“It’s tough”: Mainstreaming gender among local state institutions in Medellin.

During fieldwork, the Secretary for Women and Women’s and Grassroots organizations talked about the need and urgency to “change the way of thinking” the traditional roles of men and women. “Colombia is a patriarchal society and women are still subordinate in many ways to men” said one of the activists.

Various civil servants I interviewed at the Secretary for Women mentioned in various occasions that still a lot needed to be done to achieve gender equality. “Women do not have the same access to the city as men do”, said the head of one of the programs for security for women.

The Secretary for Women and Women’s and Grassroots organizations talked about mainstreaming gender as one of the many ways of achieving gender equality. I spoke with one of the staff members working on this program in the Secretary for Women. “It’s tough”, she said. “We had to bring people from abroad, experts from Chile and Mexico. We organized workshops, seminars, forums that gave information to civil servants in the other secretaries of the municipality of Medellin about the importance of gender mainstreaming. For instance, changing the data systems to include information by sex. Some secretaries didn’t see the relevance in that. Others were more open and we even conducted workshops to make civil servants (men and women) aware of gender biased attitudes. But there is still a lot of work to do”.

The Secretary for Women in Medellin -product of the city’s Women’s and Grassroots Movements

When I started fieldwork in Medellin this year, I went to the Secretary for Women (Secretaría de las Mujeres) to ask about information about state programs aimed at protecting and improving the situation for women in Medellin.

The Secretary for Women in Medellín has a interesting history. It was created in 2002 during Sergio Fajardo’s administration (the mayor who introduced Social Urbanism) as a response to the women’s and grassroots movements’s demands of an institution within the local state that addressed women in Medellin. As various civil servants working at the Secretary for Women told me during the interviews, “The Secretary for Women in Medellin is the only institution with the local state created bottom-up…It is a result of women’s organizations and grassroots movements”. I thought this was incredible and understood the proximity of the Secretary for Women with the cities’ women’s organizations and grassroots movements, in particular the MESA DE MUJER DE MEDELLIN. Some members of the MESADE MUJER DE MEDELLIN had either worked at the Secretary for Women or had been appointed head of the Secretary.

Since its inception in 2002 and with ups and downs with each administration, the Secretary for Women has worked closely with the MESA DE MUJER DE MEDELLIN on various programs aimed at improving women’s lives in Medellin. I had the opportunity of speaking to the head of the following programs: Gender Mainstreaming, Gender Equality, and Medellín: A Safe City for Women and Girls. But these projects will be the subject of another post….


What contributes to women’s insecurity in Medellin?

During fieldwork in May and June this year, I spoke with activists working in the many women’s movements and grassroots organizations in Medellin organized under the MESA DE TRABAJO DE MUJER DE MEDELLIN. All of the activists I interviewed described the situation of insecurity that many women experience in Medellin in both the private (e.g. the home) and the public spheres. Women tend to avoid certain public spaces (e.g. dirty areas, parks with little illumination) in the city because they are afraid of being harassed, beaten, or raped.

What contributes to women’s insecurity in Medellin?

According to the women’s movements and grassroots organizations, aside from patriarchy and machismo culture, state urban planning spatial policies -known as the Plan de Ordenamiento Territorial or POT- contribute to making the city unsafe for women. All municipalities in Colombia by mandate must have spatial planning policies. Furthermore, these spatial policies must be revised after some years. After revising Medellin’s POT, the MESA DE TRABAJO DE MUJER DE MEDELLIN observed that the urban planning spatial policies:

  • Were gender blind.
  • Did not address public security for women, only security in general. Thus, violence against women tends to be neglected.
  • Created a built environment unsafe for women.

During the revision of Medellin’s POT in 2014, the MESA DE TRABAJO DE MUJER DE MEDELLIN went to various participation spaces demanding state urban planners and practitioners the inclusion of a gender perspective. Here too, they encountered obstacles. For instance, some urban planning practitioners initially refused to include a gender perspective in the POT.

Today, Medellin’s POT includes the principle of a gender perspective. Despite this achievement in urban planning spatial policies, the MESA DE TRABAJO DE MUJER DE MEDELLIN pointed out that the gender perspective in the POT was still too abstract.

“This is the next step”, one activist told me, “turning the gender perspective in Medellin’s urban spatial policies into practices for a safer city for women”.





June 2017 – Workshop “Securing Housing and the Governing of Uncertainty” Centre for Urban Studies, University of Amsterdam

Early this year I was invited by Dr. Frank Müller to co-organize and participate in a workshop on security and housing in June at the Center for Urban Studies at the University of Amsterdam.

The workshop set out to explore how uncertainty affects security practices in urban populations in Latin America and Europe in a comparative perspective. A central issue of the workshop was how uncertainty influenced the livelihood, particularly the house or home as a place where residents protect and want to establish as a safe place.

Frank Müller (University of Amsterdam or UvA), Austin Zeiderman (LSE), Christien Klaufus (CEDLA/UvA), Ana Ivasiuc (Justus-Liebig-University at Giessen) and me working on this topic in different cities in Latin America, Europe, as well as Lior Volinz (UvA) whose research focused on Israel.

Here is a summary of the workshop on June 29, 2017 and the participants.

I had arrived at the Center for Urban Studies at UvAmsterdam as a visiting scholar two weeks before to work on the organization of the workshop with Frank and prepare my own presentation based partly on my research of women and the city in Medellín. I was given office space at the Center of Urban Studies, UvA where I met an amazing group of scholars -Rivke Jaffe, Fenne Pinkster, Erella Grassiani, Francesca Pilo’, Patrick Weir.


In this shared office, I worked on my presentation “Right to a Safe City: Urban Planning and Gender in Medellín, Colombia”. For the presentation, I used the data I had collected in April and May, which was mostly documents on gender and urban planning in Medellin and interviews with women’s organizations and the Secretary for Women. My presentation focused on how the women’s organizations and movements in Medellin have tried to influence urban planning spatial polices -known as Plan de Ordenamiento Territorial– in order to make a safer city for women. Their claim is that women and men experience security differently in the city. Women tend to be exposed to violence and insecurity in the city. Women’s movements and grassroots organizations, which are organized under LA MESA DE TRABAJO DE MUJER DE MEDELLIN, did their own studies demonstrating to Medellin’s Planning Department that certain urban spatial planning policies and practices increased insecurity and even violence for women.

So happy to have co-organized and participated in this workshop which brought many great scholars together to exchange ideas. The plan now is to publish a Special Issue soon. Will keep you posted on that.  🙂