On the summit of Bolivia’s Huayna Potosí mountain, towering more than 6,000 metres above sea level, a flag proudly flies to promote the United Nations Secretary-General’s UNiTE campaign, a global effort to end all violence against women and girls.
In 2020, four female climbers – Cecilia and Rufina Llusco, Teodora Magueño, and Ana Lía Gonzáles – planted it there, a testimony of their resilience and determination to raise public awareness and action, from the highest mountains.
Ascending perilous peaks where temperatures can drop to 30 degrees below Celsius, the journey of these four Aymara women aged 24–50 is a powerful symbol of women’s empowerment. After 18 hours of uninterrupted hiking in -20°C temperatures, they reached the summit, dressed in their traditional attire: the pollera skirts that are characteristic of Bolivia’s indigenous women, fluttering in the wind.
“Before hiking, I used to carry tourists’ luggage up the mountains. Now, after having conquered seven mountains, I want to climb Mount Everest and have my polleras flutter there,” says Cecilia Llusco. She, like her companions, was born and grew up surrounded by the Andes mountains.
This year, their destination is Sajama, the highest mountain in the country, at 6,542 metres above sea level. During the 16 Days of Activism, from 25 November–10 December, they will continue to climb, demonstrating their commitment to eliminating gender-based violence.
The climbers also plan to do a series of events, including press conferences, before and after each climb, to raise awareness about gender-based violence in the country and to encourage young women to learn the sport.
Traditions and determination
The climbers have formed an association that has elevated the profile of Bolivian women in alpinism, conquering the country’s highest peaks and recently scaling the highest mountain in Latin America: the Aconcagua.
“Shining the spotlight on gender-based violence through an extreme sport like alpinism, carried out by four indigenous women who have overcome countless challenges and discrimination, is an example of their determination and commitment for the region and the world,” says Nidya Pesántez, head of UN Women’s office in Bolivia.
Proud of their indigenous roots, the four women ambassadors of the UNiTE campaign in Bolivia display their Aymara identity with pride, through their traditional attire and practices, as they climb to the peaks.
United by a shared sense of love for the mountains, they plan to continue climbing the highest mountains around the world, carrying messages of gender equality and prevention of all forms of violence, as part of the "Mama Pacha" programme, in partnership with UN Women since 2020.
United under a common goal
“I grew up surrounded by the mountains and was told that this was a man’s job,” says Gonzáles, a professional climber and head of the group, known as Cholitas Escaladoras Maya de Bolivia. “That became an incentive to break all kinds of stereotypes and show everyone that women are powerful.”
Alpinism, an extreme sport dominated by men, was the starting point for Gonzáles and her companions to break stereotypes. But they have also since proven that when it comes to achieving their goals, there are no limits.
“The first time I climbed, I felt like I was flying. I felt free, and it was the most incredible thing I have ever experienced, being at the height of the clouds where we flew the flag of the UNiTE campaign,” adds Gonzáles.
Rufina Llusco recalls with sadness that the inspiration behind their ascent is the suffering of families who have lost their loved ones to femicide.
“I made that ascent with a purpose – to put an end to gender-based violence. The victims’ families have been seeking justice for so many years, and their pain moved me. That is why we fulfilled the goal of sending a message from the top of Huayna Potosí, with the flag of the UNiTE campaign,” she says.
According to the World Health Organization, the prevalence of physical or sexual violence by a partner is 42 per cent in unmarried or married Bolivian women aged 15–49. According to data from Bolivia’s Special Forces to Combat Violence (FELCV), 113 femicides were registered in the country in 2020.