Dr Julia Zulver: High Risk Feminism

Latin America has a long and rich history of feminist collective action, from the Madres de Plaza de Mayo who campaigned against the Argentinian dictatorship government following the disappearances of family members, to current feminist movements protesting against the lack of action being taken to stop femicide in the region. In contexts of violence and conflict, women continue to come together to fight against the injustice they face, despite the dangers it may bring. Dr Julia Zulver is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Research Fellow at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and Oxford University, and Senior Researcher at Ladysmith (a feminist research consultancy). She has been researching collective action in Latin America through a gendered lens for several years. In her doctoral thesis, Zulver developed a framework, High Risk Feminism, and will be releasing a book under the same name in January 2021. Dr Julia Zulver talks to Flora Davies about this framework and why she is optimistic about the future of feminism in Latin America. 

How would you define high risk feminism?

High Risk Feminism is a framework I created for understanding how and why women choose to mobilise around issues of gender injustice when doing so is risky, dangerous or incites violence. Others have studied high risk collective action, but I thought it was interesting to look at this from a gender perspective. In conflict situations which are marked by very militarised masculinities, as a woman you’re not only standing up and sticking your neck out during a conflict, but you’re also transgressing rigid gender norms that these groups put into place. I wanted to know why women would do that and then how they would do it. So that’s where high risk feminism emerged.

Often when we talk about Latin American collective action and women, we talk about peace mobilisation. We talk about mothers and explain that they are taking on this extra burden and risk because they want to protect their children or promote peace, and that didn’t quite line up with the cases that I had been working on. They were mothers and they cared about their children and were engaged in the Colombian peace process, but beyond that they were actually making some really interesting claims about women’s equality and gender justice more broadly. I wanted to focus on why and how this conflict context sparks and catalyses a grassroots, bottom-up expression of feminism that we might not have expected to see.

Why do women mobilise in high risk, violent contexts? 

Being a woman in a conflict situation is difficult and risky. Even if you stay in the house, even if you don’t speak out against violence, that doesn’t necessarily guarantee your safety. You may get caught up in an expression of social and territorial control, like conflict-related sexual violence, murder, displacement – those can happen to you anyway. In my work I borrow from behavioural economics, which might describe this situation as a ‘domain of losses’ – you’re already losing. So the idea of joining a women’s organisation, going out in your community and making yourself public, even though it is a risky thing to do, is actually not too much riskier than not mobilising, particularly when you can see that being part of this group is offering you benefits. Perhaps as a group you can find support, resources, money, or a feeling of belonging, of no longer having to hold onto shame and fear by yourself. Those kinds of benefits make it justifiable to expose yourself to additional risk.

How do women mobilise in high risk, violent contexts?

There are four pillars I have seen through the fieldwork I’ve done; first is engaging in active work around building collective identity (being women who have shared a similar experience), second is generating social capital (feelings of trust, belonging within the community, strength in numbers that as a group you can reach out to other organisations, institutions or NGOs) to provide support. The third is around legal framing, how to frame the experiences you have gone through as contravening international or local law, and women’s rights more generally. And then the fourth is engaging in acts of certification, which could include engaging in a protest, or a march, or going and occupying a government office. Those are the four pillars of the ‘how’. And the ‘why’ is about understanding that the possible benefits when you’re already in a losing situation make it worthwhile to engage in this gender justice project which has the potential to make real changes in society.

Much of your research focuses on Colombia in particular. I was wondering if you could explain why female mobilisation is such a phenomenon in Colombia? 

I did a lot of fieldwork on the north coast of Colombia, about two hours south of Cartagena. During the late 90s and early 2000s, this part of the country experienced violent conflict, as the paramilitaries were fighting with the leftist guerrillas. Many women were displaced to the cities, to slums which were controlled by armed groups and paramilitaries, where there was a lot of ongoing violence. Many of them were widows, many had survived sexual violence, and none of them really had any experience of ever having been engaged in a women’s group or even a neighbourhood collective. In one slum, there was a leader, Patricia Guerrero, who started to hold meetings and the number of attendees began to grow. The women wanted their own housing as they were living in shacks made from cardboard and tin. They got together and spent time creating a group identity with special bonds of trust and solidarity, and talking for the first time about what had happened to them. At the same time, they were also engaging with international organisations to get funding to build their own houses. In 2006 they got the funding to build what is now called The City of Women. They had to build 98 houses, and the idea was that the women would own the houses although men and children could live there too. Even as they were building The City of Women, they were receiving threats and there were disappearances and murders because the women were challenging the armed groups that imposed social order. They kept working despite threats and violence. I spent time there while researching for my DPhil, and it is included as one of the case studies in my book –‘High Risk Feminism’ — which is coming out in 2021.

Different organisations partook in very different activities, however; in the south of Bogotá, for example, a women’s organisation called Afromupaz really wanted a headquarters, a base where women could go and get jobs, hold healing ceremonies and prepare food in a commercial kitchen. This met practical needs but it was also very tied up with gender justice — it was about women being able to work, being able to claim their rights to reparations from the state and being allowed to heal from the sexual violence they had survived. This case is also included in my forthcoming book. 

So is ethnicity a key factor in female mobilisation in Colombia?

Afromupaz is an organisation made up of Afro-Colombian women and their ethnicity is very much tied up in their expression of feminism and what it means to them. Race and ethnicity was discussed less when it came to The City of Women, but the women involved in this project were also of mixed ethnicities.

Geography is also a very important factor in mobilisation in Colombia; rural and urban areas have very different access to resources and infrastructure. There is definitely a class element as well, as very few of the women I have worked with have had any kind of formal job, and some didn’t even have informal jobs.

What sort of dangers do the leaders of these movements face when mobilising in these contexts? 

In terms of the dangers in Colombia, it is important to look at the country’s history. The Colombian armed conflict between the FARC and the government lasted for 52 years. Officially this ended in 2016 with the signing of the peace accord, but there are multiple armed groups in the country who are still at war with each other. For many of the women who I have worked with, their main reference point for when things got really bad was the late 1990s until around 2005. The FARC is a Marxist-Leninist group who want land redistribution, among other demands. When the right wing paramilitaries came in, they actively tried to fight the FARC, but also punished local people for their supposed involvement with them. There were massacres, torture, rape and around 8.5 million people were displaced from their homes. The paramilitaries went through a demobilisation process in 2005 but many of them  went on to join right wing armed groups. The FARC demobilised in 2016, and left power vacuums which other armed groups filled and violence has actually gone up again since then. Over the years, violence has been meted out from all actors: the guerrillas, the paramilitaries, and the armed forces.

Today in Colombia, one of the big problems  is the murder of social leaders, both men and women. More men than women have been killed, but women are are more likely to suffer sexual violence and to receive gendered threats, which can be seen as a backlash against their process of leadership. There are still massacres, murder, threats against children and family, sexual violence. All of that is still happening, still controlled and governed by the very same militarised masculinities that existed throughout the conflict. The war has left dynamics of very rigid ideas of what it means to be a man, and what it means to be a woman, and these still hold strong.

Is female mobilisation successful on the whole?

Colombia has a very long history of women’s movements at all levels, be it national, departmental, or municipal. Some of the leaders of these mobilisation groups have a history in the women’s movement or as feminists, and are very good at building ties with local groups, or even national and international organisations. In my thesis, there is an example of a group of women who I don’t think had a successful experience with high risk feminist mobilisation and I look at the “why”. They are from similar parts of the country and had a similar demographic profile. They were working on a community project but it never made any gains – it never achieved or even set any goals. The question was, by studying a negative case, what is it that we can learn about high risk feminism more generally? That’s where the importance of leadership really became clear. Afromupaz and the Liga de Mujeres Desplazadas (who built The City of Women) had incredibly strong leaders who played a key role in the jump from living in the domain of losses to taking the extra risk and deciding to mobilise. That jump was really facilitated by charismatic leaders who were able to explain the potential benefits to women, because it didn’t necessarily occur naturally otherwise. With successful high risk feminist mobilisation, there is often the influence of a specific charismatic leader. 

How can women be protected?

Power in Colombia is very concentrated in the main cities, and as you get into more rural areas, it becomes less developed in terms of access to infrastructure or the state itself. For women in rural areas, there isn’t even necessarily access to justice, or a police force, or basic services. We need to highlight that these women continue to be under threat and ask them what they want, as no one knows the territory and its specific risks better than they do. In Colombia, there is a national protection unit where the state will assign protection to threatened community leaders, such as a bodyguard or a cell phone, yet many women I speak to don’t necessarily want a male bodyguard with a gun, as that is the antithesis of how they engage with their community. It’s important to see what people want and work to find solutions with those local realities.

Are you optimistic about the future of the feminist cause in Latin America?

You have to have hope otherwise how can you continue moving forward? I think there’s an increasing sense of justice, of what is right and what is wrong. There have been incremental gains not only in Colombia or Latin America, but around the world. None of the women that I have worked with are planning on standing down anytime soon, none of them are planning on giving up, and that is a reason for real optimism. The region is currently experiencing a resurgence of right wing groups and social movements which are set on limiting people’s rights to reproductive health, or gender identity and other rights which have been formalised or legalised in the last 20 years in Latin America. But I like to be hopeful, and in terms of the future of the feminist cause in Latin America I am optimistic. There will be a backlash, there will continue to be violence, but there are enough people pushing for gender justice to give reason for hope.

People are still going out and protesting — people are still trying to make change. You have to try and find the hope and the people who are willing to change that fear into anger and resistance, I think that as long as that spark continues, that’s a reason for optimism.

Article written by Flora Davies as a part of the ‘Women & Development in Latin America’ Series

Dr Julia Zulver’s Twitter is @JZulver and her website is juliazulver.com

Her book, ‘High Risk Feminism in Colombia: Women’s Mobilization in Violent Contexts’ will be published next year with Rutgers University Press.