Orsinia Polanco


August 28, 2009

Orsinia Polanco

Member of the Chamber of Representatives, first indigenous woman elected to Colombian Congress

“Being a woman is not synonymous with being inferior, and that is a direct message to indigenous women. I know many indigenous women who consider themselves inferior to men and this mentality is unfortunate. We must get fear of men out of our minds. I think that a woman must have a lot of character in order to thrive. It is like saying, ‘I am all that I can be, I am more than you,’ but without saying it, rather by demonstrating through acts.” – Orsinia Polanco

iKNOW Politics: Thank you very much for your time, Orsinia. I’d like to start by asking you to tell us about your career. How did your interest in politics begin, what inspired you? And in particular, how has being a woman and, moreover, an indigenous woman, affected you?

First, I’d like to send out warm greetings. Thank you very much for this interview. I am proud and honored to represent Colombian women in my country’s Congress. But isn’t easy — it certainly isn’t easy. It is very difficult because I am the first indigenous woman to be elected to Congress in Colombia’s history. Politics is in my blood. My father was a political man, an orator; an indigenous man that solved conflicts within the indigenous communities.

Since I was 13, I have participated in political movements thanks to him; he was the one who got me involved. I always liked politics. When I was 18 years old, I ran as a candidate for councilor in my municipality, Guajira. My mom was against my continuing in politics because it seemed tiring to her. My dad used to bring a lot of people to the house and she would always host them all. It was my vision and interest that brought me to politics. I saw that my indigenous community had a lot of needs. I saw that we women didn’t have our own, individual voice, so many indigenous women suggested I participate and run for election.

Then I ran at the national level. I have worked at the Guajira Regional Autonomous Corporation as bilingual Secretary of Indigenous Issues in the Guajira department; as a professor at the National University and as an administrator in the Catholic University. In the Javeriana University I have been a professor of indigenous languages and indigenous culture. I have always promoted my culture and the Wayúu language in Colombia and internationally. I have a Master’s degree in linguistics from the National University.

I am filled with pride and satisfaction because I am young and I am a woman and I have had to fight hard. Women have been shut out of political scenes because machismo is still predominant. A woman is usually at home and when she is an activist, she is the one seeking votes from men and selling empanadas to finance her campaign. At best, a woman is valued as an activist, but not for her intellectual or political ability. A woman is hidden; she isn’t permitted to go out.

iKNOW Politics: What was your candidacy like? What movement or party did you participate in? Were there any problems with you being included in the list?

I am a member of the Alternative Democratic Pole, the only party in Colombia that allows ethnic communities to participate. Its statute recognizes it as a multiethnic, multicultural party. When I was a master’s student as well as a professor at the National University, I realized that the majority of my professors and classmates belonged to the Democratic Pole. I was also drawn by the fact that the party’s current president was previously a member of the Constitutional Court and tenaciously defended the indigenous peoples.

The sentences he issued favored the indigenous, preserving their values and customs and respecting their autonomy. It is odd to find people in that category that respect us, indigenous persons. That’s why I joined the Democratic Pole. And when I joined, I was not rejected, at least not explicitly. I did have to compete; however, because there were people who proposed an indigenous man [as candidate] since they thought that as a woman I was not fit to get elected. Then I competed with an indigenous man who had received 17,000 votes four years back and I beat him because we were both asked to present a proposal.

The man didn’t even have advertising or a headquarters. I had both a headquarters and advertising. My political platform was very clear: to defend women, children and indigenous peoples. The majority voted in my favor. I won based on my abilities; for being responsible, for being up to date in everything and for being organized. In terms of organization, women outdo men. They thought that I was not prepared, but I came back strong — very strong — and my speech was very well grounded and argued.

iKNOW Politics: You have talked a lot about the support your father, a politically active person, gave you. How did his ancestral culture facilitate or hinder your participation in politics?

In the Wayúu culture, women represent men in almost all political, social and economic scenarios. This is our history. My father used to tell me that women must go out to the streets because women are sacred and cannot be sacrificed. When we turn 12 years old, considered the age of puberty, we Wayúu women are prepared to be women; to present ourselves in society and to be wives, and also to represent the entire community in different political, social and economic scenarios. This is why the woman is the one that represents the community in general, because she is given this role, this function.

In other Colombian indigenous cultures, this does not exist. I am fortunate because I was born in the Wayúu culture, where we have a more matriarchal system in which the woman is the one who gives orders, organizes and represents. Fortunately, I didn’t have problems with my [political] participation in my own community. On the contrary, the indigenous men in my community were happy for me and very proud. They would tell me, ‘you have to be reelected because you have represented us very well.’ At no time have they opposed. The other indigenous cultures in the country do everything possible to hinder my work, saying that a man must be here. Machismo in Colombia is very strong, both among ‘arijunas’ — non-indigenous persons — and indigenous persons from other cultures.

iKNOW Politics: Could you tell us what principal strategies you’ve used to stay in office and carry out your goals?

Well, one is tolerance and understanding, which you must have with other colleagues. In the Chamber of Representatives, we women are very few: of 166 members, there are only 13 women, almost nothing. There are times in sessions when there are only two of us women and I am the only indigenous woman. So in order to move forward, we must be tolerant and win allies little by little. On the other hand, you must prepare yourself well at all times, using your intellectual ability to write legislative bills and later argue them. However, perhaps the most important thing is to know how to get around the situations at hand that are unique to politics.

In this aspect we don’t only deal with bills; we also have to monitor the country’s overall situation. In the case of indigenous communities, we have carried out several strikes to demand our rights. Since the national government has treated us like terrorists, then I have to face this situation because everyone asks me for explanations at the same time, like wasps. When I recently got elected, I didn’t know how to maneuver political, formal and diplomatic situations.

I would present my arguments against a bill and everyone attacked me because they wanted for there to be a consensus. I said no and raised my voice a little, losing control when I talked. I got angry a lot. Now I give explanations to others with a lot of respect and diplomacy. I am more strategic, I have learned a lot. I tell them that the president represents all Colombians and that I am Colombian and the indigenous peoples are also Colombian; they have to understand why I am against a bill. I give them my arguments and they see that I am more prepared. I never talk when I am not prepared. If I do not know the issue, I prefer to stay quiet. And in this way they have come to respect me.

iKNOW Politics: Have you had any particularly unpleasant experience while you’ve been in office, any situation in which you have felt discriminated for being an indigenous woman? What are the principal lessons you have taken from those experiences?

One of the experiences I most remember, which was very painful, was when they stepped on my manta — my indigenous attire. My indigenous dress is quite long and one day when I arrived, I needed to use the restroom. When I came out of the restroom and ran to vote against a bill, several men got together and stepped on my dress. I couldn’t move. I asked myself, what is this? I was about to report this, I was very upset and I thought it was terrible for them to do this to me. I thought, ‘I am in a democratic country, in a legislative chamber with thinking people’…The time came for the session to begin and I was all alone. There was another woman in the area but she disappeared without saying anything.

So I asked myself, ‘Was it because I am a woman? Was it so that I wouldn’t vote? Was it so that I have no allies here? I have to find allies! Then I began to look for them and I have many allies now. I have learned to meet them. The principal lesson is that after a very strong, well argued debate in which you have been very critical, you must turn back into a super nice, well-loved woman and smile at them. Then you must not show them any susceptibility, sensitivity, or anything. A friend of mine says that the best weapon you can have against your enemy is niceness.

You can destroy your enemy’s indifference with a big hug and show your friendliness if you have been offended.

iKNOW Politics: The women’s parliamentary benches have received a lot of acceptance at the regional level and have become an important mechanism in promoting women in politics. What is your opinion on the Colombian Congress Women’s Commission?

It is excellent that all of us women unite in the Women’s Commission. We have participated in forums, we form part of the Inter-American Parliamentary Group (GPI) and we have shared with women from Costa Rica, Peru, Ecuador and other countries. I think it is excellent for us women because it allows us to talk about both political and nonpolitical issues. I believe that the Women’s Commission should not disappear because it is where we forget about political parties and men’s influence and begin to create very important strategies and proposals for public policies that benefit women.

iKNOW Politics: In your opinion, how has the internal conflict in Colombia affected the participation of women and particularly indigenous women in politics?

The internal conflict is very unfortunate. It has spilled a lot of blood and many indigenous people have been victims of forced internal displacement. Many women have been obligated to live in cities with their children in their arms and have been driven to poverty and begging. The state has given no support to indigenous persons. We have lost a lot of land, which is why we are currently marching throughout the country since the federal government has failed to fully comply with the return lands that had been snatched from indigenous communities. We have to stand up, organize ourselves and tell the government that we do exist and we need these lands in order to live. With forced displacement, women have suffered a lot, more so when they are from a community that has unique values and customs. They begin to lose them because they move to the city, which could result in the extinction of their culture.

iKNOW Politics: What do you think of work networks and alliances? Have they been important in your experience in politics?

I believe they are very important. They help to publicize women’s presence in politics. If a lot of people in Colombia don’t know I exist — moreover as an indigenous woman — then I believe they will know who I am after this interview. And this will reinforce the perspective of indigenous and non-indigenous women, strengthening our participation in politics. Ignorance gives way to mistakes, but if we know each other through networks, then we begin to make connections and have the opportunity to learn a lot more. The knowledge that can be obtained on public policies at the international level is a great help. And that knowledge is the result of working in networks. In this way we can tell others what we are doing and simultaneously better prepare ourselves to participate more efficiently in Congress.

iKNOW Politics: What advice or suggestions would you give young women, especially indigenous women, who are interested in participating in politics?

In first place, be strong. And in second place, prepare yourselves very well in order to prove that we are very capable and that nothing is impossible in this life. Being a woman is not synonymous with being inferior, and that is a direct message to indigenous women. I know many indigenous women who consider themselves inferior to men and this mentality is unfortunate. We must get fear of men out of our minds. I think that a woman must have a lot of character in order to thrive. It is like saying, ‘I am all that I can be, I am more than you,’ but without saying it, rather by demonstrating through acts. That is what makes you a politician. I didn´t get into politics with money. I got here doing campaigns by foot, making my political proposals known and I ended up getting 29,599 votes.

iKNOW Politics: What are your plans to promote women’s and indigenous women’s participation in politics? How would you like to be remembered? What legacy would you like to leave?

The first thing in my agenda as an indigenous woman is to ardently defend the rights of indigenous communities, whether they be human rights or their rights to land so that they can subsist through farming. I am also concerned about education and health and other areas where the indigenous communities need to be kept in mind. It is also in my agenda to keep making myself known and to be an example for women not only in Colombia, but also for my personal stories and experiences to reach every corner of the planet.

As for my legacy, more than being reelected I would like to get water for the Wayúu indigenous territory. They live in desert lands where there is no water, not even to drink, and animals die of thirst. We live in a border area and there is water in Venezuela in the Lago Maracaibo and Río Limón. Why don’t we look for a way to bring water through tubes, just as gas is transported from Colombia to Venezuela? I would like to be remembered as a radical woman, a defender of women and indigenous peoples. I would like to keep moving forward in politics. Who knows, I could even make it to being president. But in order for this to happen I must better prepare myself; complete doctorate studies, go abroad and return in order to keep fighting for women’s rights in Colombia.

This country has never had a woman president, why couldn’t it be me? I would like not only to address women’s problems, but also to address other problems in the country. The indigenous are not the only ones who suffer here; the campesino farmers are also displaced. There are people here that live in the city, but they are very poor. There is a lot of inequality in Colombia and I would like there to be a true democracy.