El estado opresor es un macho violador
(Un violador en tu camino – Las Tesis)”
This article aims to take stock of the general situation in which women live in South America. The countries that make up this region are enormously different from each other in terms of culture, specific traditions, linguistic inflections (or language) and political situation. In spite of this, however, we can find some common elements, a sort of fil rouge that binds together large and small, emerging and struggling countries, where Castilian or an indigenous version of the Portuguese language is spoken as the official language: one of these is the commitment with which South American women fight to have their rights recognized. It is a struggle that involves economic and political as well as cultural interests, and is therefore representative of the social complexity that characterizes the American subcontinent. Las mujeres take the streets, demonstrate, create ties and associate, knowing that they are fighting not only for themselves, but also for a more just world for all.
The scourge of violence against women is widespread throughout the territory examined here: for example, according to UN WOMEN's 2020 statistics, women between 15 and 49 years of age who have suffered violence from their partner in the last year in the South American and Caribbean region account for 11.8% of the total. The percentage is already very high in itself (to all these victims must be added those who suffer violence at the hands of someone outside the family circle), however, reading the footnotes you can see that these data correspond to an estimate made over sixteen countries and with a population coverage of just fifty percent. This means that many cases (even of minors) escape the official statistics.
In addition to the violence exerted on the female body and deeply spread, another problem that las mujeres encounter in a society such as South America is racism: it is no coincidence that it is precisely the female components of the indigenous communities that are more often victims, both by white people or people of mixed race and by the indígenas themselves. Sometimes, it is not even a question of being the object of verbal or physical violence, but of something more subtle: for example, it is significant that a famous Peruvian television comedian, La paisana Jacinta, is a clearly Andean woman (whatever her creator and interpreter may say) who experiences misadventures in the city because of her lack of understanding of Castilian and her general ignorance. Despite the fact that numerous organizations and government representatives have repeatedly accused the program of racism, the character continues to be shown the television screens of a country where discrimination is still the order of the day.
Las mujeres son más indias is a representative expression of the phenomenon as well as the title of an important study by Marisol de la Cadena which, despite reporting the field work carried out on a specific Andean pueblo, highlights results that could very well refer to different areas of the region. In a downward cultural game, in a society where often having indigenous somatic traits is a problem in terms of access to structures and the world of work, being a woman with traits other than "white" often means being considered to be at the bottom of the hierarchy. This means not only having little or no chance of social ascent, but also risking being a victim of unjustified and heinous violence.
To consider as isolated cases the rapes and violence systematically carried out against indígenas women during periods of guerrilla warfare between government forces and revolutionary movements in Peru and Guatemala in the last decades of the last century would make us guilty of naivety: despite the incredible brutality of the facts reported in the documents drawn up at the end of the wars, reports of violence against women belonging to indigenous communities continue to follow one another throughout the region. The last fact in order of time reports of a girl victim of a gang rape by the military forces in Colombia, on June 23, 2020: despite the signing of the peace agreement between the government and the FARC in 2016, the brutality against the indigenous peoples in the country is not decreasing.
It would be wrong, however, to speak of women only as "victims" of an unfavourable situation, mistreatment or an uncontrollable and hostile fate: the South American mujeres can boast a long history of fighting for their rights and those who are close to them. From active participation in the liberation movements from the ferocious military dictatorships that bloodied many countries in the region in the last century, to marches against the phenomenon of enforced disappearances and for the return of the children of the desaparecidos to legitimate families (the organization of Las Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo in Argentina is only the most famous example), to the commitment to protect the rights of human beings, cultures and territory, women from different nations have always shown the power to walk together and unite their voices. This is still the case today, think of the marches of women's representatives of indigenous societies in Brazil, who fight in defence of their communities and their land, or the Ni Una Menos demonstrations that take place in different cities in the region to keep up the attention on the rights that are missing (abortion for example) and on the violence women are often victims of.
Given this organisational capacity, it is not surprising that the proportion of women in key government roles has been increasing in recent years. Still based on the statistical work carried out by UN WOMEN, we are however aware of a strong heterogeneity among the countries of the region: in fact, we go from 55.6% of women in political power positions in Nicaragua to 9.1% in Brazil (both data are from 2019).
Unfortunately, participation in public affairs at the local level is often not easy in areas where political and economic interests are so deeply intertwined: it is not uncommon for human rights or environmental activists to pay for their commitment with their lives. Reports of people killed for their social work have been following one another for years across the subcontinent (to name but a few recent examples: Carlota Isabel Salinas in Colombia, Marielle Franco in Brazil, Isabel Cabanillas de la Torre in Mexico), and the number of deaths is not decreasing. According to an IACHR report on the risks faced by human rights defenders in Colombia, socially engaged women or leaders of indigenous communities are often affected with a different violence than male activists: while the latter are usually subject to enforced disappearance, women are more often victims of rape, torture and sexual threats; moreover, other members of their family are more likely to be affected. This is because, according to IACHR research, the objective of those who exercise violence against a woman who is committed to defending her rights is not only to punish her, but also to give a warning to the whole community.
It seems significant that the violence can be carried out not only by common criminals, but also by more organized criminal groups (think of narcos), politicized revolutionary groups (Sendero Luminoso, FARC...), mercenaries in the pay of big economic interests (for mining, gold diggers, exploitation of the forest and land...) or soldiers of the regular army; and very often the link between the criminal world and institutions is so close that the representatives of the law can hardly be distinguished from those who commit criminal acts. This phenomenon, which obviously leads to a heavy lack of trust in the state apparatus on the part of civil society, is the result of both racism and the greater weight of economic interests over human lives.
Although, therefore, in the Western narrative South and Central America is often presented as a territory where a culture of brutal and unjustified violence is widespread and where corruption and contempt for human rights represent a common language, it is always useful to remember that the present situation is the result of past events. The history of the region has been characterized for centuries by wars of conquest, ethnic cleansing, racism, exploitation and torture workshops for political wars in other countries. It is therefore not surprising that South Americans still face a present of violence that has little to do with culture, more to do with history, economy and politics.
Translated by Francesca Cioffi
Original version by Simona Sora
The sources used to edit this article can be freely consulted:
- L. Comini (a cura di), Guatemala Nunca más, ed. La Piccola, 1998