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In Colombia, an activist, feminist lawyer is running for VP

Francia Márquez pledged to speak for marginalized and rural voters. That’s put her in danger.

Francia Márquez, the running-mate of Colombian presidential candidate Gustavo Petro, is seen during a presentation in Bogotá. (Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images)
6 min

Afro-Colombian environmental activist, feminist and lawyer Francia Márquez won the third-highest number of votes in Colombia’s March presidential primary. She’s now the running mate for Gustavo Petro, the current front-runner in Colombia’s May 29 presidential elections.

In a country where elite men hold most political power, Márquez’s candidacy signals the growing influence of women and minorities from rural and conflict-affected zones. Márquez and Petro are promising change, including economic empowerment and access to land for Colombia’s poor, and improved access to health care, among other progressive goals.

But those who oppose a more inclusive Colombia impose high costs on candidates like Márquez. She has received multiple death threats and has full-time bodyguards, an indication that her presence and platform threaten the political status quo. Who is Francia Márquez, and what does her candidacy mean?

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Márquez aims to speak for ‘the nobodies’

Born in Cauca, a province battered by the country’s almost 60-year-long armed conflict, Márquez says that she represents “the nobodies” of Colombia. Her signature style — clothes with bright, geometric patterns — contrasts with the suits favored by her male counterparts.

Her speeches break the mold even more. She openly talks about issues important to Colombia’s Indigenous people, young population, the poor and women, especially Afro-descendant women — topics like reproductive rights, reparations for victims of the armed conflict, and environmental and climate justice.

Márquez is a single mother, a recipient of government benefits for the poor, and officially registered as an armed conflict victim. She recently earned her degree in law. Her studies took over 10 years, punctuated by long pauses as she worked to earn tuition money. At times, her work included being a maid.

She is also an environmental leader, winning the 2018 Goldman environmental prize after leading a cross-country march to protest illegal mining.

But as Julia Zulver’s new book “High-Risk Feminism in Colombia” explains, demanding justice in Colombia is dangerous work, particularly for women. Since the 2016 signing of the peace accords between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (the FARC) and the Colombian government, thousands of human rights and environmental leaders have been murdered. Different armed groups are still in operation, and reportedly have killed 59 social leaders so far in 2022.

Márquez survived one assassination attempt in 2019. Last month, paramilitary groups — long associated with right-wing forces — sent her two pamphlets with a stark choice: Cease her campaign or be killed.

Glass ceilings restrict women’s participation

Márquez’s victory would mark an important step in a country that lags behind the rest of Latin America when it comes to women’s representation.

Colombia has had a gender quota law since 2011, but it only requires that 30 percent of candidates be women and applies only in electoral districts with more than five seats. By contrast, 11 Latin American countries have gender parity laws that require political parties to nominate equal proportions of women and men.

The proportion of female candidates matters, since the number of women that run explains the number of women elected, as Jennifer Piscopo’s research found. Gender-parity countries elect more balanced legislatures, meaning women hold 40 to 50 percent of the seats. But Colombian women occupied fewer than 20 percent of legislative seats throughout the 2010s.

Other features of the electoral system also disadvantage women, like parties’ tendency to choose open over closed lists. Open lists give voters a preference vote, which they usually cast for men.

Female candidates in Colombia also receive less campaign funding — they’re more likely to be outsiders and newcomers, unsupported by traditional political machines. Money helps novice candidates gain name recognition, but Jennifer Piscopo’s research in Chile, a country that also uses open lists, finds that donors are more willing to fund men than women newcomers.

These obstacles mean that female candidates in Colombia have struggled to convert nominations into victories. They finally won 30 percent of the seats in last month’s congressional elections, due largely to the forces underlying Márquez’s rise: an increasing demand for new forms of leadership. When voters seek a fresh approach, women’s electoral fortunes often increase.

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Márquez signifies change — and resistance

Yet it’s usually elite women who benefit from increasing levels of women’s political representation. Colombia’s current vice president, Marta Lucía Ramírez, for instance, is a former senator and defense minister from the country’s conservative political class.

Likewise, Colombia reserves two seats in the lower house for Afro-Colombian representatives, but few have been women. Marginalized and racialized women like Márquez rarely gain national prominence.

But social movements demanding greater rights for Afro-descendants are sweeping the region. Black women from Mexico to Brazil are increasingly leading the charge and claiming their rights.

These women often pay the highest price. In 2018, the assassination of Marielle Franco made international headlines. Franco was an Afro-Brazilian and out-bisexual councilwoman from Rio de Janeiro who championed the poor and demanded accountability for police brutality.

Latin America has the highest number of murders of human rights defenders globally and 18 percent of those killed are women. Colombia’s women activists and politicians face gendered threats, including threats of sexual assault and harm to their families.

Researchers call this larger phenomenon violence against women in politics, where attackers are motivated not by political disagreements, but by misogyny. Quite simply, attackers use violence and threats of violence to preserve politics as men’s domain.

So while many Colombians see themselves represented in Márquez’s experience, others use racist and sexist tropes to taunt and intimidate her. Conservative politicians and public figures frequently troll her on Twitter, including many women who are well-known members of the economic and social elite.

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Still, Márquez persists

In an online event held shortly after she announced her candidacy, Márquez quoted a common saying among Colombian social leaders: “If we’re silent, they kill us. If we speak out, they’ll kill us. So we may as well speak out.”

In the context of an ongoing pandemic, heightened insecurity, rising inflation and decreasing opportunities, Márquez inspires the hope of change for some Colombians, yet fear for others. Her candidacy — and her potential ascendancy to the vice-presidency — signals that minorities from Colombia’s rural and conflict-affected zones can influence the country’s future.

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Julia Zulver (@JZulver) is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Research Fellow at the University of Oxford and the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and the author of “High-Risk Feminism in Colombia” (Rutgers University Press, 2022).

Jennifer M. Piscopo (@Jennpiscopo) is associate professor of politics and director of the Center for Research and Scholarship at Occidental College. Her research on women, elections and political representation has appeared in over 20 journals and she consults regularly for UN Women and other international organizations.