Earthquake In Ecuador: Women In Crisis Band Together
CONTENT WARNING: RAPE, MURDER, MISOGYNY, VIOLENCE, DOMESTIC ABUSE
Andrea Quijije Garcia lost her home in the earthquake that hit Ecuador’s coast last year, and spent almost two weeks sleeping on the floor of a local church. She shared the small space with at least 40 other families. Most of them had to stay long after Garcia left, since they were unable to find new housing.
Garcia’s small town of Bahia de Caraquez, in the coastal province of Manabi, was one of the worst affected by the 7.8 magnitude quake. Over 80% of the town was destroyed, and even today most of the center remains in ruins since there are no funds for reconstruction. The rest of those in Bahia who lost their homes went to live in government camps, or makeshift tents made of bamboo poles and plastic tarps. Over a year later, many families are still living this way – without real accommodation, privacy, or any sense of security.
Cases of violence, assault, and depression inside the shelters were revealing themselves ever more frequently, leaving women and children in particularly vulnerable situations. It became clear to Garcia that women were in desperate need of safe spaces and autonomy. This is how the group Tejedoras Manabitas (Manabi Weavers) was born.
“We focus on the violence against women, because we saw that the earthquake revealed violence and domestic abuse inside homes, and caused emotional destruction,” says Garcia of how the organization started. “Everyone was walking around depressed.”
In the weeks immediately following the earthquake, Garcia and other women’s rights advocates seemed to come together naturally. They formed small groups with women from affected communities, and began to circulate the neighborhoods, talking and listening to people. They encouraged people to report cases of abuse, and provided a safe space for women who were victims - soon, similar groups began to emerge across the province.
Simply listening to people’s concerns became a large part of the process of freeing the tensions that people were living with, says Garcia. The pressures of not having a house, a job, or money, or being sick and not having access to the appropriate medical attention, all played a part in the heightened sense of insecurity.
And that insecurity wasn’t just a feeling: homeless women and children were being openly harassed in the streets or in shelters. In Bahia alone, there were at least two reported cases of rape in the informal shelters, though the number of cases that went unreported was expected to be much higher.
Those who were staying in official government shelters were supposedly more protected because of the increased police and military presence in these areas, but there were numerous reported incidents of military personnel staring inappropriately at young women in the camps and asking for their phone numbers.
“It’s a place where you [feel] harassed…because the looks were terrible,” says Garcia of the officers’ gazes, and their history of using the power of their uniforms to intimidate young women sexually. Under these circumstances, there were no safe places to retreat to, and similar issues were arising across the province.
Natural Disasters Take a Toll on Women
It’s not unusual for women and children to suffer the worst after a natural disaster, and to endure particular violence. The United Nations, the World Health Organization, and many other independent studies have all highlighted these issues before. According to a joint study by Northumbria University and the Gender and Disaster Network, women die at a rate 14 times higher than men or children in natural disasters, particularly within cultures where women are more expected to spend the majority of their time at home, since home is exactly where these deaths most often occur. This was certainly the case in Ecuador, where 329 women died compared to 282 men.
Other studies show that women in disaster areas are more vulnerable to infections, pregnancy complications, sexual violence, and human trafficking. After the earthquake in Nepal in 2015, for example, tens of thousands of women were targeted by human traffickers - many of whom were disguised as aid workers - and used to supply brothels across Asia. After the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, one Human Rights Watch worker reported at least four cases of gang rape in one refugee camp alone.
In the months following the earthquake in Ecuador, as life tried to go back to normal, the tension in Bahia didn’t diminish, and neither did the violence. In addition to cases of random assault, there was also a marked increase in domestic abuse and violence in the home, another common occurrence worldwide after natural disasters according to the same international studies.
In Manabi, domestic violence was unveiling itself for two reasons: firstly, because of increased tensions in home environments, often caused by prolonged unemployment and ambiguous housing situations, where men choose to take out their frustrations on their wives and children, according to women’s rights activists in Bahia. This is not to say that natural disasters cause domestic violence in its entirety, but they have been shown to trigger it.
Importantly, the second reason for the increase in reported domestic violence cases is that women were finally talking about them. The new presence of women’s groups and other NGOs gave those who had been victims of abuse a support network and a safe place to go.
The earthquake brought to light a deep-seated issue in Ecuadoran society, according to Zoila Menendez, a social worker and long-time women’s rights advocate in the nearby city of Portoviejo. This is symptomatic of a patriarchal society that supports male dominance, or, as it’s known in Latin America, machismo.
What most people in Ecuador will tell you is that machismo exists all over the country, but not like in Manabi. In addition to typical street harassment, such as whistling, hissing, whispered sexual innuendos, and ravenous staring, women are also encouraged to take more submissive roles in the household. People generally marry and have children at a young age here, and women are expected to stay home to care for the family. Rarely do they pursue higher education or careers, nor are they encouraged so to do, which leaves them economically dependent on their spouses. Menendez added that women are also taught to obey their husbands’ wills.
“Women here feel an internal fear, especially in the sense of not having the freedom [provided by] academics, or a profession. A backup,” Menendez explained.
This has the potential to create very dangerous situations for women, often leading them to remain in violent relationships and home situations. Menendez attributes this to two strong dependencies that women have here, which she describes as economic and affective, with the latter referring to a tendency to being overly forgiving and submissive.
“We always think that things will change when there’s [an increase in] violence, and a lot of the time this results in femicides,” said Menendez. In Ecuador, there have already been 82 reported cases of femicide – the deliberate murders of women because of their gender – in 2017 alone.
Since the earthquake, a space has opened up for people to come in and make real changes, including Tejedoras Manabitas. They became a more formal organization in December of 2016, and have emerged as the umbrella group for several other women’s organizations that sprang up in both rural and urban areas, which collectively represent 500 women across the province today.
“We all had something in common,” says Garcia of the women who banded together after the disaster. “[In] some moment in our lives, we were all victims of violence from our husbands, our brothers, our fathers, our neighbors, or people at work.”
They meet at least once a week and hold special workshops on various topics, such as economic proposals for their communities and how to get involved in local politics. They also continue to focus on violence against women, and encourage people to come forward and denounce these acts. In short, they are strengthening women’s participation and leadership in all areas - no small feat for this region.
Both Menendez and Garcia agree that gender roles are societal and cultural constructions, which is why they are generating spaces for women to be able to rethink and challenge those roles. But Ricardo Omar Solorzano Pinargote, a teacher and advocate, has been trying to attack the problem from another angle: redefining masculinity.
“Culture determines what it is to be a man,” says Solorzano. “Here, that means that man is boss - he has to dominate.”
He used to run a series of workshops for men specifically to teach them that there is no ‘one way’ to be a man, which involved a lot of reflection on behaviors and feelings, and sharing these with the group. The project only stopped because the main funder, Plan International, withdrew their financial support, but it is something Solorzano intends to keep pushing. There are unfortunately no available quantitative data regarding what Tejedoras Manabitas and other similar groups have accomplished - they have no resources to keep records of the cases they hear, the women who come in, or the denouncements made.
However, Garcia says that she sees the strong drive to get ahead in the women who participate in these groups. She has no doubt that they are spaces of “hope and strength,” a small step in the direction of big changes.
Kimberley Brown is a writer, multimedia journalist, and anthropologist. She is currently based in Quito, Ecuador, covering regional politics, society and environment with a strong focus on social justice. She has reported from all over Latin America, including Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil and Argentina. See more of her work on Twitter or on her website.