Editor’s note: Our interview with Ms. Zapata has been divided into two parts. The first focuses on the work she does to abolish FGM and can be found here. The second looks more broadly at her role as a leader for women in her community.
Solani Zapata acts on the Risaralda Indigenous Regional Council as the regional advisor for women’s issues. A few years ago, the domination of indigenous councils by men meant leadership roles for women would not have been possible. Solani is dedicated to delivering educational sessions around the harmful impact of female genital mutilation (FGM) to Emberá communities, as part of the Emberá Wera (Emberá Women) Project. This program, delivered with the support of the United Nations Population Fund, has led to greater conversations about gender-based violence and sexual health, and to reflection among the women on their decision-making power. Women in her community have become empowered to take on leadership roles in demanding changes.
When did you first develop an interest in social justice and women’s rights?
I was 25. That was 8 years ago, in 2008. I became engaged when the issue [of FGM] came up in the community. Mostly, it was women’s issues that interested me. After the Riseralda Congress took place, that was when things got shaken up, [and I was able to get more actively involved].
What barriers did you face when you first began this work?
The main barrier was the men. At that time, men were used to being in charge of all of the women’s issues. There is a strong gender, machismo, issues in the community. I had to deal with a lot of barriers in terms of getting across the message, and getting them to understand what was important for women, as a woman.
How did you get around the limited access to decision-making and advocacy power for women in your community?
The first thing I did was stand up for myself, because when I came in for the first time, [the men] said that they were going to call me back when they needed me. I said that wasn’t the way this was going to work. I had been elected in congress to represent all these women, and that had been a decision that was made by a community. They had to respect that. I was elected in a democratic way, and I wasn’t going anywhere. Basically, I just stood my ground.
Was it difficult as a woman to have enough community support to be elected to regional leadership?
Women were always in favour of having a woman lead on [women’s] subjects. They didn’t want men handling those topics any more, so that’s why they elected a woman.
How has the council atmosphere changed with respect to female members over the course of your time there?
There is a lot of work to be done still. In the beginning, men had a major concern when I was appointed to that leadership role. They thought that I was going to make other women rude, like [they thought I was]. They weren’t used to seeing a woman in [a leadership] role. Since I don’t show them any fear, they think I am being rude, and that [other] women will no longer be submissive. They fear women will do whatever they want to do, and not respect the men. Still, in some communities, where men have these thoughts, some of the women are afraid to speak up. Even thought there are women who have done a great job being leaders, some of [the men] want to set them back because of their gender. We have elected other women as well, on other topics such as women and family with in the congress, so we have more representation, but there are some who don’t want [women’s empowerment] to advance.
What have been the most positive aspects of your work?
The most satisfying part of my job is knowing that I am giving other women the opportunity to learn and to be empowered, just like the men are. There is equality. Telling them about their rights is one thing, but helping them to become agents of change and actually do something with those rights, that’s what really satisfies [me] at the end of the day. Knowing I have enabled other women to grow, to learn, and continue the work we are talking about.
If you could give a piece of advice to young women passionate about a social justice issue, but intimidated by the obstacles, what would it be?
first thing you have to do is love what you’re passionate about, and not be afraid. Even though you may feel the fear, you have to overcome it. Let the love and the passion you have for the work and for your issue, your cause, be what guides you. Little by little, just breathe, take a deep breath and go, and be a leader. You have to not be afraid to speak in public, not be afraid and learn to dominate these things and tell yourself every single day that you are capable, and you can do it. I tell myself this even today. Sometimes I have been so shaken I want to cry, but I will just take a deep breath and tell myself I can do it. That’s how I get through these things.