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 and partners 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.
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