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Girl power: Colombia’s first female electrical line workers train to keep the lights on | Women’s rights and gender equality

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Marianela Hernández Valencia knows what life without electricity is like. “As a child, I grew up in a house without electricity, which meant having to do homework by candlelight,” she says. “It was difficult.”

Today, the 28-year-old is among 15 women hoping to graduate as one of Colombia’s first-ever intake of apprentice linewomen, in La Ceja, a small town about 40km southeast of Medellín, Colombia’s second-largest city.

Line workers scale towers and transmission lines hundreds of feet above the ground to install and repair power cables. They are often the first responders after a storm or natural disaster and are regularly away from home for long periods.

Graduates of the year-long pilot project, led by ISA, Latin America’s largest energy transmission company, with the training group Tener Futuro Corporation, are guaranteed a job with one of two contractors, Instelec and Salomón Durán. Students are taught about safety, rigging and knot tying, all in a hands-on environment.

As more companies seek to diversify the workplace, it may seem there has never been a better time for women to enter the trade. Yet, few consider applying. The organisers of the scheme aim to change that by targeting the apprenticeships solely at women and providing a safe space for them to learn. A week after the call went out for female applicants, 723 had registered interest.

A trainee fixes a porcelain insulator in place, in order to prevent live wires from coming into contact with each other or the utility pole.
  • A trainee fixes a porcelain insulator in place, to prevent live wires from coming into contact with each other or the utility pole. A line worker typically carries between 9-13.5kg (20-30lbs) on their belt

“I’ve always been drawn to electrical work,” says Hernández Valencia, who once worked as an electrician’s assistant. “That feeling you get when you’re able to help switch the light back on and seeing the kids’ faces light up – it’s indescribable.”

She was working as a restaurant administrator in Medellín when her partner – a lineman – told her about the recruitment drive. Her application was successful, but two weeks into the apprenticeship, her partner dealt an unexpected blow.

“For the first few weeks when we arrived, we overlapped with another group of trainees – men – and my partner wasn’t happy about it. Having first insisted I sign up, he was suddenly telling me to choose between him and the training,” she says. “I chose to continue training.”

The apprentices get to work on a power line.

Hernández Valencia’s refusal to give up her course and the subsequent breakdown of her relationship have made her all the more determined. Her teachers say she is an outstanding student, and is emerging as a group leader.

While the public has been mostly supportive of the trainee linewomen, some online comments have been critical, some sexist.

“In Colombia, we have very complex cultural egos,” says Claudia Laguna, an engineer and ISA’s corporate projects specialist, who thought up the project. “Women are very capable but they’ve always been relegated.”

It is more than 10 years since Colombia achieved 95% electrical coverage, but access for the most remote areas is difficult. In 2020, an estimated 1.9 million Colombians still lacked access to electricity.

About 2,500 line workers are active, and an estimated 500 more are needed to keep up with electrification demands; there are plans to build between 1,200 and 2,500km of new power lines by 2025.

An apprentice learns how to move along a cable, near the ground. Mastering this technique is a difficult aspect of the training, even after apprentices have conquered their fear of heights.
  • Two months into the training, most students have conquered their fear of heights, but the art of moving along a cable takes time to master

The offices and lodges of the Catholic University of the East, where the training camp is based.
The women learn about knots.
Training ends at around 5pm, when the women rest and catch up by phone with their loved ones back home.
Tools of the linewomen’s trade.
  • Clockwise: The offices and lodges of the Catholic University of the East, where the training camp for linewomen is based; students learn how to tie specific knots, as well as the proper use of various ropes, slings, block and tackle; tools of the trade; At 5pm after receiving feedback, the women retire to their rooms to catch up with loved ones

Trainees aged from 17 to 31 receive a stipend and boarding. For those who stay the course, an opportunity to travel also beckons.

But it does not come without sacrifice. Most of the women are mothers who may have had to make difficult decisions about childcare. Diana Lizeth Lizarazo Moreno started the programme when her youngest was 18 months old. When her grandmother died, she was given special dispensation to return home for the funeral.

“My daughter didn’t recognise me. In no time at all, she had grown attached to my sister,” she says. “That’s hard, but at least I know that she is in good hands.”

At 31, Diana Lizeth Lizarazo Moreno, a mother of two, is the oldest participant on the course. She started the training when her youngest child was 18 months old.
Jessica Osorio, 23, suspended her studies in biotechnology engineering to undergo training as a linewoman.
  • Mother of two Diana Lizeth Lizarazo Moreno and Jessica Osorio, 23, who suspended her studies in biotechnology

The training is challenging. On any given day, line workers typically carry between 9kg and 13.5kg on their belt alone. But the women have qualities beyond strength, says Laguna, “like attention to detail and ensuring safe outcomes”.

Mental stamina is key. “You need to be able to keep a cool head, especially when something unexpected happens and you’re high up a tower,” says Lizarazo Moreno.

La Ceja’s high altitude, combined with scaling tens of metres and carrying heavy equipment, can sometimes lead to dizzy spells among the apprentices.
  • La Ceja’s high altitude, combined with scaling tens of metres and carrying heavy equipment, can sometimes lead to dizzy spells

All the women on the course reported that they had grown in confidence.

“You need confidence in yourself, but also in your team,” says Jessica Osorio, 23, who was a year away from completing a biotechnology engineering degree when she decided to suspend her studies. “[I] wanted to do something out of my comfort zone and it turns out I love this work.”

A shattered mobile phone displays a memory from back home.

With a month left before the first stage of the training, just 15 of the original 30 women remain.

“A number of candidates failed the medical test. Once we selected the final 30, a combination of factors all played a part, from suddenly being faced with the reality of having to leave your home and family – in many cases, children – to struggling with logistics and childcare, as well as self-doubt and dealing with other people’s opinions. It’s been a learning curve,” says Laguna.

But the sector is committed to opening itself up to women, with three cohorts of 20 women planned for 2023, she says.

“Ultimately, it’s about creating a virtuous chain, and the belief is that by supporting these women now, you help establish the foundations for creating sustainable value moving forward.”

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