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Colombians use sex strike to get highway repaired (Huelga de piernas cruzadas), 2011
Barbacoas is an agricultural town in Narino, Colombia. It is a small port town in southwest Colombia that linked the southern regions of the country in the 19th and 20th centuries. However, the provincial routes used in those times have not been renovated since. Its economy now relies primarily on fishing, agriculture, and mining.
The highway to Barbacoas is considered very dangerous and is plagued with violence from the presence of several armed groups. Narino is between Ecuador and the Pacific Ocean, and a strategic area of guerrillas of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia- People’s Army) and ELN (National Liberation Army). It also harbors paramilitary and drug trafficking activities. The area is rich in gold mining, and this finances many of the illegal armed groups in the area.
The only highway connecting Barbacoas to the rest of the country is to the nearest town of Junin. The road creates many communication difficulties, and seven hours are needed to cross the 57 kilometers of highway. The municipality is also beset with many water problems that force people in the town to bathe and cook with rainwater since there is no aqueduct or way to transport clean water. The town faces difficulties of receiving food and medical care because of the state of the road and difficulties in transport. Poor roads make the cost of food five to six times that of other regions, and dozens of deaths have been linked to the lack of adequate infrastructure in the area. The route has also prevented the delivery of crucial supplies to the town.
The road was in a bad state of repair with many hollows that flooded in rainy weather. Cars and trucks were regularly bogged down or damaged on the rough roads that also were damaged by mudslides and heavy rain. The unpaved road has suffered extensive damages over the past year, as rain has created landslides and made the commute dangerous and up to ten hours long. With improvements, it is estimated that the seven hours taken to travel down the road could be cut down to four hours.
Despite these problems, the government had not addressed concerns about the road for 18 years. Former president Alvaro Uribe promised the townspeople of Barbacoas in 2009 that funds had been earmarked to pave the road, but nothing had happened since. Inhabitants claim that this is because of laziness and a lack of resources because Barbacoas is an agricultural locality of only 35,000 people, 60% of whom are women. The local government has been plagued by public corruption in the past, with incidents of misuse of funds and thievery.
The difficulty of receiving medical attention came to a breaking point when a 23-year-old pregnant woman died while giving birth on the highway because the ambulance could not reach a hospital in time. This became the unifying event that led to the Colombian women in the town to start the campaign to repair the roads.
After years of small protests, hunger strikes, and unfulfilled promises from the government, the women decided to use new tactics. Marches of protest and public writings were used throughout the town, and the women turned to the use of a sex strike (Lysistratic nonaction).
Campaigners claimed that the road construction issue violated their human rights, because without a safe and direct route to the rest of province, residents could not receive proper medical care or lead their lives in dignity. Furthermore, they stated that sex had to be banned because it was unethical to bring children into the world if conditions in the town didn’t offer basic rights to survive. In Barbacoas, access to basic medical care is scarce and abortion is sentenced with three years in prison, so a sex strike became a meaningful way to protest the inadequate living conditions in the town, especially for women.
There has been a history of using sex strikes in Colombia as a form of nonviolent action. In 1997, Colombia’s military chief Manuel Bonnet called for a sex strike among wives of paramilitaries, guerillas, and drug lords to promote piece. In 2006, Colombian women organized a sex strike to protest violence in Periera, and companions of gang members declared they would withhold sex until the men laid down their arms.
Two Narino judges, Maribel Silva and Diego Enriques, promoted the idea of sex strike after many women complained about the passivity of the men in trying to fix the issue. Under the leadership of Maribel Silva, Luz Marina Castillo, and Ruby Quinonez, the women of Barbacoas banned sex from the town under the slogan, “No more sex. We want our road”.
On June 24, 2011, the women announced the beginning of the “crossed legs movement”, or “huelga de piernas cruzadas”. Supporters encouraged widespread participation in the sex strike, as it was nonpolitical and not religious. It also appealed to people for being nonviolent, and not causing damage or arguments.
On June 27, men who supported the campaign decided to hold a hunger strike in central park in support of the women’s sex strike and as a campaign for better roads and against the corrupt local government. The “crossed legs” campaign lasted almost four months, from June 24 to October 11, and had 300 participants, including the wife of the mayor of Barbacaos. The cause put pressure on powerful men in the community and government officials to repair the roads and received international attention for the unique form of protest.
On October 11, 2011, authorities promised to initiate work on the road and construction began. Transport Minister Garman Cardona pledged to invest $21 million to pave the first 27km of the road and studies on the cost and design of the second half of the route. As an attestation to the success of the campaign, the municipal mayor, and the minister of transport representing the president attended the highway opening.