SANTUARIO, Colombia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Maria Claris Sintua was just 13, she was put in wooden stocks for three days as a punishment from leaders of her tribe in the Colombian jungle. Her only crime - to be a boy who wanted to be a girl.
“I cried a lot. The stocks are hard and it hurt, I got bad cramps in my legs. People would stare and shout abuse. I won’t forget it,” Sintua said of her punishment, which came after she tried on her mother’s dresses.
“The leader told me, ‘You were born a boy. Your mother gave birth to you that way. It’s nature, it’s God’s way’,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Sintua, now 18, works as a coffee picker in the green hills of Risaralda in western Colombia, where hundreds of indigenous people from her Embera tribe found refuge after being forced to flee their ancestral lands during the country’s 52-year war.
Against the odds, the hilltop village of Santuario where she lives with her father has become a haven for the growing number of people from her Embera tribe coming out as transgender women.
Residents of this conservative church-going community barely raise an eyebrow as the women walk the steep, narrow streets, where they are known by some as the “boys who dress up”.
Away from the rigid rules of the Emberas’ autonomous rainforest reserves, they spend their days off in the village’s leafy square in the shadow of the church, dressed in colorful pleated dresses and skirts and eating ice cream.
Most of their weekly wage of about $35 goes on make-up and hormone injections.
“I’m free here. I can wear the clothes I like. No one bothers us,” said Sintua’s cousin Claudia Correa, who was also put in the stocks for dressing as a woman.
“I didn’t want to be a boy any more from when I was eight. I don’t know why,” said Correa, wearing a traditional green dress and beaded necklace.
It remains unclear why this particular tribe appears to have such a high incidence of transgender women, though experts cite young people’s growing exposure to outside influences.
Sintua’s father Ramiro, who lives with her in a shabby rented flat in town, said the phenomenon appeared to have snowballed in recent years.
“It started more than five years ago with one dressing up as a woman and then others followed,” said Ramiro, who also works as a coffee picker.
“Maria asked for my forgiveness. I accepted. What else can I do? I can’t stop her from putting on women’s clothes. Besides, she works like a man.”
Colombia has made significant gains on LGBT+ rights since 2015, allowing same-sex couples to marry and adopt children. Transgender people can change their names on identity cards.
But homosexuality remains largely hidden among its 87 indigenous tribes, who account for about 1.4 million people, said anthropologist Axel Rojas.
Indigenous communities face a constant tension between the need to preserve their culture and traditions and the modern world, including LGBT+ rights, said Rojas, a professor at Colombia’s University of Cauca.
“The matter of sexual diversity continues to be an issue that communities don’t know very well how to fit in,” Rojas said.
“I think the role of young indigenous people has been very important in opening this debate.”
“However, we are at the moment where the majority of indigenous peoples are focused on processes of strengthening their culture, a cultural revival that implies, in most cases, a return to tradition.”
The Embera people, a 30,000-strong tribe of semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers, have no word for transgender and instead refer to someone who has “turned”. Other indigenous groups describe transgender women as “false women”.
The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia declined to comment on the issue. The leader of one Embera reserve in Risaralda has been quoted in local media saying it was not natural for a man to become a woman, or vice versa.
“The trans women in Santuario are living a very solitary life because they aren’t part of their communities ... when they are kicked out, they lose all community support,” Rojas said.
“They are people who have been rejected or have experienced much violence, and have migrated to a place where there is acceptance between speech marks,” he said.
Activists say these women - many of whom are illiterate and speak little Spanish - are particularly vulnerable to being sexually exploited.
Yet in Santuario, where at least 30 transgender women from the Embera tribe are estimated to be living, they have found a sanctuary of sorts.
Sintua said her punishment had not changed how she felt, and she and her friend Maria Yuliana are both injecting hormones to begin their transition.
“I want to have a bigger bum and breasts,” said Yuliana, giggling. “One day I want to have an operation and be a complete women all over. I’ve heard it’s really expensive. I’ll be a woman until the day I die.”