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Strength, Struggles, and Support: An Insight Into Mothers' Stories Across Panama

08 Mar 2023
By Crystal Madrid
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The needs of migrant mothers and foster mothers and the work of volunteer mothers who make up the Red Cross and Red Crescent often go obscured. A new photo exhibition shines a light on their stories and, in the process, promotes empathy and humanity.

The idea for a photo exhibition focusing on madres – mothers – was born on a post-it mid-2022. For months I pondered the best way to showcase the strength of women in Panama who are deprived of their liberty, or migrants who are raising children, running businesses, supporting families and communities, and striving to build better lives for those around them.

How could the team and I highlight these women but show all of them ― mothers who are more than just mothers We wanted to show how they are also survivors, supporters, and sisters united in their challenges. We also wanted to include mothers who may not fit the usual mould, but who are showing up every day for those who rely on them.

In Panama, where I live, Mother’s Day is celebrated on 8 December. With my team at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), we wanted to do something to illuminate the distinctive challenges faced by mothers deprived of their liberty, migrant mothers along the migratory route, those providing support in communities that receive migrants, and the contribution of mothers in the Red Cross Movement.

This is how we landed on the exhibition – a rich tapestry of experience with 40 portraits, each with a QR code linking to the extended story of the protagonists, both in Spanish and English. Working with each mother was an extraordinary experience. Hearing firsthand each of their experiences, challenges, dreams, and desires was unimaginably eye-opening. After months of listening to them, being present for them, creating a safe space for them to talk, cry, unburden themselves, one thing was clear: the stories of these women extend far beyond what was captured on camera.

To collect these stories, I travelled to the provinces of Darien, Panama, and Chiriqui and met with migrant mothers in the Migrant Reception Stations (ERM). I also visited the community of Canaan Membrillo in the Embera-Wounaan Comarca, and I visited mothers deprived of liberty in the Women’s Rehabilitation Center (prison). I spoke with mothers from the host community along the migration route in the Embera-Wounaan Comarca.

The challenges faced by the mothers I met were unique and varied. Some mothers lost contact with their loved ones. Some had gone through life and death situations along the routes. Some had to leave their children behind when migrating and have not seen them for years due to the distance or because they are detained. Some regularly have to leave young family members at home in order to help those who migrate, like the mothers who provide support in the host communities and Red Cross volunteer mothers.

In Panama, as in other countries, the ICRC works to ensure that people with the highest risk and vulnerability factors are protected and assisted, and that their fundamental rights and dignity are respected. This includes women migrants and persons deprived of their liberty who can face gendered challenges and dangers on top of the usual risks.

Migrants need opportunities for a sustainable livelihood and access to social protection and benefits. It is important that consistent laws and policies for fair opportunities to access a dignified livelihood and social freedom exist. ICRC seeks to ensure that states fulfil their obligations to protect the lives, preserve the dignity, and alleviate the suffering of migrants through confidential dialogue with authorities.

This work aims to ensure that migrants detained in both criminal and dedicated immigration detention facilities are afforded due process of law and are held in conditions that preserve their dignity. Detainees are entitled to rights such as humane treatment and access to healthcare regardless of socio-economic or political status or their legal situation. This doesn’t mean, however, that they don’t struggle with being separated from loved ones.

Ketzarine is a mother deprived of her liberty who I interviewed for the exhibition. She expressed, “The main challenge I face is the absence because, it seems unbelievable, but it leaves a space that is difficult to fill, even more so when all my children have always lived with me. I have been here for a year, and I know that I will never stop missing them, just as they miss me…. I always say that the absence of a mother is not covered by just anyone.”

Many who migrate alone lose contact with their families. The ICRC runs a program to restore contact between family members. The Restoring Family Links program, available in many countries, works to restore and maintain contact between family whenever possible. Alongside National Societies around the world, the ICRC’s Central Tracing Agency endeavours to establish the fates and whereabouts of people reported missing.

“I faced many challenges from the beginning. The first one was leaving my children to migrate and take this road that you don’t know what awaits you. It is worse than what they say,” said Jessica, a Venezuelan migrant and mother.

Women in host communities also face challenges. It can be difficult to give support, as existing resources may already be scarce. For mothers like Yotilda though, helping is important. “I have 4 children; I cook and when migrants come without money, I give them food without charging them. I also give them water and clothes for the children, many of whom arrive crying with their mothers.”

Working on this initiative and meeting women like Ketzarine, Jessica, and Yotilda had an impact on me and everyone who participated and supported or visited the exhibition. I hope the greatest impact, however, was for these women who realised how incredible they are.

My work collecting and consolidating stories, editing, translating, subtitling, transcribing, dubbing, and putting together the interactive exhibition really went beyond all that. My job was to get to know and connect with each of them.

A story that stuck with me in particular was from Yesenia, who is a person deprived of her liberty. She told me that she used to be a mother of four children. However, now she only has three. Three months before I interviewed her, her only daughter died. Yesenia had not been able to see her since being inside the penitentiary system.

Truly, the most challenging and rewarding work was to listen to each mother, to give them the space to tell their story. To allow them to sit and reflect that, despite all the adversities and difficulties, they are first and foremost individuals with important experiences. The team and I discovered many of them had stories they wanted to set free long ago. Until now, no one had ever wanted to hear them.

Crystal Madrid is a Communication Officer at the International Committee of the Red Cross based in Panama.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Regional Delegation for Panama and the Caribbean worked together with the Panamanian Red Cross (PRC), the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) for the Americas and the Caribbean, the City of Knowledge Foundation (CdS), and the Panama Ministry of Government on the photographic exhibition “MADRES.” All organisations extend their invitation to all those who wish to read, listen and visualise the stories of mothers from different positions.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.