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Drumming against gender-based violence in Ecuador

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© UNHCR/Jaime Giménez

By Jaime Giménez in San Lorenzo

The rhythmic drumbeat starts up, the maracas join, and singer Olaise Cortéz sways as she takes aim at a devastating issue that is too often shrouded in silence – gender-based violence.

"Husband, don't mistreat me," she calls out, as the all-women group respond: "Let's get ahead." "It's time to change / Let's get ahead / That you were born to a woman / Let's get ahead / You can't deny it / Let's get ahead."

Then she steps it up, letting the women in the drum circle -- and the wider community beyond -- know that sexual violence is a crime: "If someone violates me / Let's get ahead / The first thing to do / Let's get ahead / Go out for help / Let's get ahead / And report it too."

Sixty-six-year-old Olaise and the Afro-descendant women in her Tía Gachita collective use traditional songs, instruments and arrullo beats to raise awareness among men, women and children in the dusty streets of Calderón, in northwest Ecuador.

"Sometimes, if you don't know any different, you don't change," says Olaise. "But ... we've learned about our rights. We pass this knowledge on to our neighbours, our brothers, to our children, to move this [discussion] forward," she adds.

Olaise founded the group, which is named for her mother, in 1986 in the San Lorenzo region of Ecuador, a few kilometres from the border with Colombia. It draws on the centuries-old musical tradition of Afro-Ecuadorians, whose forebears were brought to South America as enslaved people in the 1600s.

"Our music ... is the means we have used to guide young people."

Some of Tía Gachita's members are from the local community, others are Afro-Colombian refugees. Olaise says all are "determined warrior women", committed to reviving a traditional form, long used by their communities as a way of educating the next generation.

"Our music, a ritual that our ancestors used, is the means we have used to guide young people," says Olaise, who wears the traditional Afro-descendant women's headscarf tied around her head.

Their message is sorely needed. The UN estimates that one-in-three women worldwide will experience gender-based violence in their lifetimes, most at the hands of someone they know or are intimate with.

Latin America has among the world’s highest level of gender violence. And the already dire situation only got worse during the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in protracted lockdowns and deepening poverty. The heightened risk of violence has been even greater for displaced women and girls, who are particularly vulnerable to the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic and face additional barriers to reporting abuse and seeking help.

While violence is common, it is seldom discussed. The group's members say the arrullos provide a valuable way to start much-needed conversations in their lowland and coastal communities.

"It's difficult to go directly to a partner to address issues of violence," says Zorana Narváez, 32, a refugee of African descent from Tumaco, on Colombia's southwestern Pacific Coast. "But through the song you can listen to the music, the theme and everything goes differently," she adds.

Since 2019, Tía Gachita has received support from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, its partner HIAS and the United Nations Population Fund, through workshops on prevention of gender-based violence, promotion of human rights and refugee integration.

"I learned a lot about the rights we have here in Ecuador."

In addition to countering gender-based violence, the group uses arrullos to spread other useful public service messages, among them the need to get vaccinated against yellow fever and measles -- and now COVID-19.

Ecuador hosts some 70,000 Colombian refugees, as well as more than 500,000 refugees and migrants from Venezuela who have found in the small Andean country a safe haven in which to rebuild their lives.

Olaise also uses music to promote the integration of Colombian refugees who settled near Calderón. The group's rhythmic call-and-response songs seek to build brotherhood between the two nationalities and set out the rights of those uprooted from their homes by violence and persecution.

"It was a very nice experience because I learned a lot about the rights that we -- as people on the move -- have here in Ecuador. And that also helped me to guide other people in the same situation," explains Zorana, who has been with Tía Gachita for six years.

Many of the Afro-descendant communities in San Lorenzo share family ties with communities in Colombia – and both communities are delighted to be reviving a shared traditional form.

“I feel very fortunate, because through arrullos we rescued the culture of our grandparents, which was already being left behind, and we can also speak to women about our rights, the equality that we should have,” says Zorana.

Reviving her forbears’ culture – while spreading useful messages – also gives Olaise deep satisfaction.

“Culture is the life of the people,” she says. “That is why we organize ourselves, as women guardians of wisdom, with the aim of rescuing our culture, our lives.”