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COLOMBIA: Black Communities Organise in Country’s Poorest Region

Constanza Vieira and Diana Cariboni

QUIBDÓ, Colombia, Jan 9 2008 (IPS) - During the “high season” of popular festivals in Colombia’s Chocó region, “pregnant girls as young as 13 start flowing in,” says a nursing assistant in the obstetrics department at the hospital of the provincial capital, Quibdó.

Transporting building materials by "panga". Credit: Jesús Abad Colorado

Transporting building materials by "panga". Credit: Jesús Abad Colorado

The fiesta of San Pancho — as Saint Francis of Assisi, the city’s patron saint, is known — is a two-week festival that begins on Sept. 20, with traditional music, abundant drinking, dancing and street processions of comparsas or conga bands through the neighbourhoods.

Not long afterwards, “we have around 50 cases of abortion complications a week,” the nursing assistant told IPS, saying she had even seen 10-year-old girls with complications from back-street abortions. (As in most of Latin America, abortion is illegal in Colombia except in cases in which the mother’s life is in danger, the foetus is badly deformed or the pregnancy was a result of rape.)

In Colombia’s Pacific coast region, where Chocó is located, the proportion of young women who got pregnant between the ages of 15 and 19 grew from 17.5 percent in 1990 to 23 percent in 2000, according to official figures.

In the rundown public hospital in Quibdó, which carries the name of the town’s patron saint, there are only 26 beds, and many women have to lie “on benches or on the floor.” In addition, “there are hardly any materials,” said the nursing assistant.

The maternal mortality rate in the Chocó region is the country’s highest: 409 per 100,000 live births in 2001 — more than four times the national average.

The region also has some of the worst national indicators in terms of poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, maternal and child health, and gender equality — nearly all of the areas covered by the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), adopted by the international community in 2000.

Years ago, in 1990, the Journal of Tropical Pediatrics published “Women and Health in Chocó, Colombia”, a study carried out between 1979 and 1988.

It reported that the average size of a family in the province, one of Colombia’s poorest, where 90 percent of inhabitants are black and most of the rest are indigenous, was 7.5 children per woman, and that women over 45 had had an average of nine pregnancies.

At that time, 22 percent of households were headed by women on their own, and since women had less access to land in this rural region, the female-headed households “faced increased economic risks.”

Child mortality was significantly higher in families in which the mother was illiterate, and morbidity levels were often higher among women, with 43 percent of women suffering from vaginal discharge. The rate of cervical cancer was also very high.

Illiteracy rose from 19.9 percent in 1999 to 21.7 percent in 2003, while the national average went down in that same period, to 7.6 percent in 2003.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the black communities along the Atrato river, which crosses Chocó from south to north, organised themselves to gain control over their communal territories, with the support of the Catholic Church.

After a lengthy constitutional and legal battle, 120 communities belonging to the Asociación Campesina Integral del Atrato (ACIA) rural association secured legal collective property rights in 1997 to 800,000 hectares of their traditional land.

How have things gone for women since that victory?


It is noon in Puerto Conto, a village on the Atrato river, some 200 km from Quibdó. In the parish church community room, representatives of ACIA communities discuss how to make sustainable use of the wealth offered by the surrounding jungle.

Only a handful of the 30 or so people taking part in the meeting are women.

“You don’t see women here, but they are over there in the kitchen, in charge of making the food, so in one way or another they are participating,” says Ana Rosa Heredia, a member of the ACIA High Community Council’s gender team.

So why can’t they come and listen to what is being debated? “Because they don’t have time. They have to make breakfast and lunch,” says Heredia, ticking off their responsibilities on her fingers.

Because of problems with the men? “Nooo,” Heredia and fellow gender team member María del Socorro Mosquera say in unison, breaking out in laughter.

The men used to tell them to go to the kitchen and cook, and to take care of the children. But today, “in the fields, we work from sunup to sundown, just like they do.”

Of course, “it’s clear that the women are paid less,” says Heredia.

She also admits that “there are problems at home. In the afternoon we’re taking care of the kids and cooking, and the men are always resting. And when the harvest money comes in, there are men who don’t tell the women what they spent it on, which leads to fights.”

“But we’re waking up now. We see there has to be equality at home, because a couple consists of two people: a man and a woman,” she adds.

The inequality can reach the extent, says Mosquera, that when the man of the house is not around, tragic events happen, like one sick woman who died because she did not have her husband’s permission to go to the hospital.

“So it can’t be just the man who gives the orders. But what can we do to get equality of rights? It has to be through dialogue. We have no other power,” she says.

ACIA’s nine-member gender equality team set up a school to teach men and women about “gender equality, human rights, peaceful coexistence and organisational skills,” says Heredia.

Every community has its own internal rules. But all of them provide for sanctions for men who mistreat women, and for women who swear and say rude things in public.

Long before the international community adopted the MDGs in 2000 to combat poverty and inequality, ACIA was taking steps in that direction.

The community councils outlined the top priorities and needs of their specific villages, as part of ACIA’s “ethnic development” or empowerment plan.

“We drew up a list of problems, and saw that they were the same. The villages that have a teacher don’t have a school, the ones that have a school have no teacher, there is no health post or nurse, and there are no medicines,” says Julia Mena, spokeswoman for ACIA’s High Community Council.

Chocó’s abundant natural resources and its strategic location, with shores along both the Pacific ocean and the Caribbean sea and a border with Panama, have turned this jungle paradise over the past decade into one of the bloodiest fronts in Colombia’s nearly five-decade civil war.

“In many communities, the houses have been damaged or destroyed by the violence and forced displacement,” says MENA.

That is why the list of needs includes a plan for building and repairing housing.

“The three of us are the heads of our households. The forced displacement has put many of us in that condition,” says Mosquera.

Between 1999 and 2006, nearly 70,000 people in Chocó were forcibly displaced, of a total 440,000 inhabitants, according to the non-governmental Consultancy on Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES).

Because the violence “targets men more than women, it’s important for women to receive training, because you’re left alone with five or seven kids and you don’t know how to survive all by yourself,” says Mosquera.

That was the desperate situation of one local woman who approached these IPS reporters in a Western Union agency in Quibdó, while she waited for a few pesos sent by a distant relative. Her husband had been killed by the far-right paramilitaries in a rural area near the provincial capital.

She said she was not even considering returning to their home. She had placed her five children in different homes, and was making a living cleaning houses. She asked us for money and cast-off clothing, and even for our telephone numbers, so she could call in case of emergency.

What would have happened if the communities had not organised themselves in ACIA? “We would no longer exist, because they would have taken away everything we had. We organised in defence of our resources, because they were violating our rights. There were people who did understand that their children would be left without a thing,” responds Heredia.

The leaders of ACIA obtained support for rural microenterprises like “trapiches” or small scale sugar mills that produce hand-made brown sugar in loaves, rice threshing machines, or small food businesses.

“And we did it. You would go to a meeting, and 60 percent of the people there were women. And it was the women who did the speaking, and the men were fenced in. One of them came in a big boat from Quibdó to pick up the women. ‘Get ready, we’re coming to get you!’ And you could see that all of the women couldn’t even fit in the boats,” she recalls.

But the “ethnodevelopment” or empowerment of impoverished black communities is running against powerful currents, funds are scarce, and all transportation is by river. Although it is expensive, it is the only way to get around in this roadless region.

Many microenterprises, including the trapiches, have been brought to a standstill. To keep a restaurant in Quibdó open, “we took out a loan of three million pesos (1,500 dollars),” says Mosquera.

So “because of a lack of resources, the equality ‘unequalised’ us,” she concludes.

This article is part of a series about the Millennium Development Goals in Chocó. The project that gave rise to this effort was the winner of the AVINA Investigative Journalism scholarship. The AVINA Foundation is not responsible for the ideas, opinions or other aspects of the content.
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