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News > Latin America

Afro-Latinas Fight For Democracy, Land, and Opportunity

  • Black women march against gender violence and racism in Brazil.

    Black women march against gender violence and racism in Brazil. | Photo: Courtesy: Vinícius Carvalho / Jornalistas Livres

Published 16 October 2016

The summit last week in Bogota was an effort to address the many challenges that confront one of the most vulnerable populations in the Western hemisphere. 

Afro-descendant women from across Latin America and the Caribbean have linked up across borders to urge the governments of their countries to do more to protect Black women’s rights to land, and to open up more space for political and cultural expression, all issues they say are inseparable.

Black Lives Matter in Colombia

At the latest regional meeting on Land, Territory and Rights of Afro-descendant Women, held last week in Colombia’s capital city of Bogota, organizations representing Black women in several countries — including Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Honduras, and Peru — put forward 18 recommendations to address the challenges that confront some of the hemisphere's most vulnerable populations. 

In a joint statement at the conclusion of the conference — which was aimed at sharing experiences and developing a collective agenda — more than 15 participating organizations argued that the “restriction of fundamental rights, imposed by poverty, exclusion, discrimination and armed conflicts, impedes full enjoyment of (Afro-descendant women’s) collective and territorial rights,” and called on authorities to take concrete steps to address underlying problems.

The 18 demands emphasize Black women’s rights to land, cultural identity and political representation, and call on national governments to: adopt and respect international conventions on ethnic and women’s rights; offer funding for Black women’s empowerment; guarantee legal assistance to Afro-descendants seeking recourse for discrimination; respect rights to collective land and self-determination; ensure Black women’s full participation in politics; and put an end to systematic criminalization of Afro-descendant community leaders, among other issues.

The organizations also pledged to continue to work together to strengthen national and international networks of Black women in the name of building new political platforms based on solidarity, intergenerational dialogue, and a commitment to empowering Afro-descendant women to continue to fight for their rights.

Although Afro-descendant communities face distinct challenges in their respective countries, participants at the recent conference agreed that their struggles and demands transcend borders, underlining the importance of such regional meetings.

Alexandra Ocles, a representative in Ecuador’s National Assembly and member of the Regional Articulation of Afro-Descendants, told teleSUR by phone that international solidarity is a key part of the movement allows organizations to struggle for rights not only at the national level, but also in international institutions by creating spaces to connect experiences that are at once, distinctly different, yet rooted in the same history. 

Afro-Latinas Work for Cultural Survival

“One of the main challenges is the strengthening of our organizations. That is a vital issue in each country,” she explained. “We can have national agendas that articulate with diverse organizational processes that have different lines of action, but there are some common objectives.”

Teresa Cassiana, a leader of the network of Afro-Colombian groups called the Process of Black Communities, explained that issues of women’s participation in electoral politics and their limited access to land both result from corporate exploitation and gender discrimination. Consequently, she said, addressing these root issues is at the top of the agenda for Black women in the region.

“We are proposing that states respect and guarantee at all levels of government the rules of national and international norms recognizing rights to collective territories of Afro-descendants in Latin America and the Caribbean,” she said, “promoting the effective participation of women in this population.”

The unique situations faced by Ocles and Cassiana’s communities in Ecuador and Colombia highlight how pervasive such issues are despite diverging social and political contexts in each country.

In Ecuador, Ocles stressed that a number of crucial gains for women and ethnic communities have been made in recent years under the progressive government of President Rafael Correa. That includes, she said, the 2008 rewriting of the constitution through a Constituent Assembly, a process which Ocles was herself involved in and opened up the democratic process to women and communities of color. Still, she said, challenges remain, especially as it pertains to the numbers of both Black and Indigenous women holding elected office in Ecuador.

“Afro-Ecuadorean women, like the entire Afro-descendant community, face structural racism, institutionalized in a society that … has generated mechanisms of exclusion,” said Ocles, highlighting unequal access to land as a chief example. “The more we open the spectrum of participation, the better options women have to achieve  decision-making positions.”

Colombia, on the other hand, seems to be on the verge of turning a corner in its history. Though voters earlier this month narrowly rejected a peace deal that would end more than 50 years of civil war, both the government and the country’s largest left-wing rebel army, the FARC, seem to have some momentum in finding common ground. Colombia's Black communities, in general, and Black women, in particular, have shouldered much of the burden of the internecine conflict, but many of the challenges faced by Afro-descendant women will no doubt outlast the war. 

The challenge is to continue to muster the same energy to fight for justice in times of peace, as in times of war. 

“It is not only about the rights we still have to win, but also those we have already won, such as the peace agreements,” said Cassiana. “For them to not be destroyed.”

The landmark peace deal was narrowly rejected at the polls in the Oct. 2 plebiscite that aimed to ratify the deal with the population. Afro-descendant areas of Colombia and other communities hard-hit by the armed conflict overwhelmingly voted in favor of the agreement, while the “No” vote won in many cities in the interior of the country.

“We need to seek national solidarity with other communities and international solidarity with Afro-descendant peoples” Cassiana added, stressing that peace must be seen as a right that all people have, not as a favor the government hands out. “The Black community needs to mobilize.”

Afro-Colombians, Indigenous Fear New Pitfalls in Peace Deal

Cassiana argued that for Afro-Colombian women, some issues are non-negotiable, and participation of Black communities in analyzing the peace agreements will be critical in ensuring there is not a rollback in guarantees for fundamental rights, such as respect for the right of ethnic communities to free, prior and informed consent for all projects proposed for their traditional lands — something that the chief proponent of the “No” camp, far-right former President Alvaro Uribe, has said should be limited.

“The peace agreements must bring better development ... to the communities with a lot of participation of the communities themselves,” she said, hesitating to use the word “development” given that it is often charged with neoliberal and exploitative economic power.  

Both Ocles and Cassiana agreed that there are direct links between Black women’s participation, identity and community land rights, meaning that the struggle begins at the grassroots to democratize movements and organization and scales all the way up to elections and across national boundaries with solidarity to tackle systemic challenges.

“We cannot make transformations if there is not a real process of political influence in each government,” said Ocles, arguing that Afro-descendant women’s participation in politics is related to building a “broader division of democracy” in each country. “Nor can we (make transformative change) if there is not also real participation of distinct social actors.”

The connection is also summed up in the first recommendation put forward by participating organizations in the regional Black women’s conference, which argued that guaranteed collective land rights for Afro-descendant communities promote women’s participation in their communities and beyond.

The United Nations has declared 2015-2024 the International Decade for People of African Descent, dedicated to promoting and protecting the rights of the global community, including the nearly 200 million Afro-descendants living in the Americas.

But while the U.N. has pledged to work throughout the decade toward ensuring Afro-descendants “full enjoyment of economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights” and “full and equal participation in all aspects of society,” organizations like Ocles and Cassiana’s know that the real struggle will take place at the grassroots.

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