Colombia’s Wayuu Women Drive Change

LA GUAJIRA, COLOMBIA — The Wayuu for centuries have dominated life on La Guajira peninsula, the northernmost tip of South America.

They first resisted conquest by Spain, and since independence have freely crossed the Colombian-Venezuelan border that arbitrarily divides their ancestral homeland.

Members of the desert tribe don’t carry passports, nor do they recognize international borders.

The women, who dress proudly in ankle-length robes, are responsible for preserving the group’s traditions and ethnic lineage.

These leaders of the organisation Fuerza Mujeres Wayuu (Strength of Wayuu Women in Spanish) are meeting in Riohacha city for the first time in months.

Each one is scattered in a part of the of 15,300 km2 peninsula so they rarely meet.

Wayuu women make traditional handicrafts such as these bags, but activists say that women should also take a role in political life.

Fuerza Mujeres Wayuu empowers women to fight against critical issues affecting the Wayuu community, namely water scarcity, food shortage, children malnutrition, lack of proper health system and armed conflicts.

They want to make women at the forefront of the peace process in a country ripped apart by war.

Laura Gomez, Manager of Oxfam’s Equality and Territorial Development of Rural Women programme says rural, indigenous women have a role to play inColombia‘s economic development.

“Indigenous women in Colombia, especially those coming from rural areas, which is the case of almost all Wayuu women, face triple discrimination: discrimination for being a woman, rural and indigenous. This has created various hurdles that organisations have to overcome, namely their agenda’s poor visibility in public policy, women’s restriction to participate in public policy, as well as economic barriers such as access to land and resources. Such access is even more difficult for indigenous women because land property is managed collectively here.”

One key project is the itinerant school of the Communications School of the Wayuu People, affiliated with Fuerza Mujeres Wayuu.

Today, the class takes place in a remote rancheria at the outskirts of Maicao city in La Guajira.

At the beginning of the workshop, the teacher, Mile Polanco, discusses topics crucial to the Wayuu tribe, such as the role of indigenous women post-conflict societies.

With just a few green plastic chairs and a camera or recorder in hand, students learn to cover critical humanitarian issues.

Every month since 2014, radio, photography and video teachers organise a one-day workshop for young men and women in a different Wayuu community across La Guajira.

“The school really promotes female leaders because they learn to use the oral and written language to express themselves and help people to understand that our community’s rights need to be respected. We have to give people tools and provide knowledge so that they stop being ignorant and understand what are the steps to ask for rights,” says Mile.

In their local language Wayuunaiki, the word Wayuu means “people”.

The students put the Wayuus at the centre of their stories to prevent their culture from extinction.

For 18-year old student Nacarita Elena Silva Ipona, these communication tools give the Wayuus the means to assert their identity.

“We are using this Western tool of media to empower ourselves and liberate ourselves from them (Western influence) to put it this way. We know how to use a video camera, a microphone, a recorder and it is very important that young (Wayuus) get an understanding of this media. It is very important because who can tell our stories better than us, who live in our territory.”

Although the Wayuu tribe is matrilineal, it has been hard to assert female leadership as Wayuu leader Jakeline Romero Epiayu explains.

“At some point, we were told that we (women) were assuming men’s authority and role. No, this is not (Wayuu) women’s objective. We just want recognition and that our voice be recognized in the decision-making process. This is called political participation.”

These political demands come with a price.

The man hiding behind trees and following closely Romero Epiayu is her bodyguard.

The Colombian government assigned her a personal guard because she has received threats from armed groups.

Romero Epiayu questions impact of development of coal mining by multinational corporations in La Guajira has had on the Wayuu tribe.

“There needs to be an in-depth transformation of the country’s economic model. For me, as an indigenous woman, I cannot speak about peace when there are concessions (to multinationals) on my territory. In the territory where we are now, there are more than five concessions to the best of my knowledge. I don’t know about those that the government might have granted without consulting with us. We cannot speak about peace when we are in a situation of vulnerability when it comes to our right to this territory. Where would I prosper ? Where will my family prosper ? What about the development of the community ?”

On 18 August, hundreds of Wayuus marched in Riohacha to ask the government to respect their fundamental rights and tackle the humanitarian crisis.

The Wayuus have been caught in the bloody fight between guerrillas, the army, paramilitaries and the government’s forces.

Earlier this month the government and the FARC reached a historic deal bringing to an end 52 years of hostilities by Latin America’s largest insurgency.

The agreement must still be endorsed by Colombians, who will vote on the accord in a nationwide referendum Oct. 2.

A signing ceremony with the country’s main rebel group will take place Sept. 26 in the Caribbean city of Cartagena.

Kamilia Lahrichi was a 2016 Adelante Latin America Reporting Fellow with the International Women’s Media Foundation.

This video was produced exclusively for The Associated Press in August 2016. It was released on September 19, 2016. Click here to watch it. If the link does not work, search: Colombia Wayuu

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