Panama’s Joyful Advocate: An Interview with Juana Cooke

Mandy Van Deven, Online Administrator

The passion Juana Cooke brings to her work can only be described as infectious. The Executive Director of Asociación Panameña para el Planeamiento de la Familia (APLAFA) wins people over with her sharp wit and joyful humor. But when it comes to enabling women to have bodily autonomy and access to sexual and reproductive health care, Juana Cooke doesn’t play.

Juana understands gender-based violence is a sexual and reproductive health issue, and she stands firm on the conviction that women’s rights are human rights. In a world where gender-based violence kills and disables more women between the ages of 15 and 44 than cancer, malaria, traffic accidents, and war combined, Juana’s position as the head of the leading NGO providing sexual and reproductive health information and services in Panama puts her on the front lines.

In this interview, Juana explains how APLAFA provides more than just health services. They provide women with information and resources that allow them to plan for their futures and then live out their plans.

What motivated you to get involved in work to end gender-based violence?

Even though I learned how to work with various communities to develop empathy and foster human rights, it was tough to confront the theory on violence and gender inequality within my personal experience. I am a survivor of sexual abuse, and I was a feminist when it happened. I had to deal with asking myself “what have I done to deserve the attack?” and the processes of re-victimization. By speaking to other women who have lived through violence, and some who eventually lost their lives, I’ve been able to put my own experience into perspective.

When I was a law student, I was fortunate to work with the Center for Panamanian Studies and Social Action. The organization’s mission was inspired by Latin American theories in popular education and feminism. That was my first experience working with survivors of gender-based violence. It is deeply rewarding when a woman tells me that after talking to me she filed a complaint with the authorities and never looked back.

How is gender-based violence understood in Panama?

Gender-based violence is rooted in systemic inequalities between men and women, but we do not recognize it as such in Panama. We still see the issue as something to be dealt with in the privacy of our homes, not within public institutions. We don’t identify the lack of access to family planning services and comprehensive sexual education as something that contributes to violence against women. Since we perceive violence as an individual victim’s problem, there is no social response to accompany a woman’s complaint of abuse.

How is gender-based violence addressed in Panama?

In Panama, as in many countries in the world, we have developed educational campaigns and policies regarding gender-based violence, but we haven’t focused on what happens after a woman files a complaint. The women who came before us in the feminist movement dedicated their lives to instituting public policies and a legal framework to assure gender equality and reduce gender-based violence. Current women’s rights activists need to continue to recognize the issue of violence against women as a priority in national policy, but they also need to understand that the lack of justice in these types of cases is longstanding and historic.

Gender-based violence is not simply a women’s issue, it is a national human rights issue that demands government oversight and accountability. Many times, personal ideologies supersede the implementation of nationwide policies and delay the acceptance of human rights recommendations made in international agreements.

The challenge for our generation is to develop equal and non-violent relationships and communities. We have to develop new capacities and take our activities to the rural areas in ways that respect their unique needs and circumstances. In order to do that, we need adequate resources and a process to ensure the legal protections are effective. There is a tremendous lack of resources allocated to these types of projects.

What role do men play in ending gender-based violence?

As the mother of a son, I realize there is a need to develop new capacities in boys and men, so they can construct their gender identity without violence and develop new ways of expressing masculinity. In order to achieve this, we must all become conscious of our own gender as the product of a society that is full of machismo, homophobia, and gender-based violence. Then, it is imperative engage in a process of self-revision of the ways we relate to the world. I want to be able to look into my son’s eyes and tell him that I live a life of constant revision. There are many young men committed to finding new forms of masculinity and building non-violent relationships. That makes me hopeful.

How does APLAFA contribute to the solution?

At APLAFA, we provide a comprehensive approach to gender-based violence: prevention, attention, and response. We work with young people in various communities to provide education about dating violence and how to have healthy romantic relationships. We participate in national and regional anti-violence networks, where government and public institutions work with members of civil society to emphasize gender-based violence prevention activities. We also engage in advocacy projects with key decision makers, such as the Commission on Women and Family Affairs, to draw attention to the problem of violence in Panama and work to enact policy solutions.

Within the organization, we created a Gender, Women, and Family Unit that allows us to take a crosscutting approach to the issue. In addition to providing health services, we partnered with other community-based organizations to provide counseling and legal support to women who have experienced violence. We developed a training for our staff to increase their knowledge of gender-based violence, improve our capacity to detect cases of abuse, and systematize staff response when violence is suspected. This month, we will give a presentation at a health provider’s seminar on our new system to better record a client’s medical history and use the information as a gender-based violence detection tool.

There are people who have been working with APLAFA for 43 years who still organize trainings and workshops on gender-based violence. They demonstrate so much energy, strength, and commitment that I often look at them and say, “Go on, kiss the flag, and continue.”

If you could tell your government to change one thing to help end gender-based violence in your country, what would it be?

Our government must assign adequate financial resources to address violence against women and institute methods of self-accountability. We already have a solid legal framework in Panama, and if existing policy agreements were implemented, we would be playing a different game. Despite our best intentions, APLAFA does not have the capacity to address the need nationwide, not even if we were able to join forces with every other organization in the country dedicated to ending gender-based violence. The commitment and resources must come from the government in order to have an effective and lasting response; until that happens, all our efforts will be short-lived.

Who inspires you to continue working on this issue when it starts to feel overwhelming?

As a part of the feminist movement in Panama, I hear so many stories of resilience, resistance, and empowerment – but one stands out from the rest. There is a Panamanian man named Conrado Cuevas, whose 24-year-old daughter, Alí, was killed by her boyfriend in Mexico on September 19, 2009. Alí was a feminist activist, and Mr. Cuevas was proud of the work she was doing. Now, every year on November 25th, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, he marches in memory of his daughter. His ability to project love in the wake of tragedy is pure inspiration.

To My Son: Ask Questions. I Will Answer.


Carlos S.

So proud of our Juana! She continuously inspires us. We are committed to continue working beside her until the end!

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