Article originally published and edited in Spanish on Democracia Abierta
Ana Milena Villa Villa put on her gym clothes and left her house towards a black hole in which what made her feel most alive in this life suddenly made her most fear death. The black hole of one threat that turns life into death.
Upon arriving at the gym after crossing the colourful winding streets of her neighbourhood Nelson Mandela on the outskirts of Cartagena, she realised that the man with whom she had shared a glance on a motorbike a short time before had followed her and he was armed.
That same man was waiting for her to threaten her with death when she left the complex, and it wouldn’t be the last threat she would receive.
Threatened for her social work
Villa, delegate of the Community Action Council of Sector Las Vegas in the neighbourhood of Nelson Mandela, was threatened with death because she expends every word she has on fighting for a better life for the inhabitants of her neighbourhood.
She was threatened because her empathy distinguishes her from those who fear her capacity to change the world. She was threatened because she is a social leader.
Unfortunately, the systematic murder of political and social leaders in Colombia is not a new phenomenon.
The recent growth in murder rates of social leaders has been compared many times with the genocide of the 1980s and 90s against the Unión Patriotica that ended the lives of around 3000 of its members.
The recent growth in murder rates of social leaders has been compared many times with the genocide of the 1980s and 90s against the Unión Patriotica, a left-wing political movement of disarmed ex-guerrilla members, that ended the lives of around 3000 of its members.
‘They are Killing us’
This alarming phenomenon has resurfaced with the deaths of more than 311 social leaders since January of 2016, and the beginning of the peace negotiations.
The campaign #NosEstánMatando (they’re killing us) on social media and the huge popular mobilisation on the streets of Colombia have impelled the creation of an international dialogue surrounding the current tragedy that the country is experiencing.
However, a gendered perspective is also necessary in order to understand how this crisis has manifested itself in the context of the patriarchal society in which we live, where female leaders have a clear disadvantage when it comes to evaluating their risk of experiencing violence.
The story of Villa diversifies this dialogue, and it helps us to understand the current crisis from a much-needed gendered perspective that is not as present as it should be.
The turning point
The moment in which Villa decided to become a social leader was a turning point in her life. She saw that the management of the Community Action Council of Nelson Mandela was inadequate to address the needs of her community, a settlement that began to drastically grow around 1994 when individuals displaced by the conflict began arriving from regions such as Urabá, the south of Bolívar and Cesar. Today, it is estimated that around 19,995 people live in Nelson Mandela.
“The majority of the population in the territory where I live are displaced, therefore I decided to start working with children, young people, and teenagers in situations of risk of falling into drug addiction, prostitution, gang violence, unwanted pregnancies…”
Her own story is one of a woman marked by domestic violence, of a woman who was able to turn her pain into a positive force for change that can help other women of her community in similar situations.
“I felt the need to work, for my community, for women, to empower them so that they began to understand the different types of gender-based violence that exist, what were their rights, the laws that protected them.”
Although the majority of residents of Nelson Mandela arrived to escape the violence of war, the lack of state presence in the neighbourhood created a scenario in which criminal gangs eventually prospered there.
Being a female social leader in the context of the murders and death threats that social leaders all over Colombia are currently experiencing represents a greater disadvantage due to gender discrimination and the gender based violence that women are already often subject to.
Various social leaders that stood up to denounce the precarious living conditions in Nelson Mandela were murdered over the last decades in a context of absolute impunity, and organised crime continues to be the most pressing issue the neighbourhood’s inhabitants face.
For women, the risk is higher
It can’t be denied that machismo (sexism) is a universal problem, however, its manifestations tend to vary significantly depending on the cultural context.
“In Colombia, machismo is very notorious in every sphere, such as in education, politics, the workplace, organisations like the community action councils, etc. Women always tend to occupy a lower rung in the hierarchy.”
In her Community Action Council, she occupies the second hierarchical tier and in the Confederation, there are absolutely no women. She recognises that “there’s a lot of discrimination for the mere fact that you’re female”.
Being a female social leader in the context of the murders and death threats that social leaders all over Colombia are currently experiencing represents a greater disadvantage due to gender discrimination and the gender-based violence that women are already often subject to.
Gender-based violence is far more prevalent in areas in which poverty affects many households, and where there is a lack of state presence to protect women from their aggressors, like in Nelson Mandela.
“Due to the fact that you’re a woman, you’re more vulnerable. A woman is more fragile, more fearful, more sensitive, thus she is easy bait for any would-be predator to gnaw away at”.
She perceives the difference between her situation after suffering various death threats and the situation of her male co-workers who have also received death threats.
Villa no longer walks the streets of her neighbourhood, she has stopped working and has had to give up her final semester of her degree in Physiotherapy, a degree she undertook because of her passion for helping the most vulnerable of her community who have no means to travel to receive treatments elsewhere.
She has stopped doing everything she loved because she feels unprotected and vulnerable. Meanwhile, she remains locked up at home, many of her male co-workers go out as if “nothing had happened”.
Her condition as a woman regarding her family responsibilities and her role as a mother means that any threat received becomes ten times more terrifying.
She’s received threats directed at her and her family, and as a natural consequence, fears for her daughters. They receive threats and intimidating messages from strangers on motorbikes, through fake profiles on social media, and perhaps the most sinister of all, hidden in bouquets of flowers sent to her home.
As a mother and head of her household, she also fears the consequences of not being able to leave her home to work. Her economic independence, the only guarantee women have of leading a dignified life free of financial coercion, is in grave danger.
But love overcomes fear
Even though she awakens to the feeling of fear every day, she won’t give up on her dream of helping her community, and of empowering the residents of Nelson Mandela, the majority of which are exhausted of having to face up to the violence of organised crime and of poverty.
Women are synonymous with peace, love, fighting for what they believe in, and giving to others, therefore there is no space for Villa to give up without having exhausted everything she has. She will continue fighting so that one day a fairer and better Colombia is within reach.
“A desire to serve, love for what you do, for what you deliver, should always motivate you every day to be stronger, to overcome, to think that it’s fleeting and that you must be a reference for others.”
Despite feeling unsafe when she walks the streets of the place she calls home, her fight continues from the 4 walls of her home with the help of her co-workers and other social leaders.
Women are synonymous with peace, love, fighting for what they believe in, and giving to others, therefore there is no space for Ana Milena to give up without having exhausted everything she has for her community and her family.
As much as words aren’t enough to convey the immense courage and grandeur of her spirit, Villa conveys that her fight is one that she won’t give up on easily.