Decolonial feminism and Buen Vivir

Dennis L. Avilés Irahola

“We hereby decide to build a new form of public coexistence, in diversity and in harmony with nature, to achieve the good way of living, the Sumak Kawsay…” This path breaking declaration formed a part of the new constitution adopted by Ecuador in 2008, a remarkable effort to counter the challenges of an unjust development model and a deep political crisis. “Sumak Kawsay” is an expression taken from the Quechua language spoken by the peoples of the highlands traversing the Andes from Ecuador to Chile. The term loosely translates to “good living” in English or “Buen Vivir” in Spanish. In 2009, the Bolivian constitution also adopted the indigenous Aymara equivalent, Suma Qamaña, into its constitution, and, in fact, in more than a decade since these declarations, the idea of Buen Vivir has gained enormous socio-political acceptance all over South America.

Buen Vivir and the feminist perspective

Emerging from within ancient local traditions, Buen Vivir has become a regional aspirational undertaking, an exploration of “alternatives” to the existing forms of “development”, both, as a new economic model, which incorporates community life principles, as well as an alternative paradigm itself to development, which challenges the toxic principle of unlimited growth predicated upon inexhaustible exploitation of nature. It makes harmony with Pachamama (Mother Earth) to be the central point of human existence. Buen Vivir recognizes that one cannot live well if others do not live well, that diversity is intrinsic to life, and that complementarity and loving relations are essential to everyday interactions. The paramount place accorded to the “social” essence and existence of an individual in the Buen Vivir discourse makes “relationships” a central focus of transformative practices, whether it’s the existential relationship with earth, relationships of production in the economy or human relationships based on solidarity and a fundamental balance between female and male principles in nature. In fact, the discussion on gender relationships has gained, both, rigor and attention within the intellectual understanding as well as the praxis of Buen Vivir over the last decade

Since its advent on the socio-political landscape, feminist academics and activists in South America have engaged with Buen Vivir as an intellectual inquiry, but they’ve also viewed it as a transformative societal initiative. For them it is as much a component of a civilizing change to confront climate change, as it is a proposal for community life and a challenge to the current capitalist model (Varea & Zaragocin, 2017). Decolonial feminists, that is feminists who recognize in the current model of development modern forms of colonial exploitation of nature and women, also acknowledge the avowed emphasis of Buen Vivir on the need to change modern development paradigms. Despite these positive views, however, there is a general shared unease among feminists that decoloniality and gender, and their importance in defining transformation have not been sufficiently debated within the various interpretations of Buen Vivir. It is, therefore, important to interrogate the potential synergies between the two propositions and to explore how decolonial feminisms and Buen Vivir could share a common utopian alternative towards decolonization and depatriarchalization of communal life.

A rigorous debate on gender within the various interpretations of Buen Vivir is essential for its successful implementation.

Decolonial Feminism(s)

Emerging in the 1980s, decolonial feminism represents an important phase in the process of evolution in the feminist discourse in South America. It challenges the existing western conceptualization of feminism as being representative of all women, and also points to the centrality that the intersectionality of gender, class and race plays in women’s experience. Decolonial feminism, as Buen Vivir, is a proposal containing significant debates.  One is the contrast, particularly with post-colonial feminists, on whether colonialism is a continuous process starting in 1492 when the Americans were “discovered” by the Europeans and which perpetuates itself beyond the colonial occupation till now. Some decolonial feminists also contend that in terms of the larger power dynamic in society, just like many women a substantial population of men, too, are excluded from the system. Therefore, it is not possible to think any more in universal terms of two genders where one is the victim and the other the perpetrator without recognizing the nuances hidden within the relations of subjugation and exploitation in the colonial system. Another significant debate is the origin of patriarchy in the region. Some attribute it to the arrival of European colonizers, while others contend that patriarchal hierarchies existed in some pre-colonial societies and, after the colonial imposition of European values, converged in the deeply rooted attitudes of violence against women.

Decolonial feminism acknowledges that while colonisation of America played a crucial role in the oppression of women, and that this oppression persists through colonial structural dominance of the male gender assumed as superior, women’s varied experiences formed by ethnicity, age, class, and others shape their larger worldview and their socio-political engagements. That is why an important imprint of decolonial feminism is its autonomy in respect to the State and the political parties and its activism in practice, both aimed at keeping its critical nature vis-à-vis established ways of doing and thinking and to mark a clear distance with the “institutional” feminism ingrained in State and supra-state organizations.

Decolonial feminism is vigilant about protecting its autonomy from the State and political parties.

Decolonial feminism has advanced an alternative perspective with which it approaches social transformation. In fact, its intellectual and activist engagements with Buen Vivir in Ecuador and Bolivia provide us with a prism to understand that outlook. There are three main distinctions in the way Buen Vivir is interpreted (Palacio Diaz, 2018; Hidalgo-Capitan & Cubillo-Guevara, 2014), which would help us understand how decolonial feminism and Buen Vivir have come together as a transformative possibility and also how they’ve diverged. They are: ancestral/indigenist, modern/socialist and post-modern.

Buen Vivir as an ancestral/indigenist proposal

Buen Vivir has emerged out of the indigenous belief systems rooted in ancient animistic faiths and practices. These beliefs are constructed around supra entities and elaborate myths as opposed to a rational explanation based on science. This aspect of Buen Vivir challenges the rational assumptions of both state policies through national constitutions and decolonial feminism, yet it allowed indigenous women the discursive space to reflect and build their proposals from principles assumed as their own and not imposed from outside. Importantly, women also found the space to oppose discrimination and violence they face outside and within indigenous communities when invoking the female-male principle of non-hierarchical complementarity in nature or chachawarmi.

The indigenous communities, and in particular women, in Ecuador and Bolivia approached Buen Vivir as a possibility for a necessary change in the colonial relations of their societies, and found space in their respective Constituent Assemblies to contribute to their draft Constitutions. In the case of Ecuador, the text ended up with the same references and use of developmentalist language, which some participants of the process attributed to the interventions made by international advisors and consultants. The Bolivian Constitution showed a closer alignment to the Buen Vivir discourse, but the intervention of political parties resulted in changes to more than 100 articles previously approved by the Assembly, by political representatives in Congress. Since then, despite the appropriation of the Buen Vivir discourse in public policy design, the exclusion and racialization of indigenous women persists. The fact that matters of importance to indigenous women were translated through a “developmental” language has led to interventions that have neither improved their general conditions nor helped them to change local patriarchal practices, such as inheritance customs or discrimination while assuming political representation. Moreover, violence and dispossession against indigenous peoples, with women enduring the most, continues as does their characterization as obstacles to extractivist development.

Feminists are pursuing a serious reevaluation of the power relations between men and women as part of their discussions on Buen Vivir.

From a decolonial feminist perspective, the efforts at aligning the aspirations of indigenous women, rooted firmly in the ancient chachawarmi principle floundered right from the start. For some decolonial feminist this is because of the wrong idea that the subordination of women is only a by-product of colonialism and that pre-Columbian societies recognized women and men as different, but equals.  This idea has proved to cover current inequalities and aspirations of indigenous women to change the terms of power relations in the present. The chachawarmi principle is often put to use by politicians, leading men in indigenous organizations and women themselves to avoid any questioning of female subordination in political and social representation and even as a way to conceal explicit and symbolic violence within indigenous communities (Burman, 2011; Paredes, 2014).

Moreover, Buen Vivir departing only from indigenous traditions was not enough to address patriarchal attitudes and practices and many indigenous women’s movements adopted and adapted many of the convictions coming from mainstream feminism, such as ‘gender equity’ and ‘women’s rights’. In the end, it was quite puzzling as to why strategic constitutional changes aimed at promoting the traditional wisdom of humans as part of nature and the value of harmonic relationships was unable to introduce, for example, the chachawarmi principle, which goes beyond ‘gender equity’.

Buen Vivir as a modern/socialist proposal

As a modernist and socialist proposal, Buen Vivir has been framed within the western and modern culture, and gender relations were no exception. In Ecuador, for instance, the National Agenda for Women and Gender Equality 2014-2017, promoted a conceptual discussion that intertwines the notion of gender equality, Buen Vivir and rights. Similarly, in Bolivia, the government passed the law of Depatriarchalization (Law 243, 2012), and created a Department of Depatriarchalization taking up the women’s rights approach and leading the fight against violence and discrimination against women.

Decolonial feminists began to have doubts about the intentions of the Bolivian government right from the beginning when they realized that the department responsible for depatriarchalization ended up under the Vice-Ministry of Decolonization, which in turn depended on the Ministry of Culture. This low priority was not any different from the consideration given by former governments to gender and women’s services and, like them, was not provided with adequate human or economic resources to have any real impact. Similar cracks in the implementation of the Buen Vivir model became evident in the low access to reproductive health services, lack of equitable access to education, low quality of social services and political participation, and through the pervasive violence exerted against women as it was done with nature itself.

The implementation of the Buen Vivir model has often been handicapped by low quality of social services offered by governments.

In light of the modern, rational and socialist interpretation of the Buen Vivir it is worth underlining that feminism has always denounced the patriarchal scientific traditions that have historically not only codified women and nature as inferior but have also justified their exploitation. Despite its egalitarian and modernist outlook, Buen Vivir was mostly a discursive strategy encompassing public policies that collided with the principles of environmental conservation and, therefore, indigenous rights. The new extractive focus didn’t differ much from the developmental focus of previous governments, but it justified the need to generate resources to reach Buen Vivir for all. In the absence of concrete tools for its implementation, the ideal of equality and harmony between men and women was completely overtaken by contradictions between laws and practices and failed to take off.

Buen Vivir as a post-modern proposal

Buen Vivir has also been conceptualized as a post-modern proposal mainly because of its promise of containing diverse sources of thought in a participatory process of construction and a non-hierarchical inclusion of popular and rational thought. Its critique of universalism, its rejection of absolute truths and ideologies, and the commodification of nature situate Buen Vivir as an alternative to current development paradigms and the methods to understand human existence; therefore it is as much a form of resistance as decolonial feminism.

In spite of these convergences, the implementation of Buen Vivir hit sharp contradictions with the ideals of decolonial feminism. The most notorious was the discussion on gender diversities and the possibility of deconstruction of gender. Machista and homophobic expressions did not stop in the discourse and practice among policy makers and implementers of the Buen Vivir, causing doubts about the feasibility of building a common social utopia. Also, the multiplicity of subjections at the intersection of gender, ethnicity and class, among others, continued to be ignored and treated as separated social phenomena at the national discursive and bureaucracy levels. The issues with the weak implementation of Buen Vivir policies toward attaining professed ideals are enormous. Often, activists and academics have brought up the trivializing of women’s protests against political and domestic violence, sometimes justifying it as a part of the culture and tradition. Sometimes arguments have been advanced that the machista culture was going to disappear in an undefined future as we go along decolonization processes. The issue of regular occurrence of violence against women is a major worry and currently Bolivia tops South America in the incidence of femicides, and Ecuador is in the third place. These are countries where the work initiated by the colonizer in dehumanizing women in symbolic as well as concrete ways continues.

Women activists are demanding a blunt rejection of the machista culture as part of the societal pursuit of Buen Vivir.


As we’ve seen, decolonial feminism is the most relevant feminist approach in terms of emphasizing the utopian and political potential of Buen Vivir because of their shared common ground, which goes beyond a mere alternative to development to an altogether different way of visualizing the world and acting upon it. But, this may not be enough to answer the original question of this text -whether it is possible for the Buen Vivir advocates and decolonial feminists to build a common utopia? As Sofia Zaragocín says, “the construction of Buen Vivir and decolonial feminisms are complementary and reach a mutual enrichment by their conceptual similarities, but require physical and material approaches” (2017: 23). A maturation process within each of them is a requisite towards the realization of a common utopia. For example, by revising and avoiding dualist thinking and considering the reality of the hybridization of indigenous and developmental language to cope with women’s daily struggles. Likewise, the mystification of communal life has led to the misuse of the chachawarmi principle to conceal subordination of women and even physical violence against them. Buen Vivir, understood as a powerful paradigm towards decolonisation, must not be a horizon that postpones women’s aspirations indefinitely but a daily reality supported by explicit public policies and actions, and it is in building these that feminists, indigenous and non-indigenous and from different currents, must dialogue with and strengthen each other.


Dennis L. Avilés Irahola is a Senior Researcher at the Center for Development Research (ZEF) at the University of Bonn. Her areas of study include the evolution of the feminist discourse in South America as well as the impact of the larger paradigm of development on the continent.


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Hidalgo-Capitán, A. & Cubillo-Guevara, A.P. (2014). Seis debates abiertos sobre el sumak kawsay. Iconos. Revista de ciencias Sociales, 48, 25-40

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Paredes, J. (2014). Hilando fino desde el feminismo comunitario. Mexico: Cooperativa el Rebozo, Zapateándole, Lente Flotante, En Cortito que’s pa largo and AliFem AC.

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Zaragocin, S. (2017). Feminismo decolonial y buen vivir. In: Varea, S. & Zaragocin, S. (Eds.). Feminismo y buen vivir. Utopías decoloniales. (pp. 17 -25). Cuenca: PYDLOS Ediciones.

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