The mass killing of women activists in Latin America: making political violence visible

In 2017, Latin America was described by the UN as the world’s most violent continent for women. The assassinations of women activists and community leaders have continued across the region in 2018. While the killing of Marielle Franco, a favela community leader, and the unraveling of government-private enterprise collusion in the 2016 killing of Berta Cáceres, an environmental activist in Honduras, have been portrayed as political murders by international media, there is substantial academic work to do with respect to theorizing the gendered aspects of these types of killings.

Photo: Laëtitia Buscaylet via Flickr

In their influential edited volume Violent Democracies in Latin America (2010) Arias and Goldstein argue that the ‘evolutionist’ democracy theory’s understanding of disorder as a failure of institutions fails to grasp Latin American politics in the context of proliferating violence. They offer the concept ‘violent pluralism’ as a prism for interrogating and understanding the co-existence of structural and personal, political and social violence and democracy in contemporary Latin America. Violent pluralism is defined as ‘states, social elites, and subalterns employing violence in the quest to establish or contest regimes of citizenship, justice, rights, and a democratic social order’. However, as a theory on violent democracies, the theory of violent pluralism is silent on the gendered realities of this violence as it plays out in Latin America. Considering the success of this concept, it is important that the concept has the capacity to help make visible how much of the political violence in the region takes the shape of violence against women involved in grassroots mobilization.

In the deeply unequal Colombian context, physical and symbolic violence work together as a deterrent to women’s activism.

In this blog post, building on collaborative research with internally displaced (IDP) women’s organizations in Colombia between 2010–2014 but also reflecting wider developments in the region, I unpack this concept as a three-pronged relationship between political organizing and gendered violence. I suggest the need to conceptualize how gendered violence works as an obstacle to organizing; how political organizing is a response to gendered violence; and finally, how political organizing is a cause of further gender-based violence.

As a consequence of massive internal displacement from the late 1990s, and supported by the Colombian Constitutional Court’s progressive decisions, the Colombian feminist and peace movement (broadly conceived) and a significant international humanitarian response, a large number of IDP women’s organizations emerged from around 2004. Over the course of a 4-year research project, a joint Los Andes-PRIO research team led by myself and Julieta Lemaitre (S.J.D HLS 2007) examined how mobilization helped these organizations gain access to their constitutionally mandated rights as citizens of Colombia – first as IDP organizations, and later within the transitional justice frame. Very quickly, however, the project became focused on how these organizations navigated a highly precarious security context.

Gendered violence as an obstacle to organizing

Drawing on the findings of this project, I suggest that gendered violence can be an obstacle to organizing in a social field consisting of non-violent women’s organizations that overwhelmingly deploy peaceful tactics and strategies. By emphasising violent civil society actors, the violent pluralism framework risks erasing not only the efforts of non-violent actors, but also their vulnerability and the impact of violence. Gendered violence can deter or end mobilization because women are not able to take advantage of political opportunities or harness necessary resources. Fear of violence or actual violence can undermine the collective action frame.

In the deeply unequal Colombian context, physical and symbolic violence work together as a deterrent to women’s activism. Physical violence and state repression can undermine and destroy ongoing activism, for example, by very literal ‘leadership-decapitation’. The rising lethal violence against activists across Colombian civil society combine with a political economy of symbolic violence arising from the way messages, icons, or signs transmit messages of domination of or aggression against women. The impact of these threats depends on their nature, context and whether they are addressed to individuals or collective entities.

Political organizing as a response to gendered violence

Second, I call for a conceptualization of political organizing as a response to gendered violence. The many forms of political organizing undertaken by IDP women should be scrutinized in order to better understand how collective feminist political subjectivities are construed through gendered violence as a mobilizing factor. Such scrutiny can shed light on this form of violence-mediated political consciousness as a contribution to democracy.

Here, I want to highlight the role of consciousness raising and credible documentation of threats. For grassroots organizations, a key element is the harnessing of a feminist consciousness among rank and file members. Many of the organizations we mapped came into being because IDP organizations commonly excluded women from leadership roles and were rife with discrimination and sexual harassment, providing an initial barrier to IDP women’s political activism. When activists harness and visibilize insecurity, threats and violence through multiple forms of documentation and registration, they do so in order to gain local, national and international credibility, but also as a mode of co-constituting a shared consciousness about the cause for and nature of their activism, and its place in the broader struggle for social justice.

Political organizing as a cause of further gender-based violence

Third, I argue that political organizing is a cause of further gender-based violence, but the connection between organizing and violence remains contested: political violence is often reframed as private and/or interpersonal. Being outspoken or even being organized can create risk. An important observation is that violence persists despite assuming a low profile or the activist’s own systematic efforts to obtain government protection – and suspicion of the government’s motives or the adequacy of protection mechanisms remains rife. Moreover, acts of violence against women grassroots activists also seem to set in motion specific sets of contestations between civil society and the state over the recognition of gendered violence as political – the recognition that the violence comes in response to the organizing, and that the violence itself is a deliberate, political act – and not as an act of ‘private’, domestic violence or as a result of criminal activities, typically drug or gang related.

There can and should be many theories on the gender of violent pluralism. My specific ambition in this blog post has been to point to an analytical path whereby the systematic violence against women activists in Latin America can be incorporated into discussions about violent pluralism. Opening up this analytical pathway will also contribute to making violent pluralism a more sophisticated theoretical concept.

This post originally appeared on the Latin America Policy Journal blog.

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