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Días Eternos: Documenting the Imprisonment of Women in Latin America

Ms Ana María Arévalo Gosen

Ana María Arévalo Gosen is a Venezuelan visual storyteller based in Madrid. She studied Political Science in Toulouse, France, and discovered her passion for photography at ETPA. After relocating to Hamburg in 2014, she became a freelance visual storyteller. Arévalo Gosen, a National Geographic Explorer and Ayün Fotógrafas member focuses on women's rights, social justice, and environmental issues. Arévalo Gosen's work is supported by grants from The Pulitzer Center and Women Photograph.


As we stand on the cusp of International Women's Day, it's essential to reflect on the myriad challenges that women face across the globe, including those who are often left in the shadows of public discourse. In 2017, I embarked on a poignant journey back to Venezuela, my homeland, after spending many years abroad. I was met with a reality that was both startling and deeply disquieting. The country I had left behind was no more; in its place was a nation grappling with severe economic and social upheavals.

This eye-opening experience ignited my burning curiosity to unearth and document the roots of this devastating crisis. Amidst the chaos, a crucial question haunted me: How had Venezuela, once teeming with the promise of prosperity, descended into such harrowing depths of despair?

From this interrogative, "Días Eternos" was born—a visual journey that seeks to cast light on the oft-overlooked plight of incarcerated and pre-trial women in Latin America, beginning with the very heart of my homeland, Venezuela.

"Días Eternos" is more than just a chronicle of suffering; it is a testament to the resilience and indomitable spirit of women who endure the unthinkable. As we honour International Women's Day, let this project serve as a reminder of the silent battles fought every day and the pressing need to address the inequalities that persist in our societies.

Venezuela: The Spark of Días Eternos

The Venezuelan crisis has thrown into stark relief the grave circumstances facing women in detention. The harsh realities they confront daily are overcrowded cells, insufficient healthcare, and abysmal sanitation. The story of the first female detainee I met remains etched in my memory: a 27-year-old seven months pregnant. In the mixed-gender detention centre where she was held, the lack of segregation between male and female detainees led to her pregnancy. She was hospitalized due to the severe stress caused by remaining in a static position all day and the absence of clean toilet facilities. She described the "toilet" as nothing more than a communal hole in the cell. Such deplorable conditions resulted in infections and placental abruption, a life-threatening complication that endangers both mother and child.

My visits to detention centres have highlighted a disturbing pattern: extreme overcrowding, stifling ventilation, and a dire shortage of basic necessities. Women detainees often rely on outside help for emotional support and essentials like food, clothing, and medicine. The financial burden of sustaining such support ranges from $30 to $60 weekly—a figure that looms large against Venezuela's minimum wage of merely $8. These accounts are a sombre reminder of the critical human rights issues within these facilities, where the dignity and well-being of women are jeopardized by a system that fails to protect them.

Expanding the Narrative: El Salvador and Guatemala

In El Salvador, my encounters with the prison system have been eye-opening and profoundly distressing. The challenges faced by female prisoners are numerous and often deeply entwined with the country's strict laws and social issues.

The story of Elsi, who suffered a traumatic event in her 39th week of pregnancy, exemplifies the stringent abortion laws of El Salvador. Her harrowing experience, losing her baby and then being found unconscious only to awaken handcuffed and under police custody, is a stark illustration of the punitive measures against women regarding reproductive rights. Despite the natural causes that led to her tragic miscarriage, Elsi was treated as a criminal under laws that forbid abortion without any exceptions. It was only through the intervention of activists that she was released. Elsi's story underlines the necessity for thorough investigations and a greater understanding of women's reproductive health issues, advocating for women's autonomy over their own bodies.

My time in El Salvador also brought me into contact with Polaris, a woman who had been entangled with the Mara Salvatrucha gang since she was 13 years old. Her journey into gang life started as a search for escape from domestic violence and a traumatic assault. However, once part of the gang, she found herself perpetuating the cycle of violence she sought to escape, tasked with delivering drugs and weapons. This reflects the broader issue of "machismo" within gang culture and the wider Salvadoran patriarchy, where women, initially victims, are transformed into victimizers within the gang hierarchy.

These individual stories are set against a backdrop of a prison system overwhelmed by the "regime of exception," which has led to the highest incarceration rate in the world and the consolidation of women into subpar facilities. The conditions within these facilities are dire, with women facing overcrowding, inadequate healthcare, and a lack of basic amenities, further exacerbating their plight.

In Guatemala, I met Ana Muñoz, a professional accountant serving a staggering 226-year sentence for money laundering. Her case, too, is indicative of systemic issues within the criminal justice system. As a defender of the rights of the lesbian community in prison, she advocates for public recognition of same-sex partnerships, arguing for equality and the right to express love and intimacy without stigma.

The indigenous judicial system in Guatemala operates parallel to the state's legal framework. It's an entity where indigenous communities, led by figures like Mayor Misrahí Xoquic, conduct trials based on reconciliation and restorative justice. While not legally recognized by the constitution, these indigenous trials are respected under laws that reflect the plurinational nature of the state, honouring the rights of indigenous peoples as per the 1996 Peace Agreements. This system, based on consensus and repairing harm, offers an alternative perspective on justice and the resolution of disputes, one that is deeply rooted in the cultural practices of the indigenous communities.

These experiences in El Salvador and Guatemala are a testament to the specific and complex challenges that incarcerated women face, challenges that are compounded by strict legal systems, social injustices, and a lack of adequate support and facilities. The need for reform and a more compassionate approach to the treatment of female prisoners is clear and urgent.

The Ripple Effect of Female Incarceration

Across Venezuela, El Salvador, and Guatemala, the common thread is the profound impact of maternal separation due to incarceration. Detention centres and prisons, ill-equipped to accommodate mothers and their children, often sever these vital bonds, leaving deep psychological scars. This detachment affects the women and extends to their families and communities, disrupting the fabric of society.

A Journey of Documentation and Hope

Días Eternos endeavours to document the resilience and solidarity among incarcerated women, who share everything from mattresses to meals, forging friendships and alliances in the face of adversity. This project's expansion into other Latin American countries seeks to record more stories and deepen the understanding of systemic issues leading to women's incarceration and its societal implications.

By capturing and sharing these stories, Días Eternos highlights the urgent need for reform and the recognition of the humanity and dignity of those behind bars. As the project evolves, it is my hope that these visual narratives will spur reflection, dialogue, and action towards rectifying the injustices faced by incarcerated women across Latin America, demonstrating the potent role of visual storytelling in addressing the intricate dynamics of gender, justice, and human rights in the region.

In conclusion, the tapestry woven by the tales of women in Venezuelan, Salvadoran, and Guatemalan prisons is one of systemic failure and human resilience. The photographic narrative of "Días Eternos" sheds light on these women's shadowed experiences, providing a visceral reminder of the urgent reforms needed within Latin American criminal justice systems. These stories of maternal separation, the fight for reproductive rights, and the struggle for dignity within the gang culture and beyond tell us that the conditions of incarceration for women are not just isolated issues but are reflective of broader societal patterns that require our immediate attention.

In the spirit of International Women's Day, "Días Eternos" serves as a clarion call to acknowledge and act on the gender-specific challenges within the penal system. It's a day to commit to the kind of systemic change that recognizes the dignity and worth of every woman and to remember those who remain unseen. As we honour this day, let us also renew our commitment to those women whose stories are etched in the walls of their cells, and whose freedoms are yet to be won. May the continued efforts of documentation and advocacy inspired by "Días Eternos" lead to tangible changes that uphold the rights and humanity of all women.

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