Barbacoas is a small port town in south-west Colombia, which linked the southern regions of the country in the 19th and 20th century. Barbacoans still proudly claim that every European piano that reached Colombia in the 19th century came through their port. However, the uneven routes that those pianos had to travel a century ago have not changed since.
After years of protest, hunger strikes and unfulfilled promises, the women of Barbacoas took matters into their own hands. They decided that their plight went beyond road construction and that their human rights were effectively being violated by the state. With their town located in a volatile region of the country affected by ongoing guerrilla and paramilitary attacks, women feel they need a safe and direct route into the rest of the province to be able to lead their lives with dignity.
Ruby Quinonez, one of the leaders of the “crossed legs movement”, stated: “We are being deprived of our most human rights and as women we can’t allow that to happen … Why bring children into this world when they can just die without medical attention and we can’t even offer them the most basic rights? We decided to stop having sex and stop having children until the state fulfils its previous promises.” And so like modern day Lysistratas, the women of Barbacoas banned sex from the town. Under the banner of “No more sex. We want our road”, they have been sticking to their guns since June.
At first, the protest met with muted amusement and opposition from the town’s residents. But as the movement grew, the men’s initial resistance quickly turned to support. It easy to understand why their resolve is not faltering: the lack of a paved road means that even the cost of food is five or six times that of other regions of the country. But this isn’t just about the price of goods or convenience: there have been many deaths linked to the lack of adequate infrastructure, as ambulances get stuck in the mud trying to reach town. Judge Marybell Silva, spokesperson for the movement, said: “I personally had to see a 23-year-old pregnant woman die along with her unborn baby just because the ambulance got stuck on the road and could not reach [the capital of the region]. That’s when I knew we had to do something.”
Their efforts are starting to catch the attention of the media and government. Invias, the state department for road development, has already earmarked 40,000 million pesos (roughly £14m) to pave a large proportion of the road. However, funds have yet to be allocated for the last 30 kilometres into town and the women have vowed to “keep their legs crossed” until this changes.
Like the SlutWalk protest last month, the crossed legs movement is perhaps a new interpretation of women’s fight for their rights – one in which sexuality is being used as an empowering tool. Taking direct action with their peaceful protest, the women of Barbacoas are riding a wave of redefinition of what it means to be a feminist in modern times. Thanks to it, they are finding the courage to remain strong in their demands.