Colombian women on 'crossed legs' sex strike over crumbling highway

BOGOTA, Colombia — Sex sells, but no
sex? That apparently gets the job done.
To ensure that friends and neighbors
could commute along a crumbling
highway in a timely manner, a group
of women in a remote Colombian town
decided to cross their legs.
The women of Barbacoas made
headlines in 2011 by announcing they
would refuse to have sex with their
husbands and partners to protest the
terrible condition of the road. When
not closed by frequent flooding and
mudslides, the 35-mile stretch could
take up to 24 hours to travel.
Why, they asked, should they bring any
more babies into the world when
pregnant women were dying along the
highway trying to get to the hospital?
"At first, the men were really angry,"
Maribel Silva, a Barbacoas judge and a
spokeswoman for the town's "crossed
legs" movement, told GlobalPost. "But
it worked."
The protest convinced Barbacoas' men
to get involved, and apparently shamed
government officials into taking action.
Colombian army engineers recently
began paving the beat-up parts of the
highway, according to Col. Ricardo
Roque, who is overseeing the project.
The Barbacoas protest is one of several
recent sex strikes, a tactic that's gained
popularity around the world for a
variety of causes.
Wives have refused sex to force
politicians to form a coalition
government in Belgium, to bring down
a dictator in Togo and to end factional
fighting in the Philippines. In Kenya,
protesters even offered to compensate
prostitutes for not working during a
2009 sex strike called to force an end
to political infighting.
"Women, who throughout history have
found themselves at a disadvantage
with men holding most of the power,
have long known that men have a
special vulnerability when it comes to
sex," wrote Frida Ghitis, a world affairs
columnist for the Miami Herald.
In Colombia, the idea dates back to the
late 1990s, when the army appeared
to be losing the war to Marxist
guerrillas. Things got so bad that Gen.
Manuel Jose Bonett, who was then
Colombia's army chief and one of the
country's more philosophical officers
— as well as a Jimi Hendrix fan —
looked to the ancient Greeks for
guidance.
Bonett began extolling the antiwar
message of Lysistrata, Aristophanes'
historical play in which the title
character convinces her female
colleagues to refuse to have sex with
their husbands until they ended the
Pelopennesian War between Athens
and Sparta.
Bonett went on to suggest that female
guerrillas stage their own sexual
boycott.
Over the past decade, the rebels of the
Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia, or FARC, have been
weakened by a US-backed military
offensive. But the FARC remains active,
which helps explain why Colombia's
roads often seem more like mule trails
than motorways.
The fighting, which began 50 years
ago, kept many Colombians from
traveling overland or prompted them
to fly to outlying cities. That, in turn,
reduced pressure on the government
to build new roads while public works
money was sometimes shifted to the
military budget. When new road
projects were approved, the threat of
rebel attacks led to huge delays.
The Barbacoas road, for example, was
built decades ago, but repairs have
been sporadic. Between 2002 and
2009, four engineering firms were
contracted to fix the highway, but all
four pulled out amid FARC attacks, Col.
Roque said.
Even in peaceful areas, constructing
and repairing roads is challenging.
Colombia is also divided by three
Andean mountain ranges that often
receive torrential downpours.
Rutted, washed-out highways create so
many delays that it can cost more to
send a container of Colombian goods
from Bogota to seaside ports than to
than to ship a container from the ports
to China, according to transportation
experts.
If Colombia improved its roads and
reduced transportation costs by a mere
1 percent, a new study by the Inter-
American Development Bank says, the
country could boost its exports by 6 to
8 percent.
In Barbacoas, a town of 35,000 in
southwest Narino department,
residents are simply trying to get to the
provincial capital of Pasto, which is
home to decent hospitals and
government offices. But the once-
paved road is now, in many areas, a
ribbon of mud and clay.
"The holes in the road could swallow a
truck," Col. Roque added.
Silva, the protest spokeswoman,
recalled the case of a woman with a
complicated pregnancy who was
evacuated from Barbacoas bound for
the hospital in Pasto. But the journey
took so long that the woman went into
labor and both she and her baby died
in the back of the ambulance.
Such cases prompted Silva and about
300 other Barbacoas women to start
their crossed-legs protest. Many
participating women slept in the
town's sports coliseum, then returned
home in the morning.
At the time, Barbacoas Mayor Jose
Arnulfo Preciado told The Associated
Press he would submit to a polygraph
to prove the protest was honored, and
he noted that his wife slept in a
separate room during the strike.
"My husband almost had a heart
attack. He was in shock," said Liliana
Mendez, a social worker who joined
the protest after getting stuck on the
road amid a downpour that forced her
and her two daughters to spend the
night in her car.
"When men are denied intimacy, they
try to get it back," she said. "So lots of
men began to take the protest seriously
and to say: 'We better help find a
solution.'"
The original sex strike lasted about
three months until road funding was
promised from the national, state and
local governments.
Army engineers began work in late
2011. But a soldier working on the
road was killed in a guerrilla attack.
There were also delays in securing
construction materials and equipment
and the work quickly ground to a halt.
Now, Col. Roque claims that work has
started back up and that the first 5
miles of road have been paved.
"The idea is that the road will be
finished as soon as possible," said Rene
Veira, the Barbacoas town planning
secretary.
But some of the protesters are taking
no chances, according to Silva. She
said several women have pledged to
keep their legs crossed until the last
mile is paved.