Organization, Resistance, and Healing: This is how indigenous women experience the pandemic in Abya Yala

Por: Jovanna García,Quimy de León,Celeste Mayorga,Andrea Rodríguez
País: Guatemala
24 septiembre 2020

Ilustración: Naandeye

Por:  Andrea Rodríguez, Jovanna García, Quimy de León, Celeste Mayorga y Lucie  Costamagna

“I’ll get back to you in a bit, I just finished accompanying a woman with COVID-19,” that was how we began our conversation with Lorena Cabnal, a Maya-Xinka woman and member of TZK’AT, the Red de Sanadoras Ancestrales del Feminismo Comunitario (Network of Feminist Ancestral Community Healers) in Guatemala. In order to understand how indigenous women are dealing with and experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic in Abya Yala (indigenous name for South America), we spoke with some women activists and leaders who lead and participate in organizational processes: in Guatemala we spoke with Xinka, Mayan Q´anjob´a, Kaqchikel, and K´iche’ women; in Colombia with women from the Nasa and Arhuaco communities; and in Chile with Mapuche and Champurria women.

These women continue their political activities although, not with the same frequency and adapting their work permanently to the new context. A kind of work has doubled for women, this is taking care of their homes, territories, and bodies. In the face of state abandonment, the women have tightened the weave of their social fabric –based on solidarity and their networks of ancestral resistance– to face the pandemic: “I believe that now, more than ever, as women we must support each other, not abandon each other, but unite even more. Not only meeting in family spaces, but joining the struggles in different countries against an oppressive state. More than anything it is a call to connect with ourselves, our essence and being, because our hands heal, as do our minds,” explains Ana Maria Top, Maya Kaqchikel, member of the Asociación Grupo Integral de Mujeres Sanjuaneras– AGIMS (Association Holistic Group of Women from Sanjuaneras).

State vacuum and historic exclusion

In two of the three countries, Chile and Guatemala, the historic memory tied to the dictatorships is still present. The patterns of violence continue; the legacy is militarization, dispossession, sexual violence, and the repression of indigenous communities. Last year, there was an event in Chile that shaped the continent: mass protests demanding structural changes, which were violently repressed. Torture, sexual violence, murders, and injuries to protesters eyes, were seen along with other humiliating acts. The carabineros (Chilean police) were responsible for a large part of the crimes.

Conflicts provoked by the extractive model have a huge ecological impact and also a major impact on community life. After centuries of dispossession, the indigenous peoples are defending what little they have left. Colombia is one of the countries with the most territorial disputes, due to megaprojects and drug trafficking; in Guatemala the Maya Q´anjob´a people face one of the largest conflicts on the planet, with a Spanish hydroelectric company; and Chile currently has 117 social-environmental conflicts according to the country’s Instituto Nacional de Derechos Humanos (National Human Rights Institute).

In Chile, the scenario of repression hasn’t changed with the pandemic. Onesima Lienqueo, a psycho-pedagogue and traditional Mapuche educator tells how “about 100 women of our people who work in their territories, growing fruits and vegetable, were brutally criminalized because they sold their own local products. The police removed them from the site and took away their goods, the violence against these women included brutal detentions, torture, humiliation, and some were even bitten during detention.”

In Guatemala, the government decreed a state of calamity in response to the pandemic. This meant limiting the guarantees and rights for all the people. In two large indigenous territories, a state of siege was imposed under the pretext of confronting armed groups and drug trafficking, affecting community movements that defend their territory, in particular Mayan women. One of these territories is the department of Sololá, where the Asociación de Desarrollo de la Mujer K´aK´a Na´oj – ADEMKAN (Association for the Development of the K´aK´a Na´oj Women) is located. The Association is leaded by Silvia Menchú, who told us a bit about the women’s experiences in their community.

In this same territory, the communities rejected government issued decrees by blocking highways, since the measures to slow down the pandemic, spread benefits to large companies  –that never stopped production– and limited the movement of farmers who sell their products in the cities. The Kiche’ people of Totonicapán and Chimaltenango joined the action, and in the end the government reversed the decree.

Throughout the Abya Yala territory, indigenous peoples face the pandemic under the weight of the state’s historic abandonment, and the consequent lack of basic needs and rights. Ana Maria Top, a Maya Kaqchikel leaders states: “I don’t believe we have ever had access to healthcare, and even less so for indigenous peoples.”

Not one of these three countries have policies, information, or official actions to support the indigenous peoples facing the pandemic; the existing responses and strategies were created by the people themselves. The information registered on digital dashboards does not include specific information about the impacts for indigenous peoples or ethnic groups and, many communities don’t even have access to the internet or mobile devices. There aren’t specific protocols to guarantee sexual and reproductive rights or stop the violence against women, even though they are responsible for the work to care for their children and homes, to manage the water, to care for the gardens and seeds, in addition to their involvement in community health.

The defense of water and the territory is a common fight across the continent. It is common to hear the recommendation to wash your hands to prevent infection, but many territories just don’t have water. Community organizations has been a key point to prevent the pandemic’s advancement, and some communities identify the virus as western, completely foreign to their territories.

The Arhuaca indigenous leader, Ruth Izquierdo, states that in her country “mining and megaprojects have continued throughout history.” Her territory, the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta in Colombia, is known as the “heart of the world.” Three years ago, they presented a legal action against illegal mining in the Línea Negra or Black Line (a sacred ancestral territory). They live among the threats of extractive projects, such as a hydroelectric project, a coal port, and a tourism project, none of which have their consent.

The Organización Nacional Indígena de Colombia – ONIC (National Indigenous Organization of Colombia) published a report in 2012 revealing that there are at least 8,000 valid mining concessions on indigenous lands, 233 of these are overlapped with 113 indigenous land reserves. In 2019, 132 mining titles and 260 requests to extract minerals and coal were granted for the Sierra Nevada. “There has always been pressure in the Sierra Nevada, but with Uribe the number of mining requests and concessions exploded,”(…) “Now, the legislative negligence means we are facing 132 mining titles and 260 requests.”

When talking about the threats from megaprojects, Nancy Bravo Chantre, territory coordinator and part of the Asociación de Autoridades Indigenas del pueblo Nasa (Association of Indigenous Authorities of the Nasa People), states that “it is necessary to continue fighting to free Mother Earth, even though this fight signifies huge risks for the community, because armed groups come along with multinationals.”

In February of this year, in the context of the Third National Assembly of the Nasa Nation, 197 authorities declared a humanitarian and territorial emergency due to the historic violence, armed conflict, dispossession from their territories, and government breaches. Their February 12th press release, stated that “Mother Earth has suffered the consequences of extractive policies to the point that she is ill and in a serious state of disharmony.” Fear of the virus is “minimal compared to the consequences brought on by the pandemic.” For Lorena Cabnal, from Iximulew, Guatemala, the peoples and the world are face-to-face with “a reconfiguration of a pandemic, the capitalist-neoliberal system.”

Violence against women, a problem that never stopped 

In these countries, as in all of Abya Yala, it didn’t take long to feel the impacts of the quarantines and restrictions established by the governments in the different territories. Cristina Bernabé, Maya Q´anjob´a and a member of the organization Mujeres A’qabal (A’qabal Women) in Huehuetenango, northern Guatemala, commented that “the pandemic is marking the life of women and families. These are women who have worked to excel and get ahead. Now, there is barely any work, and when there is work the pay is very low because everything is paralyzed.”

The detriment to nature is aggravated by the human voracity of capital. Ana Maria Top, Maya Kaqchikel, explains that the women’s greatest concern is getting food: “there are many communities in the territory that have experienced drought and there hasn’t been a good harvest. They don’t have any maize stored away, so confronted by this pandemic, the women say:  what am I going to do? My husband is here, and he is demanding food.”

The quarantine has also meant that many women returned to their homes and in some cases they were locked up with their aggressors: “we are worried because there is more psychological violence and more physical violence. We were told to lock ourselves up, but not the same for Capitalism. Liquor and beer are still reaching the stores, and the men, instead of looking for alternatives, they drown [their troubles] with alcohol and this leads to another kind of violence,”says Ana Maria.

On the Mujeres A’qabal radio program led by Cristina Bernabé, the Public Ministry’s Prosecutor in her district confirmed that violence against women has increased by at least 60% during the lockdown. In Chile, comparing the quarantine with the same period in 2019, telephone supporting calls for women have increased by 70%. In Colombia, between March 25th and June 9th, 9,378 women were victims of different types of violence.

The situation for girls and adolescents is also concerning. “The increase in pregnancies for this group must be addressed, because it is a crisis situation,” said Lorena Cabnal without hesitation. The Observatory on Sexual and Reproductive Health of Guatemala registered 1,962 pregnancies in girls between the ages of 10 and 14 during the first five months of 2020, which in large part corresponds to the lockdown. The Observatory focuses on pregnancies resulting from rape. In Colombia, Nancy Bravo explains that her organization increased home visits, to prevent and respond to cases of violence, specifically against children.

Silvia Menchú, a Maya K’ iche’ activist and feminist, says that “the Guatemalan Ministry of Health and its different services are not responding, since the government doesn’t have any existing sexual and reproductive health programs. They are not talking about preventing pregnancies or family planning and, since it isn’t a priority, pregnancies increase more and more, there is too much sexual violence taking place in the home.” Meanwhile, the government and Congress continue with a religious discourse about protecting the family.

The mobility restrictions imposed in all three countries make it very difficult for women, adolescents, and girls victims of sexual violence to access justice. This not only has consequences during the pandemic, but also in the long term. Dorotea Gómez Grijalva, Maya K’ iche’, social anthropologist, and Women’s Advocate at the Procuraduría de los Derechos Humanos (PDH – Human Rights Ombudsperson’s Office) in Guatemala, explains that “many hearings for cases of violence against woman or feminicides that were on the docket through the end of this year, will probably be reprogrammed for 2024.”

An ongoing problem is that women often don’t dare file a complaint. And now, due to the lockdown, it is even more difficult. Based on her professional experience, Silvia Menchú assures us that the women “think about it and then think about it again as they ask themselves, how will they sustain their families if the person who violated their rights is in prison?”

Amid the crisis caused by the pandemic, the world was moved by an attack against a 13 year-old Embera-Chamí indigenous girl, who said that she had been raped by seven military members after being kidnapped on June 22nd, in Colombia. Later, a journalist published the case of a 15 year-old Nukak Makú indigenous girl who was kidnapped and raped in September 2019, by at least two military members of the Infantry Battalion No. 19 in San José del Guaviare. The incidents mobilized women and feminists nationally, in spite of the pandemic restrictions.

Historic problems layered on the present

The violence against land defenders, in particular against women, continues. Even though protests are quarantined, the extractive industry continues unrestricted. In this context, some believe that COVID-19 is of little concern. Onesima says,“the Mapuche women live in a bubble where coronavirus doesn’t exist, infection is what worries us least. What you defend is your life, essentially against the bullets, being shot, more than from a virus.” The story is similar in Colombia, where Ruth Izquierdo of the Arhuaco people says that more than COVID- 19, they fear the State: “we are facing the possibility that the government wants to revoke the “Black Line” decree and allow megaprojects access to the territories. They are taking advantage of the pandemic.”

According to INDEPAZ, so far this year, Colombia has registered the murder of 196 social leaders who defend their territory and human rights defenders. In 2019, the South American country occupied first place in the world with 106 deaths, many in Nasa territory, far ahead of Guatemala were UDEFEGUA registered 15 murders.

The same thing is happening in Chile. Francisca Fernández explains that even when women try to organize themselves to respond to the historic consequences of dispossession and crisis, they face “the patriarchal violence that makes the Chilean State so precarious. Lockdown looks more like a suppression of human rights than a quarantine, here we also have the military on the streets and curfews, they have criminalized the community soup kitchens, but even more glaring is the daily violence against woman.”

The indigenous worldview: resistance and healing

Indigenous women are recovering ancestral knowledge to prevent and treat the virus, and they have placed this knowledge at the service of their communities and humanity. This knowledge is shared using their oral tradition, but also digital media outlets. The traditional healers are working arduously “to strengthen communication between women healers, herbalists, and ancestral midwives, we are setting up consultation spaces among us. No healer or grandmother with her wisdom knows everything, but we can weave together, follow up on and support cases. There have been some very serious cases that warranted turning to the practices of western medicine. Right now, I have 42 cases registered that I am accompanying, of these cases only one has gone to the hospital and I celebrate life because this person left the hospital two days ago,” says Lorena Cabnal about her work with the body-earth-territory.

On the other end of Abya Yala, in Santiago, Chile, Francisca Fernández talks about how “in 2019 plants called quilasappeared, these are plants who appear in times of crisis. Nature had already manifested to us that complicated times were ahead.” In spite of all the challenges, she affirmed that even in this scenario it is possible to grow stronger: “some say that Chile was asleep, but I don’t see it like that, many peoples had woken long before, the Mapuche peoples were never asleep, they have always been wide-awake, in resistance.”

Ange Valderrama of the Juan Tranaman community in Cancura, Chile, is part of the Colectivo Formativo Mapuche (Mapuche Training Collective) and the Rangiñtulewfü Colectivo Mapuche (Rangiñtulewfü Mapuche Collective). She describes how last year, before the social uprising, there was an eclipse and that it was a very important moment in the indigenous worldview: “There are many stories of huge pandemics that have affected the Mapuche territory, these aren’t only stories of viruses, but are also related to something more western; the pandemics of racism and colonization. We, as the Mapuche people, have our own healthcare system, it is a very rich system, we have a very important relationship with nature in our territory and our collective efforts.”

Nancy Bravo, a Nasa indigenous woman, highlights the political training they carry out from their territory and the women’s movement: “the pandemic has helped us to understand that we need to have food for ourselves, this responsibility was laying on women. For us women, it is a huge opportunity to come back together and to share among us, to be able to orient health and education as exercises carried out from and for our indigenous peoples.” She affirms that her people are not patriarchal but matriarchal and that, around 2011, the elder spiritual guides oriented the Nasa people, stating that a recovery of their essence is coming and that the governance of their territory will once again be assumed by their women. This recovery is necessary due to the devastation created by colonization, which continues today.  We women are preparing ourselves, from an empowerment of the territory and recognition that women are not characterized as victims.”

Therefore, the problems and crises have also generated autonomous and collective transformations that arise from the indigenous territories. In all three countries there is a reorganization, work to raise awareness about the pandemic, work that has been carried out in different languages, transmitting knowledge and exchanging products. The approach is centered on strengthening food sovereignty and caring for nature. In many territories, measures have been implemented to avoid the pandemic reaching the communities and they have closed and controlled the borders of their territories. In some cases these controls were broken with the arrival of armed military and paramilitary groups, as well as an imposition of business and extractive activities.

This situation signifies important challenges. Claribel Musekwe, a young Nasa women from the organization Mujeres Hilando Pensamiento (Women Weaving Thought) in northern Cauca, Colombia, describes one of the challenges: ¨ Until now, women who are working, are doing so in a community logic, beyond the work of indigenous guard. This is a question of will, because there isn’t a lot of support from the authorities. It is sad that the women’s movement was born out of violence, that is why we created the first position on sexual violence, but the men do not accept that we are working on this issue.”

As indigenous women, what must we learn to sustain life?

Francisca Fernández says that, in Chile, in spite of everything that has happened during the health crisis, the inadequacy of public health, the violence against women and the Mapuche people:“there are wonderful things that arisen out of our ancestral memory of struggle, like in the context of this uprising. We have more and more territorial assemblies, mutual support networks for basic supplies, community food, support networks to mobilize, in spite of the quarantine we do cacerolazos (protests banging on pots), we march (…), we felt like a lot of people were silenced, but I feel like Chile woke up, which is a phase for many peoples, but many woke up long ago. The Mapuche people were never asleep, they have always been wide-awake.”

On the other hand, based on her Mapuche experience Ange Valderrama, comments that, from inside the crisis, she has seen that everything is related to defending the territory “we are all part of nature and defending it allows us to connect with her, because all struggle must be aligned with a defense of life, if we are willing to advance. It is essential to strengthen the union between peoples, because the territories are always shared. The relationship between peoples must grow, but not based on state policies. It is necessary to fight against the colonial efforts which continue to surround us, in favor of freedom.”

The indigenous women in Colombia have similar experiences and proposals. Ruth Izquierdo comments that, for the Arahuaco people in the Sierra Nevada, although they have faced many challenges, the pandemic has been an opportunity for people to be with their children and family: “the opportunity to find yourself, the opportunity to plant and grow food as a family (…), the indigenous woman are always connected with their being, with what is practical, with their experiences, daily life, what is real, and she has so much to teach thanks to her constant connection with the spiritual, which influences the entire community with its harmony, because she is also responsible for caring for the children, and their purity allows for harmony to remain. It is the woman who are responsible for daily takes, but also spiritual elements, she is part of sustaining life and harmony.”

Claribel Musekwe, also of Colombia, emphasizes that it is necessary to continue decolonizing ourselves. She believes that “we live in a system and a world that has bound us to Capitalism, but I believe that the time has come for us, as a people, to let go of that, because I believe that this is what creates these consequences for us. I think that we can create community-based companies, which allow us to shift the economy within the territory and find autonomy. I believe that this is something we must work towards so that we no longer depend on the State.”

In Guatemala, Cristina Bernabé of Mujeres A’qab’al, reflects that we must learn to prepare ourselves, in every possible way, to confront these kinds of emergencies. She talks about the importance of thinking about the future and cultivating unity and solidarity in the communities, “I believe that we must learn to act more in solidarity, because among us there is a lot of individualism and everyone looks to solve their own problems. I feel like solidarity based actions are what we need to practice. Economically, nobody is prepared because no one has a lot of incomes, and that is why when these situations arise, we end up with nothing.”

Silvia Menchú, Maya K’iche’, affirms that we need to learn that we have ancestral strength and wealth, even though it has been abandoned, it is present. “It doesn’t matter if someone is a professional, has a shop, it is ideal to plant your own basic foods, like the chile pepper, onion, coriander, (…) because this is necessary for self-sustainability, we must recover this lifestyle, and more than anything our respect for nature.”

For the indigenous women of the Abya Yala, COVID-19 pandemic is one more social problem, which can only be cured physically and spiritually if, first, we transform our lives. Lorena Cabnal put it like this: “it isn’t just a physical healing, it isn’t just protecting myself from a death caused by COVID-19, I seek another life based on dignity for myself, for those with whom I coexist, for those with whom I interact. Why do I want to be healthy, to not have COVID-19, if I am going to occupy this body to exercise power and violence.”


Dona Hoy

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