Campaign for Mesoamerican Initiative
Immense portrait of an anonymous woman launches campaign to Defend Women Who Defend Human Rights on 10 December 2012
December 2012- Activists often have to get their hands dirty to make a statement, to raise awareness, to build a movement, to create change. In solidarity with the Mesoamerican Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders, Mama Cash volunteers and staff dug into the earth and got our hands dirty last week with urban artist Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada to create an immense land-portrait of an anonymous woman activist whose fierce, vigilant gaze is visible from hundreds of meters away. The image covers a piece of land about two football fields large on Zeeburgereiland in Amsterdam and took a week to build out of sand, hay and black, fertile soil. We unveiled the piece on International Human Rights Day, 10 Dec. 2012, to launch an awareness campaign in The Netherlands called “Vogelvrije Vrouwen: Defend Women Who Defend Human Rights” that will run through the end of 2013.
Women human rights defenders are journalists, lawyers, teachers, sisters, farmers, daughters, factory workers, photographers, mothers. They speak out against injustice. In Honduras, Delmy Martinez Zavala received death threats against herself and her family as a result of her work to organise workers to report sexual violence perpetrated by factory owners against women labourers. In Guatemala, Aura Lolita Chavez was threatened at knifepoint the day after she spoke out publicly about corruption in the Mayor’s office. Bettina Cruz Velazquez has been harassed and threatened by corporate representatives and authorities because of her opposition to a mega-energy project that will expropriate land from local people.
Six women’s rights organisations joined together to create the Mesoamerican Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders in response to escalating violence against activists in Mexico and Central America. The work of the Initiative and of individual women defenders is fundamental to hold the line against the greed, corporate interest, organised crime and state-sponsored violators of human rights. Freedom of association, speech and assembly are just a few of the basic rights that provide a fertile space for democracy to develop and thrive. The women and organisations involved in the Initiative are committed to ensuring that women are not attacked, threatened or killed because of their efforts to strengthen democratic institutions.
The Mesoamerican Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders and Mama Cash collaborated to secure a special grant from the Dutch Postcode Lottery, which is funding the Initiative’s work in Mexico and Central America and the Vogelvrije Vrouwen* campaign in The Netherlands. Thanks to this grant, the Initiative has resources to build safe houses to protect women whose lives are in immediate danger, to document and register violations against women who defend human rights in the region, and to coordinate security trainings and a rapid response network that keeps women defenders in touch with people and organisations that help keep them alive. The Vogelvrije Vrouwen campaign will continue to raise awareness amongst the Dutch public and with our government to increase support, protection and defence of women human rights defenders in Mesoamerica.
Mama Cash staff members have been especially inspired by the Initiative and this campaign because of our own connections to political activism related to the region. In the 1980s the United States and other powerful governments incited and funded wars, dictatorships and violence all over Central America. The Contras were a group of US-trained and funded paramilitary forces who fought against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. The Contras were only one of many extreme right, neoliberal forces that fought to control countries, cultures and lives in Central America and Mexico then (and today). In Guatemala and El Salvador, trainees of the School of the Americas, armed by the US government, perpetrated human rights violations against the population.
My colleague at Mama Cash, Susan Jessop, told me that her activism in the 80s was linked to mobilising against US interventionism in Central America. So was mine; my first understanding of international relations came from my mother’s activism, listening to her voice in heated discussions, political meetings and demonstrations in the 80s to speak out – scream out – against the US funding of the Contras.
There are vestiges of military and economic violence throughout Central America today. The Contras are only one example in the recent history of violence and war in the region. The democratic institutions in Central America and Mexico are notoriously weak because of a violent past plagued by foreign intervention. There is extreme inequality between the economically rich and disenfranchised poor. Violence against women is rampant, brutal: there are more femicides in Guatemala than anywhere else in the continent, and sexual violence against women increased dramatically during and after the 2010 coup d’état in Honduras. the governments seem to do very little to ensure that people – especially women – live safe, dignified lives. In places where there is war, unequal distribution of resources, and generalised insecurity and instability, violence against women increases. The regions’ governments seem to do very little to ensure that people – especially women – live safe, dignified lives.
It is in this bleak context that six women’s organisations in Mexico and Central America have come together to do something. The activities of the Mesoamerican Initiative are diverse, but they begin with women recognising their own work as “defence of human rights” – as valuable work, as fundamental to strengthen democracies, as the basis of safe, respectful, socially rich societies.
The portrait we created on Zeeburgereiland honours these women. The portrait is of an anonymous women woman human rights defender. She is protected by her anonymity. In the words of the artist who has so generously led this project, Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada, “her gaze is vigilant, fierce, steady.” We toiled in the snow, rain, mud and freezing Dutch wind to give life to her face, and over five days we traced it in the sand with enriched, fertile soil. And she works everywhere, every day, to ensure that justice and human rights are a reality for everyone – not just words in a monthly e-zine or research report.
In the coming year, we will continue to raise awareness and speak out against violations against Mesoamerican women human rights defenders. The Vogelvrije Vrouwen campaign will provide the Dutch public with petitions and other means to put pressure on the Dutch government and governments in the Mesoamerican region to make defense of women human rights activists a priority. This campaign is made possible by a grant from the Dutch Postcode Lottery.
By Amanda Gigler
* The phrase Vogelvrije Vrouwen in Dutch has deep literal and figurative meaning. Vogelvrije literally means “free as a bird” but also has the connotation of a person who is outside the boundaries of the legal system, someone who is not protected by the law. Vrouwen means “women”, thus the campaign slogan, Vogelvrije Vrouwen, sheds light on the women whose struggles for justice and freedom are threatened by institutionalised impunity.