Firm words of compassion define Amy Lira’s activism for survivors of sexual violence. “We believe you. It’s not your fault. You are not alone.”
Those three phrases address hard hurdles that survivors frequently face. They may be doubted, blamed, and dismissed, not only by police and other authorities, but sometimes by friends and family.
Amy is an actor, a teacher and director of advocacy for survivors of domestic and sexual violence at La Casa Mandarina in Mexico City, a non-profit organization that connects women with legal, medical, and psychological support services.
Amy is a survivor herself. That experience led her to La Casa Mandarina which “opened a whole world to me.” Here were women helping survivors navigate legal processes, showing that victims do not have to stay with abusers and creating safe spaces where they and their children could heal.
A teacher raped Amy a decade ago when she was a student, age 18. She struggled through three years reliving the trauma over and over — “being revictimized” by authorities as she pressed for justice before giving up. She decided to move on, channelling her anger and understanding into helping others.
“There is a moment where, if the process doesn’t help, you have to let it go for your mental health, for all your health,” she said in an interview.
Amy has provided comfort and oversight for others going through arduous and lengthy legal processes, accompanying women to police offices to make sure their testimony is accurately recorded, and their case is filed properly. “I’m very proud of this,” she says.
She teaches acting to children. She works in feminist collectives on theatre scripts and productions with messages aimed at preventing violence or providing sex education, sometimes in a comic style. She helps traumatized women heal through dance and theatre — a process known as “ARTivism.”
How does ‘ARTivism’ work?
Sometimes survivors can’t tell their stories with their voices, you know. So, we teach them to do it with their bodies, by dance or by acting, and then they can talk about what happened. Theatrical tools can transform survivors. They find a joyful process, and they can start having fun with other girls, other women.
It’s like you can find a free space in your mind, in your body, in your emotions. A lot of abusers what they do is they take away your voice or take away your safety or the way you look at yourself. Then with the dance and the theatre you can restart, reconnect with yourself, not with your abuser’s story, but with your body, with your movement, with what you are in the purest way.
Do you have a success story that motivates you?
I feel a lot of success when people tell me ‘I feel better now.” I have the joy of having different women tell me ‘I found a new voice.’ in this process. I believe every person has a different way to approach her healing process. Your voice is very important. It’s about who you are and who you want to be.
The most encouraging part of your work?
When women realize they don’t have to stay with the abuser. When they realize they can do what they want and don’t have to defend themselves to another person. This is when I feel very, very encouraged.
The biggest challenges in your work?
We are constantly fighting the public system here in Mexico. I often say it’s not just the fight of the survivors against the traumatic experience, it’s also the fight by the survivors against the system — to make your complaint, to validate your voice and experience.
The other challenge is public policy. It’s a public health problem. We have the pandemic of COVID but we are also living a lot of years with the sexual violence pandemic. So, we need new public policies to deal with this problem.
What’s the best advice you’ve every received?
In our capitalist society you feel you need to be productive all the time. Sometimes I feel very obsessed with the question of what more can we do. Our director says it’s very important to say ‘no’ if it’s compromising your mental or spiritual health.
It’s important to know what we can do and what we can’t manage to do, what we need to pass to other women.
What advice do you have for other young activists?
It’s very, very important to believe in yourself. It’s important to listen to yourself. If we don’t listen, we can get lost on the path of activism. It’s very, very important to know and to prioritize our mental health all the time. I remind myself all the time.
Connections with other women’s groups.
We are a small NGO but we have expansive connections with other NGOs. We feel like it works. There’s a lot of solidarity here with other activist groups. We need relationships with international groups, and we can do a lot more.
What would you like to emphasize about yourself and your activism?
I always love to emphasize to believe in survivors. I feel it’s basic. For me it’s always important to state I believe in her, it’s not her fault and she’s not alone. This is for me really important to emphasize. We are not alone. We are a lot of people who are working on this, who lived very bad experiences and it’s not our fault. And it’s important to know that we are really not alone.
Amy Lira and Nicole Musimbi are featured guests in the podcast series When Feminists Rule the Word – Season Three: Let’s Talk About Power.
Solidarity and sisterhood shimmer through episode four as Amy Lira and Nicole Musimbi talk about the “feminist superpowers” they learned in the 2021 Sister to Sister Mentorship program.
The program, hosted by the Nobel Women’s Initiative and the Coady International Institute, welcomed 15 exceptional young feminist activists and leaders from 12 countries for nine weeks of online interactive mentorship and networking.
The new relationships make them feel valued and loved. Meeting other women doing the same work and overcoming similar challenges infuses them with hope and courage. “I have my sister in Congo,” says Amy. “I have my sister in Egypt. I know that they are with me now and I am not alone.”
They returned to their work with bolstered confidence, Amy to helping survivors of sexual and domestic violence in Mexico and Nicole to peacebuilding in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “We’re unstoppable now,” says Nicole.
Between November 25 and December 10th Nobel Women’s Initiative will be showcasing the work of young feminist leaders and women human rights defenders from around the world during the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, sharing the torch of their experiences, insight, and advice. To read the profiles of the other activists featured in this year’s campaign click here.
La Casa Mandarina works through donations to advocate for women and child survivors of sexual violence. Donate here: https://www.lacasamandarina.org/donate