At the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, we seek to highlight those around the world who are working to promote gender equality and challenge the status quo. The people we interview occupy many different roles within NGOs, foreign policy, and charities, among many. Aside from their impressive careers, our interviewees are feminist actors with a wealth of advice (and book recommendations!).
Kristina Lunz (KL): Catalina, you are a feminist activist working in both Colombia and Mexico. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your work in both countries?
Catalina Ruiz-Navarro (CRN): Well, I have probably always been a feminist. My grandmother was a feminist in Colombia, so I come from a background in which I was surrounded by women who strongly believe in women’s rights and I guess I have always been faithful to my family values. In 2008, when I was 24, I became a columnist for El Espectador, one of Colombia’s two nationally distributed newspapers. It was back then when I first asked myself the question: What can I say and do to make my voice heard in a newspaper dominated by men — men who have PhDs, white hair and are widely respected? What subject do I — 24-year-old Catalina — have more information on than them; where I can be an authority?
In 2006, abortion was legalized in Colombia. Abortion rights were a huge public debate at the time — especially for people my age. These were the problems that me and my girlfriends were facing directly, so I started writing about abortion rights which later became women’s rights. Afterwards, I worked for a year and a half in strategic communications for Women’s Links Worldwide, the same NGO that made the Constitutional claim resulting in the C365 Constitutional Sentence, which serves as our abortion law. I then moved to Mexico to work with Just Associates, an organization that works with women human rights defenders in Mesoamerica. In the latter context, we cooperated closely with indigenous women, working at the intersection of women’s rights and defending land rights.
Today, I live in Mexico City and I am editor-in-chief of Latin American feminist magazine Volcánica and I have been published in VICE, The Guardian, and The Washington Post, among others. I founded the feminist YouTube project “(e)stereotipas” (2015-2017), where we use humor to talk about the ideas of feminism. So, in sum, a lot of my work as a feminist had to do with translating feminist principles and ideas to everyday public discussions, to the newspapers, to columns and to social media — using emotions to convey messages and make them stick.
KL: Colombia recently received a lot of media attention internationally because of historical progress in the peace process between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Can you describe the role that women played in the peace process and, more specifically, the referendum of November 2016?
CRN: In my view, the discussions about the peace agreement in Colombian feminist circles have been amazing. One of the main problems that feminism in Latin America faces is that it is strongly divided by class, race, education, regionality etc. During the Colombian peace process, women’s groups, victims’ groups, grassroots movements, and feminist groups all got together to have a conversation, because, at first, women were simply not invited to the table of the peace negotiations.
KL: And did their joining of forces work?
CRN: Yes, their lobbying initially had a huge impact. Women’s groups started being invited to the negotiation table and were able to talk about what they needed. This was particularly important because many of the survivors of the civil war — one of the oldest ongoing armed conflicts in the world — were women. They carried the dead bodies, they were the ones who got hurt. So well before the negotiations began, women had started to construct strategies for peace, reconciliation, and reparation. Women were the ones who knew how to heal the country.
But shortly after this initial success, the conservative party came into power and installed a pervasive and dangerous discourse that is well-known across Latin America: “Ideologia de género” (gender ideology) — basically a made-up story on how feminists want to corrupt children by teaching them their rights. When this discussion popped up, it was two months before the peace treaty and lots of people went on the streets to ‘defend’ the traditional family. So what it came down to was that in the final peace treaty, they undermined many of the demands we had pushed for, e.g. by replacing the word “gender” with “women”, which was, of course, very frustrating for the movement.
But, on the other hand, the entire peace process left us with a very fine-tuned and well-organised group of Colombian women and feminists from very different backgrounds who share one goal: to advance gender equality in Colombia.
Now that Ivan Duque has been elected president things have changed drastically. Duque represented ex-President Álvaro Uribe’s party, who is the peace treaty’s first opponent, a group that are already making dangerous changes to the agreement to secure impunity for the military and complete removal of a gender perspective in the agreement. There is a clear agenda against women’s rights and LGBTQI+ rights, which manifests in their use of language, such as “non-heterosexual” to refer to LGBTQI+ groups.
KL: Several states have supported the peace process and inclusivity of women’s rights advocates in Colombia such as Sweden, using its feminist foreign policy. In your view, what can other states do to support feminist actors on the ground, without imposing their own views and goals in an insensitive manner?
CRN: First of all, there are a lot of women in Colombia working with the victims of conflict who need economic support. They already do an amazing job — nobody needs to tell them what to do or what issues to focus on. The problem, however, is that many of these women face the double-burden of managing both their households and trying to earn money for these families with the low salaries they get as activists, if they are lucky enough to get a salary at all. It is a huge problem that much of the funding from other countries is only dedicated to projects instead of to paying women decent salaries and general expenses. If women’s activists could have decent jobs, a house and pay their rent, this would change their reality.
Another approach would be to offer trainings for women to participate in public debates and politics — in other words, enable them to make their voices heard. Because a lot of women’s activists have never learned the craft of being a politician or a public influencer, which is essential to get noticed.
Also, politicians and public stakeholders — such as lawyers and judges — should be trained in gender perspectives. Because in a country you can have a sound judicial l system with sound laws, but if the one who finally has to decide on implementing the law is sexist, justice will not prevail.
KL: Let’s talk a bit more about the intersection of migration and women’s rights in your work but perhaps also in your private life a Colombian woman living in Mexico.
CRN: The situation for migrant women across Latin America is extremely precarious. After 2012, many Colombian women started coming to Mexico via so-called “modelling agencies”, living and working in dangerous situations and, in the worst case, suffering from femicide. In the latter case, it often happened that the victims were accused by politicians and the press of having been prostitutes or involved in drug trafficking — so cases were dropped without any further investigation.
Colombian women in Mexico are considered both disposable and interchangeable and have very little rights. The Colombian government never seems to really ask the question: Why do so many ambitious Colombian women have to go abroad to work, put themselves in these situations and, perhaps, even enter prostitution circles? When something happens, such as the crimes I described, our government seems much more worried about the reputation of Colombian women abroad than about finding out what actually happened and putting the right people to justice.
KL: At the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, we promote a feminist approach of foreign policy that is centered on human security. How would you like to see your own country conduct foreign policy, specifically towards Venezuela whose policies have recently had a huge toll on women’s rights, driving many of them into prostitution and sex trafficking in Colombia?
CRN: Colombia does not offer many opportunities to women who are not upper class. So, at the moment, there are a lot of women and transgender women from Venezuela coming to Colombia to do sex work, which is fine in itself, but the conditions in which they work and live are very much similar to the conditions Colombian women face in, say, Mexico. They are working illegally with no social security or health care provision and no family to turn to. Venezuelan women and transgender women are being heavily stigmatised. In fact, the trope of the nameless, man-eating Venezuelan (or Colombian) sex worker is very dominant in our society and puts Venezuelan women in situations with no rights and little dignity.
KL: In Latin America, violence against women is a real and existential threat. In March 2018, Brazilian human rights and women’s activist Marialle Franco was assassinated in Rio de Janeiro. How dangerous is it to be a women’s rights activist in the region and what could international support look like?
CRN: Well, first of all it depends on the situation of each activist because we all have different vulnerabilities. In my case, although I am an activist and migrant in Mexico, I am not in that much danger because I live in a relatively secure neighbourhood, I am married and I am a public figure. But there are a lot of women who are doing important activist work whose names no one knows so, ultimately, they are the ones who are in much more acute danger.
In general, women who are human and women’s rights defenders face two types of insecurities: First of all, the danger of domestic violence and sexual abuse that women everywhere across Latin America and the world face. And second, dangers that are directly related to their jobs as women’s rights activists that regularly transgress traditional gender roles and is considered by many as a threat to social stability and their own identities.
A huge problem is that our approach to security is very often a masculine one. We forget to take into account the dangers that are more specific to female human rights defenders, such as sexual threats, rape threats, spreading rumors about their sexual lives, such as them being unfaithful. This has, in many cases, led to separation from their partners and consequently depression, isolation from families and friends, and self-harm. These are just some of the cheap and easy ways to intimidate and discourage women human rights defenders and to undermine their credibility — ways which are often overlooked.
KL: Despite all these challenges, what keeps you motivated to continue with your work as a feminist and human rights defender?
CRN: One specific thing that motivated me to continue my work this year was that the women of the Zapatista movement made an open invitation to “the women of the world that fight for our rights (“Las mujeres en la lucha”) to join them for an event in the mountains of Chiapas. So me and some friends followed the invitation, not really knowing what to expect. But when we arrived there, we were simply in awe: More than 9,000 women had come to attend the event, in addition to around 2,000 Zapatista women! We were there for four days, sleeping just inches away from each other because the place was so crowded, sharing food and ideas — and it turned out to be a magical experience. So aside from all the bad things that are happening in the world, if more than 9,000 women were willing to attend an event — despite all the financial and security challenges they are facing — it is proof of a strong, persistent regional women’s movement that wants to change things. And that gives me hope.
I am the fourth generation after my great-grandmother was born and she was a peasant. She didn’t have the right to read and write, but she still taught herself and suffered because of it. And four generations later, her great-granddaughter is published in a newspaper that she secretly used to learn how to read. If that change happened in just 100 years, I am hopeful. And it is just because of feminism that was done peacefully, without shedding any blood. That is what keeps me going.
Interview by Kristina Lunz, Co-Founder of CFFP and Germany Director. Twitter: @Kristina_Lunz