Quito, Pichincha / Ecuador – Protesting for women’s rights
Photo by Gabrielpinto/Shutterstock.com
A militant, nationwide shutdown in Ecuador this October showed the world how people in the streets, led by powerful Indigenous movements, can push back hard against state power. Less known, perhaps, is how a plurinational women’s parliament was born from the October protests, becoming a central node in the organization of International Women’s Day protests in the Andean nation.
As people have again begun taking to the streets to protest new austerity measures and inadequate pandemic relief, women’s organizing and the memory of October continue to shape organizing in Ecuador.
The eleven day strike in the fall was prompted by a government decree cutting fuel subsidies that promised to drive up the cost of living for the country’s poor majority. Protestors initially shut down transportation, later, tens of thousands of folks from Indigenous communities around the country arrived in Quito to join a massive march.
During the strike, the head of state and congress fled Quito for the coastal city of Guayaquil. Eight people were killed by police, and thousands more arrested and injured. In a powerful public act, Indigenous leaders obliged police to carry the coffins of demonstrators killed by state forces.
The killings of demonstrators in October interrupted the longstanding myth that Ecuador is a peaceful nation. During the protests, the violence of the Ecuadorian state was plain for all to see.
Luisa Lozano, the director of women’s organizing of the National Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities in Ecuador (CONAIE), has brought attention to the key role of women in calling for an end to state violence.
“During the uprising, as women, we were the ones making an appeal to stop the violence,” she said. Lozano has been active on the frontlines of Indigenous and popular struggles for over a decade, even having spent time in prison for her activism. Lozano and others made a call for a women’s march against violence in the context of the October strike.
“We don’t want repression, we don’t want more of our brothers to be killed, and we reject the IMF and the measures the state is implementing, taking advantage of the state of exception,” said Lozano into a megaphone at the beginning of the women’s march on October 12th.
That day, over ten thousand people marched through Quito, led by Indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian women. Behind them walked mestiza women. Men who supported the march walked at the end. Some played drums while others held puppets in the air, chanting slogans against the IMF and the patriarchy.
They didn’t know it at the time, but the women’s march broke through mainstream media silence on the uprising, and was the final action of the 11 day shutdown. The next day, Lenin Moreno’s government sat down with Indigenous leaders and agreed to roll back the decree. The protests were called off.
“There’ve always been women in the streets, we’ve always been part of social protest,” said Kruskaya Hidalgo Cordero, who participated in the October 12 march. “But this time we were wearing green handkerchiefs, that’s something really distinctive that changed the social imaginary.”
The green kerchiefs are the symbol used by women throughout the Americas to signal support for legal, safe and free abortions. “Ecuador isn’t Argentina with a massive green wave, you know?” said Hidalgo Cordero. “It’s a more difficult process.”
After the strike, a peoples’ parliament was formed by 180 social organizations from across Ecuador, including those representing women, campesinos, trade unions and Indigenous groups.
“Based on that experience, Indigenous compañeras who are historic leaders in this country, like Blanca Chancoso, decided to convene a parliament only for women,” said Hidalgo Cordero. The new organization was named the Popular Plurinational Parliament of Women and Feminist Organizations of Ecuador. Its inaugural meeting was held on December 18th.
The first action of the women’s parliament was to hold a popular tribunal to try María Paola Romo, Ecuador’s Interior Minister. As part of the January tribunal, women called the names of those killed in the October protests. They found Romo guilty, symbolically evicting her from the community of women.
It was from the women’s parliament that the call for International Women’s Day in Ecuador was made. “It was diverse, not only in terms of ethnicities, nationalities, but also in terms of language, it’s the first time the manifesto to convene March 8th was translated into Quichua, to Shuar, and also to sign language,” said Hidalgo Cordero.
In the afternoon of Sunday, March 8th, blocs of women gathered in Quito, organized according to colors.
Some wore black and red to indicate their participation in labor and campesino struggles, and in memory of historic struggles of women against exploitation and the hacienda system, though which large landowners controlled every aspect of life of those who worked on their farms.
In the lead up to March 8th, the meaning of the green handkerchiefs was expanded to include the idea of inclusive reproductive justice and land defense. The green kerchief now went beyond a call for safe, free and legal abortions to include demands against forced sterilization and solidarity with land defenders.
This change was meant to move from a demand centered on individuals to one that is held in common. Instead of a focus on a “my body, my choice” style message, the women adopted the idea of fighting for their “bodies-territories” (cuerpos-territorios).
And purple hankies were used to refer specifically to women’s and feminist struggles.
There were three stops during the march, where women from each color bloc spoke about their struggles.
At the first stop, women who worked on the notorious Furukawa plantations spoke of their legal case against the Japanese transnational. For three generations, over one hundred mostly Afro-Ecuadorian families have lived on the hemp plantations, where they have been subjected to low salaries, risky working conditions and child labor, often without any access to birth certificates or education.
The second stop on the march was led by women in green handkerchiefs. “Though we demanded free abortion at that stop, our Indigenous compañeras also highlighted the need to protest forced sterilization,” said Ana María Morales, of the Parlemento de Mujeres, in an interview from Quito.
Together, women in green with megaphones spoke the names of land defenders, and named the territories around the country under threat from the extractive industries. Also present were migrant women from Venezuela, who spoke out against forced displacement.
The march ended at the Santo Domingo plaza in the historic center of Quito, where women in purple kerchiefs led a celebration of popular feminisms in Latin America, and spoke out against violence against women and transwomen in Ecuador.
There were performances, including the burning of paper maché puppets of various ministers, president Moreno, and ex-president Rafael Correa in a bonfire. Indigenous women also organized a ceremony to receive the march as it entered the plaza.
“Compared with the 2019, March 8th, this year was much larger,” said Cordero Hidalgo.
“There was a feeling of euphoria, it’s hard to describe in words,” according to Morelos.
“There were slogans calling the names of those killed in the [October] strike… And the relationship with the police had changed,” becoming more combative, she said in an interview from her home in Quito. Fifteen people were arrested at the end of the march, accused of writing graffiti.
One week later, the coronavirus lockdown was initiated in Ecuador.
Many Ecuadorians went without the support they needed in order to shelter in place. State security forces arrested and humiliated poor families who went out to seek food. There are videos of soldiers punishing people, forcing them to do push-ups and cutting their hair in the streets.
Between March 1st and April 15, there were 7,600 additional deaths in in the country (in mid-April, the government reported just over 500 deaths from COVID-19). The coastal city of Guayaquil has been among the world’s hardest hit.
The pandemic has pushed women in Ecuador to mobilize their networks for the purposes of mutual aid.
Today, women are leading efforts to collect food, cash and supplies to deliver them to those most in need, as well as working with women farmers to ensure they can stay safe while selling in urban markets. From quarantine, women helped mobilize a pots-and-pans protest against a $326 million debt payment, which the Ecuadorian government made on March 23rd.
In April, the women’s parliament supported a strike by delivery workers, and they’ve created educational material about the coronavirus for mass distribution. Finally, they’ve organized to mourn collectively, lighting candles together from their homes and holding small ceremonies and vigils for those who have died.
The Moreno government passed legislation to respond to the pandemic in May. The so-called Humanitarian Law makes contracts more precarious, reducing salaries and cutting workers’ rights for the next two years, with the possibility of renewal. And a new public finance law cuts funding to universities and social security.
The Popular Plurinational Parliament of Women and Feminist Organizations of Ecuador joined social organizations and unions in calling for mass protests beginning in early May. The last three consecutive Mondays have seen thousands of Ecuadoreans back in the streets in cities around the country, masks on, drums pounding, protesting cuts to the public university and austerity measures.
Like elsewhere, women have taken on an important role in caring for those who have been most marginalized and who are especially vulnerable during the pandemic. Their ability to coordinate nationally has meant that the women’s parliament continues to be a powerful source of unity, strength and resistance in these difficult times.