Why We Cannot Keep Silent

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Women Speak Out for Rivers

How do women feel when their rivers are dammed, their forests and villages submerged? What are their main concerns when facing the huge social changes and trauma that these projects bring to their communities? What inspired them to resist large dams and join the movement against all odds? How can they build more strength into their struggles?

Women have long taken action to protect rivers. These women would be affected by the Sardar Sarovar Dam in India

Karen Robinson

These were some of the questions we brought to a special women’s forum at the third international meeting of dam-affected people, held in Temaca, Mexico in October.

Under an open tent, some 60 women gathered in a sharing circle to discuss our personal connections with rivers and our motivations for joining the international struggle to protect rivers and human rights.

What made this experience remarkable was the authenticity that each woman brought to the circle, and the inspiring stories of strength they shared. Across the world women have long been at the forefront of the dams struggle, confronting the dam companies and government officials who are pushing large dams in their communities, organizing events to call attention to these projects, and bringing people together in creative actions to protest dams. Many of the women who came to Mexico for the Rivers for Life meeting said this was one of the first times they had shared their inner most feelings and internal struggles about trying to balance their family needs with the call to save their rivers from damming.

The stories we heard in Mexico were sad, moving, inspiring. The clear message was that these women simply could not keep silent anymore about the injustices that large dams cause.

Maria Chuy is from Temaca, which faces submergence by the El Zapotillo Dam. “My inspiration has been my town,” she says. “I could not stay still. I realized that I am not only good for cooking and staying home and raising children, and had to do something to save my town. I had to tell my children how to protect their rivers, defend their territories. This faith pushes me forward against all odds.”

Dora Gauto Rios from Paraguay brought the group to tears when she told us her story of being forced out by Yacyreta Dam. “Today our river is silent. We know what our river tells us. In 17 years three dams have been built on our Parana River. It is completely polluted. It is gone! Our children will no longer be able to enjoy it. We are impoverished. Today, we do not have land; we do not have a place of birth.”

The women were connected to their rivers – like an umbilical cord, their river connects them to their families and their families to their homeland. When the dams are built, the river loses its eternal connection with the land, forests, river banks and… to itself. They feel responsible to protect these natural riches.

“My grandmother took me to the river, to listen to the earth’s song, to the river’s music. Each voice is the essence of nature; women are the guardians of nature. We have the obligation to defend it,” said Moira Millan, a Mapuche Indian striving to protect Patagonia in Latin America. Her gentle but firm resolve was echoed by a woman activist from Brazil: “If the Amazonian region is the world’s lungs, why are we not defending it from dams and destruction? My inspiration to join the movement came when I saw the rivers being destroyed by irresponsible development.” Irene, a young student from Mexico, told us that she took inspiration from her mother, who talked to the wind, the plants and the flowers: “I grew up respecting nature. My greatest inspiration to join the movement is the love that my mother passed on to me.”

Even some of the most outspoken activists, like Soniamara Maranho of Brazil’s Movement of Dam-Affected People, mentioned that men do not always support women in working for the struggle. They expect their wives to organize and continue taking care of all the family and household responsibilities. But, she said, “Women look after the seed of life, work the most and go hungry the most often. We have to be in command and cannot remain in shadows anymore.” (See Soniamara’s article, page 14)

Many women said they believe that a river has the right to flow, like we have the right to live.

Tuba Kılıç from Turkey was eloquent: “I believe that every creature has rights. The planet that we live on has rights. In my community, we decided to become river activists because, in my country, every water body has a dam project lined up. Rivers carry food to every creature living in it. I believe that the river should not be stripped of its right to life.”

The conversation flowed. “Does anybody have the right to cut off the flow of someone else’s life? A dam cuts off connection to life,” asked another participant.

The need to become stronger in bonds and action was felt and shared by all of the women gathered in the fading afternoon sun of Temaca that day.

A movement within a movement

As Betty Obbo from Uganda pointed out, women and children are the most affected by displacement. They lose their access to safe drinking water, fish in flowing waters, fertile land for farming food and familiar spaces in the village they have lived and rooted themselves. (See Betty’s article, page 10) “We may face discrimination from our families. But that should not deter us. If we respect the life of the river, we will gain strength from it. We should acknowledge ourselves as fighters,” said a young leader from Ecuador.

Ideas on how to reinforce these women’s strength came pouring in across our circle. Reach out to more women in the dam affected communities, working together will give them strength to face the long struggle ahead. Create alliances with other women’s movements. Talk to the media on how women are affected differently than men by dams and displacement. Hold more hunger strikes, nonviolent sit-ins and the like. An activist from Brazil suggested setting up of autonomous women’s movements within our organizations to carry forward the resistance. (Another idea was to create this special issue of WRR – here it is!)

Latha and Susanne at Rivers for Life women's sessionFinally, we touched upon an issue most women struggle with: how much can we take on? How do we protect ourselves while taking on these difficult struggles? As women we are always making sacrifices, sometimes to the point that there is nothing left to give. But we need to save something for ourselves – an inner space of sanity. This is the only way we can keep on fighting until we get what we want for the world, because it is sure to be a long journey to get to that better world.

As the session closed with tears and hugs all around, we took great comfort from the realization that the rivers across the world are united through thousands of women like these – women with the sense and sensibility to understand that if rivers die, we all lose together.

More information

The authors were co-organizers of the women’s session in Mexico.