Charting Change
Charting Change
Charting Change
Charting Change

Inclusive Economies

A safe space on stage

How theatre is helping Central American women cope with the perils of migrating to the United States

Posted by Alanna Mitchell on February 28, 2019

Women rehearse a play called Svayich Antsetik (Women’s Dream) in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico, in 2017. (Photo: Katherine Jaschewski)

It’s one of the most inflammatory political issues in North America: the fact that people from Central America are trying to make their way to the United States in search of a better life. Building a wall between that country and Mexico to keep migrants out was a rallying cry of American President Donald Trump before he got elected. Today, his insistence on it is even more impassioned.

That has led to a string of disturbing scenes at the border, including thousands of migrant children being held in government-run immigrant detention centres in the United States, separated from their parents.

But lost among all the tragedies unfolding on the nightly news is a hidden phenomenon. While most of the migrants are male, more and more are female, a trend known as the feminization of migration. And the vast majority of these women — 60 to 70 per cent — experience sexual violence on their journeys north, says Judith Erazo, coordinator of the migration program of Equipo de Estudios Comunitarios y Acción Psicosocial, or ECAP, a human rights research organization in Guatemala City, Guatemala’s capital.

The figures come from a groundbreaking $400,000 study financed by IDRC and conducted by ECAP and two other human rights organizations in Mexico, Centro de Derechos Humanos Fray Matías de Córdova A.C. and Voces Mesoamericanas, Acción con Pueblos Migrantes, Asociación Civil. Completed in the fall of 2018, it’s one of the few studies to examine mass migration from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras through the lens of the female experience.

Who is attacking the women, and in what ways? Where and at what point in their journeys are the attacks taking place? And how can the organizations help women understand their rights, cope with the aftermath of the violence and perhaps prevent it? The findings are shocking. Violence and the lack of human rights permeates nearly every phase of the women’s lives — from when they leave home, to the journey itself, to where they end up and even back in their villages if they’re forced to return. “Gender-based violence is a constant factor in their lives,” says Erazo. “There are no safe spaces.”

The assailants range from other migrants to the human traffickers known as “coyotes,” to police, immigration officers and even bankers who force sex for loans or better interest rates. Others are members of youth gangs who single out girls as young as 13 and force them into sexual relationships with threats. Some women left behind in Central America when their relatives migrate also face violence — not from gangs, traffickers or the authorities but from fellow villagers who are owed money by someone who was desperate to leave.

In some cases, the women consider their bodies akin to ATMs, forced to trade sexual access for safety, Erazo says. It’s sexual extortion. It’s knitted into the fabric of society, part of a machismo attitude toward women.

And that means the solutions are complex, Erazo says. They revolve around informing migrating, frightened, traumatized women and girls of their rights. How to do that? One innovative way is to use theatre, a tradition known as theatre of the oppressed, which originated in Brazil in the 1970s under the guidance of theatre director Augusto Boal. The approach has limitations for migrants, because women who are constantly on the move can’t take part. Nevertheless, 300 women and girls have so far been in theatrical productions in several parts of Mexico, says Markus Gottsbacher, the IDRC officer overseeing the study.

Because the plays are performed in parks for a wide audience and feature compelling narratives and beautiful set designs, they offer the chance to teach an entire community — including those who are illiterate — about a topic, Erazo says. What’s more, she adds, women who have been through sexual violence are finding some solace through writing their own plays for the stage. “The idea is that they recreate what they have been through and how it has affected them. The plays can have a therapeutic effect.”

Teachers: Download the workbook that accompanies this article
Highlight the amazing work that the International Development Research Centre is doing around the world to your students. Each booklet contains a copy of the blog post and several different activities to help students understand the critical role Canadian work is playing in developing nations.

Download the workbook

This is part of an ongoing series of stories on international development projects supported by Canada’s International Development Research Centre, presented in partnership with Canadian Geographic. The stories appear online once a month at

The International Development Research Centre has been a key part of Canada's aid program since 1970, and invests in knowledge, innovation and solutions to improve lives and livelihoods in the developing world. Learn more at