“He is going to leave…you know. My husband, he’s going to leave me eventually”.
Máxima has big brown eyes that seldom reveal vulnerability. Over the last four years, she has been campaigning to stop U.S.-based Newmont Mining Corporation and its Peruvian subsidiary Yanacocha from building a gold mine on her land, a holding by the Blue Lagoon of Celendin in the Andean region of Cajamarca, Peru.
Máxima and her family are subsistence farmers and herders and the mountainous area in which she lives is not only their home but also their main source of livelihood. As Minera Yanacocha began its operations in 1997, police officers confiscated all of Màxima’s possessions, threatened her family and beat her on a number of occasions.
According to a recent research carried out by ULAM (Uniòn Latinoamericana de Mujeres) and LAMMP (Latin America Mining Monitoring Programme), the structural changes introduced by mining projects in Peruvian communities, along with the climate of violence and impunity that surrounds them, have serious psychological effects on women.
Women activists like Máxima, who campaign against the construction of mines on their territory are the first to show signs of paranoia, stress, anger, sadness, and isolation as well as clear symptoms of Clinical Depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Attacks, harassment and beatings…
Sexual assault, harassment, and the use of offensive ideas about sexuality are the most common tools used against women to discredit their reputation and work. This often results in the breakdown of family ties, resulting in male family members leaving or asking for divorce.
“I’m not surprised by Máxima’s words,” says Glevys Rondon, Project Director of LAMMP – a London based organization that offers psychological help to women human rights defenders.
“Due to prescribed gender roles, women activists encounter additional risks and obstacles to those faced by their male counterparts,” she continues. “While men deal mostly with physical violence, women are also subject to severe psychological attacks that can have deep consequences on their work and well-being.”
ULAM has reported cases in which women activists have been openly labelled as ‘bad’ mothers because their job puts their children and the entire household in danger. “On a personal level, the assumption of not being good mothers or good wives is unbearable for most women activists,” Rondon says, “Feeling guilty about not being able to take care of the family is something that mothers all around the world experience every day, even in normal circumstances. But when this sense of guilt is pushed to the limit by social and cultural rules, the psychological effects on women become overwhelming”.
According to a report published by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in 2006, there is a consensus in most communities around the world that women are the ones who are going to take care of the children. This consensus is put into question when women engage in public and political activism resulting in a stigmatization of women based on their gender, on the accusation that they don’t spend enough time with their children, and that they are not present when their families need them. The gender pressure that women experience from their community has to be added to the physical threats that their work as activists already implies.
Often, psychological violence is used to justify physical violence under the assumption that if women were living the role assigned to them by patriarchy, they wouldn’t encounter risks of any kind. “This type of mentality aims at questioning the role of women as human rights defenders, their autonomy, their public visibility, and their leadership,” Rondon recalls, “Women are too often undermined as leaders of organizations, even if we are seeing an increasing number of movements being led by women all around the world”.
Máxima’s situation is far from being unique. In recent decades Latin America has become the first destination in the world for mining investment. While the industry and a number of governments argue that mining could boost the region’s economy by generating revenue and prompting development, a growing number of rural and indigenous communities have noted that the current mining model puts their well-being, health, and political rights at serious risk. Peru is an emblematic example, with 21.02 percent of its national territory under concession in 2015.
For many years now, ULAM and LAMMP have been offering psychological support to women in Peru, whose communities have been affected by mining. In 2014, ULAM held a series of group therapy sessions in the communalities of Espinar and Celendin.
During these occasions, most women expressed feelings of anger and frustration because they had been excluded from public meetings or silenced when attempting to express their views. Similarly, women expressed being marginalized by representatives of the mine simply because they were opposing the project. In Espinar women recalled that the engineers would not pick up their phone calls, or request to speak to their brothers or husbands instead of them. In the long run, feelings of anger and frustration can generate paranoia and the inability to trust people. This often causes the marginalization and isolation of women within their own communities.
On the policy level, however, the protection of women human rights defenders is still almost non-existent. In general, international mechanisms are more focused on the promotion rather than the protection of human rights, even though the psychological effects of being a woman activist are well known.
According to Rondon, assessing the differences between women human rights defenders (WHRDs) and their male counterparts is vital in order to protect women against both physical and psychological attacks. Gender neutral policies, for instance, fail to cover the whole spectrum of psychological implications faced by WHRDs and tend to respond only to men’s struggles. Most programs provide a set of common measures for all human rights defenders at risk without taking into account variables such as gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. The role that WHRDs play in the workplace, in their families, and in their communities needs to be considered when implementing international policies.
“A better form of protection would look at different aspects of risks,” Rondon explains. For many women defenders, this means being offered physical as well as psychological support, reactive and preventive, on the short as well as on the long term.
For women like Máxima, being able to work for their rights without the ghost of psychological, cultural, and social blackmail is a right in itself; a right that despite being acknowledged is still far from being implemented.