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Book Review: High-Risk Feminism in Colombia Women's Mobilization in Violent Contexts

24 Jan 2023
Reviewed by Dr Kristina Mani

Julia Margaret Zulver’s High-Risk Feminism in Colombia comes at just the right moment. Over the last decade, Latin America’s bottom-up feminist movements have begun again to rise to the forefront of advancing gender justice in the world.

Since 2020, bottom-up feminist movements have successfully fought for legislation that has decriminalised abortion in three countries — Argentina, Mexico, and Colombia — impacting the lives of over 200 million of the region’s roughly 600 million people. Similarly, politicians can no longer ignore the scourge of domestic violence and femicide, thanks to the ceaseless pressure of grassroots organisers. The slogan Ni Una Menos (Not One Less) became a movement resonating across the region. Such movements for gender justice often catch the headlines only after many decades of hard and dangerous collective action, yet they all have roots in community-level organising. Zulver’s research on feminist organising in Colombia provides a much-needed framework to better understand these momentous dynamics. 

Zulver’s work tells us about social movements, feminist grassroots organising, and the capacity of women from vulnerable communities to resist repression through collective action. It is part of a wave of scholarship on women in violent contexts that moves beyond earlier work on “women in peacebuilding.” Where the author departs from these works is her focus on how women pursue gender justice in extraordinary situations — often in violent, high-risk contexts — to advocate for themselves and challenge dominant power dynamics.   

Colombia’s five-decade armed conflict was particularly brutal for civilians in rural areas. When the peace accords between the government and the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) insurgents were signed in 2016, the country had the world’s largest number of internally displaced persons at 7.2 million and had recorded “hundreds of thousands of episodes of violence including forced displacement, kidnapping disappearances, homicide, physical violence, sexual violence including rape and torture, and recruitment of child soldiers” (66). The peace agreement was historic and ambitious, encompassing pathbreaking terms well beyond disarmament and reintegration, such as rural development and transitional justice mechanisms. Yet “peace” has been tenuous, with questionable political will from traditional elites and a lack of buy-in from Colombia’s numerous armed actors. Add to this the continued de facto power of criminal armed groups who are the progeny of Colombia’s earlier cartels and paramilitaries. It is clear that violence has not ended. Rather, its methods have been reconfigured.  

Zulver takes a critical feminist studies approach, grounded in the understanding that women fundamentally experience conflict differently — and more severely — due to existing gender inequality norms. In other words, the “end” of conflict does not bring an end to those norms. On this basis, the puzzle she addresses is why women in these countries dare to mobilize in such a high-risk context. 

Zulver, who is a political sociologist, is not the first to work from the apparent paradox that repressive or dangerous contexts can generate social resistance. But her main claim goes further: she argues that gendered risks promote feminist identities and strategies, and ultimately feminist collective action. Initially, this may be because women’s shared challenges bring them together in grassroots settings. Yet because “post-conflict” settings often do not make women’s lives safer or more peaceful, it is entirely rational for them to take the risk to mobilise against the control of armed groups for potential benefits they could achieve (safer home, access to basic goods, etc.). Zulver’s logic draws from prospect theory in economics, which explains behaviour in terms of one’s perception of risks versus rewards. Put differently, women already in precarious situations of risk are effectively willing to double down and mobilise for the potential gain they can achieve by organising. Yet she also finds that charismatic leadership is necessary to forge and sustain collective action, and this becomes a linchpin in her cases. 

Zulver develops her argument thoroughly in the first three chapters of the book. She draws substantially from existing theories and concepts of social movement theory but weaves them together in new and interesting ways. Readers familiar with the literature will likely appreciate the author’s careful exposition and her contribution to understanding grassroots-level feminist organisation. She argues that women who practice high-risk feminism do so in ways that are rational and reasonable. Their action — and frequently their shocking bravery — only makes sense when understood through the collective ties that sustain them. For instance, the important element of charismatic leadership is not only about giving initial direction for a movement, but also sustaining the solidarity bonds that are forged through shared identity and experience.  

Another theory-driven yet practical contribution is the identification of “mobilizational repertoires” (in lay terms, specific strategies) that women use to advance their interests in high-risk settings: creating collective identity, building social capital, legal framing, and engaging in acts of certification. Each of these plays a key role in the case studies. Collective identity forges solidarity and reinforces the validity of their efforts. Social capital provides resource networks and builds norms of trust and reciprocity within the community. Legal framing defines violations threatened or committed against women in terms that obligate the state to step up with action. Finally, acts of certification, in which women “go public” (via marches, public statements, etc.) with their claims enable them to make themselves visible within public space and define their own roles. In short, Zulver gives us both a conceptual and practical roadmap for high-risk feminist action. 

The next three chapters incorporate the case studies. Two are cases of successful high-risk feminism. The first concerns La Liga de Mujers Desplazadas (the League of Displaced Women) and the housing project they built in the early 2000s in the Caribbean city of El Pozón. The second is about Afromupaz (Association of Afro Women for Peace), a group that was founded in Usme, a neighbourhood south of the Colombian capital, Bogotá. Zulver studied and accompanied the women in these communities as part of her ethnographic research. In both, she finds the role of a charismatic leader and the mobilizational repertoires at work. While in both cases women continued to contend with extraordinary dangers (local criminal groups specifically targeted La Liga for challenging their power), they also made vital advances such as owning a modest home while fighting for further needs. In the third case, in La Soledad in the state of Guajira, women fail to organise collectively, and Zulver attributes this to the lack of a capable leader to bring them together.  

While Zulver’s argument is on the whole persuasive, it begs the study of further cases. Is charismatic leadership always necessary to sustain grassroots feminist organising, or is it specifically necessary in high-risk settings? Can organising be sustained without a central figure and once mobilizational repertoires are established? In her conclusions, Zulver identifies steps that state and international actors can take to support what grassroots groups have struggled to achieve. Her analysis of these high-risk contexts can give us all a better understanding of the evidence demonstrating that through grassroots mobilisation women continue to do the unexpected. 

This is a review of Julia Margaret Zulver, High-Risk Feminism in Colombia Women’s Mobilization in Violent Contexts (Rutgers University Press, 2022). ISBN: 9781978827097

Dr Kristina Mani is Professor of Politics at Oberlin College, Ohio.

This review is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.