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The Mapuche Struggle: A Woman’s Perspective – Raise the Voices

Piaroa Núñez and Ian Bannon

Image Credit: Frentefotografico

Large social protests erupted across Chile in October last year. As the protests intensified Mapuche flags, flying alongside Chilean flags, became a common sight. In response to social unrest, the Government agreed to a referendum on Constitutional reform, now set for October 25, 2020. One key question being considered by Congress is the participation of Mapuche and other indigenous peoples in the Constitutional Convention that would draft a new Constitution. There appears to be an emerging consensus on the need to allocate seats for indigenous representatives, but details have yet to be worked out, including the number of reserved seats and whether they would be gender balanced. 

Despite more hopeful prospects for meaningful social and economic change in Chile, and the possibility that indigenous rights would one day be enshrined in a new Constitution, indigenous communities continue to face discrimination, harassment and violence across their lands and territories (Wallmapu). We had the opportunity to speak with Jessica Cayupi, a Mapuche lawyer and a spokesperson for ‘Red de Mujeres Mapuche’ (Network of Mapuche Women), an organization that gives voice to Mapuche women and promotes their indigenous identity and culture. She discussed Mapuche culture, the role of women, human rights, and the prospects for Pluricultural Constitution, through a gender lenss

The Role of Mapuche Women in their Communities

Images of the Mapuche struggle commonly depict men in a lead role with women generally in the background. Jessica notes that “Although historically the women have organized communities, it is the men who usually appear as leading…and women always seem to be playing a secondary role.” Women have always been responsible for passing on the rich Mapuche culture to a new generation, including traditional beliefs, customs, language and history. “If you go to an indigenous community it is not the man teaching the culture,” she added.

Jessica explained that Mapuche women do exercise leadership in their communities but their roles remain  hidden. “We want those same women that have been leaders for so long, who have stayed in the background, to be seen and recognized as leaders within their communities. This is entirely consistent with our spirituality,” she said. In the Mapuche worldview women and men complement each other and are equal. “Our principles tell us that we should go hand in hand, and not one in front of the other, but rather that we should do things together… it is one of the fundamental principles of our people and we believe this should be the case in every context,” she added.

Jessica considered that one word encapsulates the work of Mapuche women in their communities: resistance. They organize, face discrimination and violence, and bear the burden of caring for their families when men are arrested. “If a man is standing up for the cause, what is behind him? The women will always be there. We don’t want her to be left behind, but we want her to be equally important.” Jessica went on to explain that one of the main goals of the Network of Mapuche Women is to raise the voice of Mapuche women and make their resistance visible.

Jessica also touched on domestic violence in Mapuche communities, emphasizing it is a complex and sensitive issue. Domestic violence exists, but is often silenced so as not to draw attention from the broader Mapuche struggle. People often tell women to go to the police, but as Jessica pointed out “How are you going to complain to the police when they are the ones who violate your human rights? You are defenseless.” Even when women can access other State agencies (e. g., social workers) they don’t have the cultural sensitivity to know how to work with indigenous women. “It is a problem we have to tackle,” she emphasized.

Human Rights Violations in Wallmapu 

Jessica pointed out that when it comes to  State violence, the State does not differentiate between Mapuche men and women. Since women tend to be in the background, violations of their human rights receive far less attention than for men, especially women who are traditional or spiritual leaders. “The State does not care if you are a man or a woman, because it treats you horribly and violates your physical integrity anyway.”

She highlighted the recent cases of Werken Ana Llao and Machi Miriam Mariñán. Werken Ana, who serves as messenger to her community, was brutally arrested during a peaceful demonstration advocating for the rights of Mapuche political prisoners. Machi Miriam, a spiritual leader, was detained and beaten up during demonstrations in Tirúa. Jessica explained that sexual harassment and violence by the security forces against national protesters was common during the demonstrations. This is no different for Mapuche women and children in Wallmapu. She alluded to the case of women merchants in Temuco, who have been violently harassed to prevent the sale of their produce in the city. Those arrested, mostly elderly women (ñañas) and their daughters, were sexually humiliated in detention, forced to undress and endure unnecessary body searches.

Break-ins by security forces are common in Wallmapu communities. They generally occur at dawn and involve large amounts of tear gas and scattered pellet shots. Being a wariache (an urban Mapuche), Jessica could only imagine what it must be like for her brothers and sisters living in this violent environment, “with a tank next to you…a policeman with a machine gun walking by your house all day, helicopters hovering day and night… I mean, we are not at war.”

Hopes for a New Plurinational Constitution 

Jessica was cautiously optimistic on the prospects for a new Constitution that recognizes the rights of Chile’s indigenous peoples. “Look, we are quite optimistic but we are also realists, right? We believe that this process that was born on October 18th…a process that emerged from below, by the people, by the citizens, can be a path toward a solution,” she said. But this can only happen if indigenous peoples are represented in the Constitutional body, so that their voices are heard and they have an active role in deliberations. Jessica insisted that “there have to be reserved seats (for indigenous people), they can’t say no.”

In line with Mapuche beliefs, Jessica and the Network argue that there must be a gender balance in Mapuche representation. “It is a matter of making concrete the principles that govern our worldview…if there is political representation in that Constituent body, the representatives of the indigenous peoples must be balanced in terms of men and women.” She clarified that this should not be applicable solely to the Mapuche people, rather, the Constitutional Convention should include representatives of all indignious peoples in the country. 

Jessica was hopeful about the prospects for change. “We don’t lose hope that this is one more step, or a minimum step, to achieve a general solution not only in terms of issues that affect the Mapuche people but rather the whole Chilean society.”

Jessica Cayupi is a Mapuche lawyer and spokesperson for the Red de Mujeres Mapuche (Network of Mapuche Women). For more information about the Network, visit and follow their Facebook page
and their instagram profile

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