Forced displacement of Central Americans

Aside from my research on gender and the city in Medellin, I am also looking at gender and the city in Central America, particularly in Honduras.

I have researched urban violence in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, security policies (also known as “Mano Dura”), as well as violence in prisons in Honduras.

In the past years, immigration lawyers from the United States have been contacting me to provide expert reports for Hondurans seeking asylum. Talking with US immigration lawyers and, in some cases, with Hondurans seeking asylum or attempting to not be deported, I became aware of the situation of forced displacement of many Hondurans, their attempts to seek protection in their home country and abroad, as well as the difficulties to obtain asylum.

The situation of forced displacement of Hondurans (as well as Salvadorans and Guatemalans) is serious. Reports by international organizations such as “Women on the Run” by the United Nations Refugee Agency and human rights agencies such as Amnesty International  indicate that Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala are witnessing high levels of forced internal displacement and many were leaving their home countries. Media, human rights and international organizations point out that forced internal displacement and forced migration of Central Americans to the United States is gendered. Most of the forcibly displaced persons are women and minors (some traveling with their mothers and others traveling alone).

What are the root causes of the forced displacement of Hondurans?

Last year, I wrote a blog entry Fleeing the Cycle of Gender-Based Violence in Central America: Female Asylum Seekers from Honduras, for University of Oxfords’ Border Criminologies. Female asylum seekers from Hondurans leave the country because they are caught in a cycle of gender-based violence which affects especially women from socio-economic disadvantaged backgrounds. I identified varios stages in this cycle of violence: abuse starts in the private realm and later it occurs in the public. In the private area, women experience abuse in their childhood by their parents or a family member. Later, women are abused in their homes by their male partners. Violence increases when their male partner is part of a gang or the maras. In some cases, male partners and/or gang members abuse women in public space. Finally, the Honduran state is also part of the cycle of gender-based violence. State authorities (e.g. the police) do not investigate crimes involving gender violence or are very slow in investigating these cases. In some cases, the police discourage women to file complaints.

I have been exploring other root causes of the forced displacement of Hondurans. Some of the reasons respond to local and regional processes (e.g. weak institutions, poverty, inequality), but forced displacement in Hondurans (and Central America) is connected to global proceses as well.

I am still exploring these issues, trying to understand it, develop an argument and write an article. It’s tough, writing is hard, expressing your ideas clearly, concisely is an everyday challenge for me. I’ll get there. The forced displacement of Hondurans and Central Americans needs to be on the map, so too the stories of the persons who are fleeing persecution.

Violence against women and femicides: A serious problem in Latin America

The city is an unsafe place for many women. This is what I often heard from activists  of  the women’s grassroots organizations in Medellin, as well as civil servants working at the Secretary for Women. According to a recent local news report, 40 women have been killed so far in 2017 Medellin simply because they were women.  40 femicides so far.

I remember speaking to one of the activists of the Mesa de Trabajo de Mujer de Medellin. She told me in May that femicides had gone up in Medellin, and yet no one was talking about it. “[Femicides] are an invisible topic, especially for this administration. They talk about capturing narcos, drug traffickers and yet they ignore completely the fact that women in this city are being killed and that these femicides have gone up.”

Violence against women and femicides are a serious problem in Colombia. According to the Colombia Legal Corporation website, from 2002 to 2009 there were 627,000 cases of mistreatment towards women. 11,976 women involved in those cases were assassinated. These numbers are staggering.

Violence against women and femicides are not only a problem in Colombia, it is a severe problem in Latin America. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean website, approximately 12 women are murdered daily in Latin America because they were women. The countries with the highest levels of violence against women and femicide are: Honduras, El Salvador, Dominican Republic, and El Salvador.


(Source: Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean)

Violence against women has become one of the main reasons of the forced internal and external displacement of women from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Just as the case in Medellin, where femicides and violence against women are overlooked by local government, so too is this subject neglected by local and central governments in the Central American countries.

Violence against women and femicides are serious problems in Colombia, Central America, and Latin America. Invisibilizing it makes it worse, for women of course.




Bringing Gender to the Classroom

At the Universidad Nacional de Colombia one of the courses I teach to students enrolled in the Political Science undergraduate program is International Relations. In all of my courses, I always include gender. My course on International Relations was no exception.

This week, the subject was gender and international relations. Instead of giving the classic lecture on gender theory and international relations, or discussing the assigned reading, I decided to invite Gloria Moncada, a public servant working at the Secretary for Women in Medellin and responsible, among other things, for executing and supervising projects on gender mainstreaming within the state institutions of Medellin.

I think it is better to grasp the complexity of international treaties that states sign and ratify (for instance, gender equality or gender mainstreaming) by listening to the first-hand experiences of someone within the state institution attempting to execute these agreements through projects.

How does it work? What obstacles do public servants at the Secretary for Women encounter?

Gloria Moncada gave an excellent presentation to my students about Gender and Development and how it translates into the many projects carried out by the Secretary for Women. Despite international agreements signed by the Colombian state to implement gender equality and gender mainstreaming through varios development programs on the local level, the Secretary for Women have encountered various obstacles such as: coordination and competition with other local state institutions or the negligence in some institutions to separate some data and censuses by sex. Because of this, gender inequality in some areas is invisibilized.

How do you change something unknown?


(Gloria Moncada, Secretary for Women. Photo: Lirio Gutiérrez Rivera)

Gloria not only spoke about the struggles of mainstreaming gender within state institutions in Medellin, she also spoke about gender violence -a pandemic in Medellin – the influence of armed actors on local planning initiatives, and the impact of the privatization of social services on gender. In these three cases, gender inequality is accentuated, and women are the most affected.

“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.  🙂



Visiting Rosa Elvira Cely’s memorial at Parque Nacional in Bogotá

Last weekend I was in Bogotá. It was a personal trip to visit some friends. Bogotá is a special place: it was the first place I arrived after leaving Honduras in 1993. I lived 11 years before I left to study abroad.

I stayed at a friend’s house near the Parque Nacional, a big beautiful park close to the downtown area. I wanted to go for a specific reason: I wanted to visit the memorial of Rosa Elvira Cely.


(Memorial Rosa Elvira Cely, Parque Nacional Bogotá, Colombia. Photo: Lirio Gutiérrez Rivera)

The death of Rosa Elvira Cely is one of the most horrible crimes I have ever read. Five years ago, in the spot where there’s a memorial in her name, Rosa was found by the police, half nude, stabbed in the back, beat, raped in the most unimaginable way by a man she had knee and went out to drink the night before. He left her there to die, yet she managed to call the police from her cell phone in the early hours. The police found her, took her to hospital where Rosa died some days later unable to survive the wounds.

The man who did this to Rosa is in jail. Rosa was able give a description of the man to the police. What happened to Rosa Elvira Cely shocked the country. In 2015, the law that penalizes femicide -known as Ley 1751 Rosa Elvira Cely- was approved. This was good news. However, femicides had been already occurring in the country before Rosa, and it makes me sad that it took Rosa’s horrendous crime and death to pass this law.

Standing at her memorial, I thought about her and me and the many women who are and feel unsafe in the cities. I remembered the times I used to go the Parque Nacional…during the day of course. At night, never. Nor any other park in Bogotá. It was normal to avoid ‘dark’ places in the city…you crossed the street when you spotted a group (of what looked like men) walking on your same sidewalk. I learned to move around the city during the night, always trying to move in the ‘safe’ places.

And yet, it shouldn’t be like this for women (or anyone): always trying to find safe places to move around in the city. As one of the women activists I interviewed last week in Medellin: “Isn’t it absurd, that in the 21st century, we are unsafe in the city? Isn’t absurd that we are beat, raped, oppressed, subordinated in public spaces, in our homes?”.

As I left the Rosa Elvira’s memorial, I looked around and wondered to what extent the way that park was built (e.g. lack of light) favored the hate-crime against her? Cities can be a dangerous place for women: it’s real, it happens and frequently.

Memorial Rosa




(Memorial Rosa Elvira Cely, Parque Nacional Bogotá, Colombia. Photo: Lirio Gutiérrez Rivera)








Fieldwork ->Doors are opening

It’s been a little over a week since my last blog (and first) entry. I mentioned my frustration at the housing institution, feeling a bit lost there, and having to write a letter so I can meet someone at the housing institution. I’m still waiting for an answer…but I haven’t stopped fieldwork.

The past week I went to the Secretary for Women and was able to speak to someone there who opened the doors. I found out about the history of the Secretary for Women which is fascinating -it is product of women’s movements from Medellin. I also learned about the different programs that aim to improve women’s rights and protection in the city.

I also went to women’s organizations in the city. There are many women organizations and movements in Medellín, but the three I went to this week were part of the women’s movements in the late 1990s which led to the emergence of the Secretary for Women at the turn of the 21st century.

The week hasn’t finished and I’m still exploring field, visiting different women’s organizations, finding out about women’s movements in the city, and speaking to civil servants involved in programs aimed at improving women’s life in Medellín.



Starting fieldwork

After months of bureaucracy, signing documents here and there, I can say that I have officially started my research project on Gender and the City. The name of this research is “Towards an inclusive city: the gender perspective in territorial ordering in Medellin, Colombia” and like all research I have some questions.

Gender has been making headlines here in Medellín. Various women organizations made claims that territorial ordering policies -known as Ordenamiento Territorial, which is one of the main instruments of urban planning in Colombia, was gender blind.  The absence of gender in urban planning polices is one of the main reasons why women have little access to urban infrastructure and why they live mainly in inequality. The local government claimed it was not gender blind, that it has been incorporating it in its urban planning policies for some years now.

Well, I want to check this out. What the local government in Medellin understands as gender in urban planning and if it has an impact. I also want to check what the women organizations are doing? How do they promoting gender in urban planning?

I know these questions cover a lot of areas of urban planning. Central to various women’s organizations claims is the issue of insecurity and violence (in public and private sphere). So I got my list of state institutions and women organizations I want to visit to start fieldwork.

I decided to start with the housing institution. I confess I felt a bit lost. I’m not from Medellin (or Colombia for that matter). I know what I want, but who do I speak to for the information I need? I went, inquired and was asked to write a letter. I’ll get a reply in 15 days telling me about the information I need. I left thinking, ‘There must be another way to get access, to meet someone’. And that’s where I’m at right now…thinking, ‘how do I enter the field?’. I’ve been in similar situations before…I’m sure there is another way in and well it’s just the first day of fieldwork.