of the initial circles, geared towards recent mothers since maternal depression and anxiety can also affect infant health and development. Participation in the circles improved women’s wellbeing and lowered psychosocial distress, alleviating symptoms of depression and anxiety, according to the research findings published in BMC Women’s Health, a peer-reviewed academic journal.

“One of the preventative mechanisms for mental health is participation and social organisation,” says Marco Garavito, director of the Guatemalan League of Mental Hygiene.

Only 1% of Guatemala’s national health budget is designated for mental health, and nearly all of that goes to the country’s one psychiatric hospital. Most mental health professionals are concentrated in the capital, offering psychotherapy and prescribing medications. For those in rural areas, there is little discussion of mental health or access to services.

I have seen in myself that I am a strong woman and that I can do things I used to be afraid to do

“There is nothing for the preventative side, to work with families, to work with communities,” says Garavito. However, he emphasised that the concept of buen vivir (good living) among many Indigenous peoples in Latin America, which includes the traditional festivities, ceremonies and community of everyday village life, inherently incorporates good mental health. “Mental health is a fundamentally social concept and that has been a historical and common practice among Indigenous peoples, without them calling it that.”

Women experiencing violence or aggression at the hands of their husbands is another issue that comes up in the circles. According to UN Women, 20.2% of women in Guatemala have experienced physical and or sexual partner violence during their lifetime. If someone is experiencing domestic violence, Buena Semilla leaders will help the woman decide what she wants to do, whether that is making a formal report, leaving, or seeking psychological help, says Quiejú.

Financial constraints also pose challenges. Since 2020, Buena Semilla’s budget has been funded through crowdfunding and small grants. Staff and leaders all work part-time and many volunteer unpaid, but most circles now meet bi-weekly due to a squeeze on funds.

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Miriam Méndez (first adult from left) opens a women’s circle in her village, Aldea La Victoria, San Juan Ostuncalco. Image: James Rodríguez

Buena Semilla used to run several men’s circles to address emotional health and promote inclusion and respect for women, but in late 2022 a lack of funding meant they had to hit pause. Still, a group of the men organise an activity for themselves every couple of months, says Quiejú.

Despite the challenges, interest keeps growing. Elsa Cortez joined a circle earlier this year, motivated by her sister’s positive experience with Buena Semilla. In her mid-20s, she lives with her parents and as well as helping to run the household, she weaves belts, drawing from a basket full of spools of brightly coloured thread. She did not go out much before.

“There was a mentality that women were only supposed to be in the home or should only do certain things. That’s how we were raised,” she says. “My family was like that too.”

Thanks to Buena Semilla, those dynamics have started to shift in some families, including her own, says Cortez. Now she is exploring the idea of starting a circle specifically for girls, to help build their self-worth and self-esteem.

“It used to be difficult for me to socialise or chat, but now I am starting to socialise more easily,” says Cortez. “In the group I feel like it is psychological therapy every time we meet.”

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Miriam Mendez gathering flowers for the day’s circle. Image: James Rodríguez

‘I have seen that I am a strong woman’

Fifteen years ago, stress was a prevailing force in Miriam Méndez’ life. One of her sons, now 21, had been diagnosed with a rare childhood epilepsy causing severe developmental disability. It wasn’t something she spoke about openly.

“I was really not doing well,” she recalls. “I didn’t know what to do. I was getting sick.”

She and a few other women co-founded Buena Semilla. As time went on, Méndez, now 44, realised her experience needn’t be kept secret.

“I started sharing it [in the circle],” she says. “It carried that trust, and women learned there is value in talking about what you’re going through.”

The bonds forged through Buena Semilla have also spurred a grassroots support network outside of the circles. Women call her when they’re struggling and she visits them at home.

“I go in the mornings for an hour or two when they are going through hard times – it helps,” she says.

Over her years of involvement with Buena Semilla, Méndez says her self-esteem has grown. She felt able to follow her dream of starting a small business and now has a fruit vending cart and distributes cooking fuel.

“I have a bit of income. I feel really happy that this has happened,” she says. “I have seen in myself that I am a strong woman and that I can do things I used to be afraid to do.”

Images: James Rodríguez

Developing mental wealth is a series produced by Positive News and funded by the European Journalism Centre, through the Solutions Journalism Accelerator. This fund is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

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