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Indigenous women battle growing Amazon violence with trauma center

Four members of the Mujeres Amazonicas coalition hold hands in a women’s center

Four members of the Mujeres Amazonicas coalition hold hands in a women’s center in Puyo, Ecuador, April 25, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Melissa Godin

What’s the context?

The community space's founders say it's the first to treat trauma facing women and indigenous Amazon people as connected issues.

  • New center in Puyo designed to help women facing violence
  • Indigenous women endure domestic and land defense violence
  • Help is key as violence rises in the Amazon region, backers say

By Melissa Godin

PUYO, Ecuador - When Itaya Andy studied community therapy years ago at Ecuador's Universidad Estatal Amazonica (Amazonian State University), she realized there were hardly any programs designed to support indigenous women like herself.

Today, she is part of an alliance of indigenous women who have opened a pioneering center in the Ecuadoran Amazon gateway city of Puyo to house indigenous women who have fled violence - both domestic and that facing indigenous land defenders - and help them recover.

"I started connecting the dots between the harm caused by colonialism, gender inequality and extractive violence," said Andy, referring to threats against people defending their land from illegal mining, deforestation, poaching and oil drilling.

"I started wondering: 'How can we support indigenous women? How can we collectively heal?'," said the 30-year-old from the Sarayaku indigenous community, whose territory lies southeast of Puyo.

Since March, the Casa de Mujeres Amazonicas (Home of Amazonian Women) has been offering help to women fleeing gender-based violence within their own communities or from external threats.

The center aims to provide not just accommodation and legal support but a sense of community.

"We heal by listening and by sharing," Andy told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "We heal by supporting each other."

The center's founders say it is the first in Ecuador to treat violence against women and indigenous people as connected issues, and call it a timely intervention as violence in indigenous territories rises and governments fail to provide protection.

"There are ongoing attacks and trauma," said Nina Gualinga, an environmental and indigenous activist from the Sarayaku community, and one of the founders of the center.

'Violence on all fronts'

Across the Amazon, indigenous people face violence as they strive to protect their land.

Globally, murders of environmental and land defenders hit a record high in 2020 with 227 killings - an average of four a week - according to the latest data from rights group Global Witness.

Itaya Andy, an Indigenous healer from the Sarayaku community, stands in the Casa de Mujeres Amazónicas

Itaya Andy, an Indigenous healer from the Sarayaku community, stands in the Casa de Mujeres Amazónicas in Puyo, Ecuador, April, 25, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Melissa Godin

Itaya Andy, an Indigenous healer from the Sarayaku community, stands in the Casa de Mujeres Amazónicas in Puyo, Ecuador, April, 25, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Melissa Godin

Most such violence occurs in Latin America, which came under the spotlight last month when Brazilian indigenous expert Bruno Pereira and British journalist Dom Phillips were killed while doing research in Brazil's Amazon.

Indigenous women engaged in environmental activism face some specific risks, including sexual violence.

But campaigners say most of them find it very difficult to seek justice for reasons ranging from corruption to sexism, or simply being located far away from authorities.

Threats of violence also come from their own communities.

Six in 10 women in Ecuador say they have experienced some form of violence on the basis of their gender, with this figure higher among indigenous women at 68%, according to the World Bank.

"There are so many layers of violence that indigenous women are constantly grappling with," Gualinga said. "There is violence on all fronts."

When the Mujeres Amazonicas group that opened the new Puyo center first formed in 2013, its goal was to resist efforts by extractive firms that wanted to work in their communities after the government began selling oil concessions.

An influx of male-dominated extractive workforces in indigenous territories often correlates with increased rates of sexual violence and human trafficking, with women and girls are most at risk, global research has found.

One U.S. government-funded study, for example, found that rape and sexual assault cases rose 30% when oil exploitation spiked in the Bakken oil region of Montana and North Dakota. 

While this violence is often perpetrated by outsiders, many women say they also face sexism or violence in their own communities. Many hesitate to call it out, fearing it will undermine their appeals to protect indigenous culture and land.

Four women sit next to each other in a women's centre

Indigenous women Irene Toqueton (left), Noemi Gualinga, Itaya Andy, and Nina Gualinga sit together in the Casa de Mujeres Amazónicas in Puyo, Ecuador, April, 25, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Melissa Godin

Indigenous women Irene Toqueton (left), Noemi Gualinga, Itaya Andy, and Nina Gualinga sit together in the Casa de Mujeres Amazónicas in Puyo, Ecuador, April, 25, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Melissa Godin

"We as a people, we have to be united, we have to stick together against the enemy," said Gualinga.

"If you start addressing violence in your own community, there is a fissure. And nobody wants that."

Creating space for healing

Mujeres Amazonicas members said they do not want their center - which is light and airy, filled with art, and situated next to a river - to resemble the other women's shelters across Ecuador.

The center aims to help women heal together and discuss how to change gender dynamics in their communities moving forward.

Andy, who works as a healer, believes that group therapy is most beneficial for indigenous women, rather than the individualistic approach more popular in the West.

"When you're dealing with structural issues, it's so important to be able to talk with other people who have felt that way too, to see how they've responded to it," she said.

"That's where you can pull all the pieces - extractivism, colonialism, domestic violence - together."

Irene Toqueton, a women's leader for Mujeres Amazonicas from the Sapara indigenous group, said when she had held sessions within her own community to talk about violence, women were grateful to have the issue raised.

They said "they had never been able to talk about gender violence from an intimate partner," she said. "They asked us to come back and speak to the men."

That is the kind of conversation Mujeres Amazonicas hopes to facilitate at the center, where they want women to rest, recover, and reimagine what resistance might look like.

"We as indigenous people have been under attack for centuries and there has been no time or space for healing within our own communities," said Gualinga.

"We wanted to create space for that".


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