Women in Colombia defy violence to help build peace
Despite big role in peace accord, women activists still face threats of violence and murder
Women hold signs during a performance to raise conciousness about violence against women in Bolivar square, Bogotá on March 6th. Photograph: Diana Sanchez/AFP/Getty Images
Although the Colombian peace accord was signed more than three years ago, domestic and gender-based violence remains all too familiar for women who attempt to challenge the patriarchal society.
In November 2016 the country’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as Farc, entered into an agreement with the government to surrender their weapons and end the violence that plagued the country for more than five decades.
Some 578 stipulations were set out as part of the treaty, relating to a variety of issues such as illicit drugs, land values, and improving the lives of rural Colombians.
Female involvement in the negotiations was integral and by the end of discussions 122 of the agreements related to gender issues and obtaining equality between men and women.
However, women who are attempting to continue this work – either through activism or running for office – are facing brutal attacks, threats, rape and murder.
Upcoming regional elections on October 27th, which will be the first since the treaty was signed, have been marked by an increase in female participation as well as more candidates speaking out against violence.
That development hasn’t been well received, however, with seven candidates in favour of the peace accords having been assassinated to date.
A further 10 women human rights defenders have been murdered this year so far, 66 per cent higher than the number killed during the whole of 2018, according to the Defensoría Del Pueblo, a Colombian state body.
Speaking through a translator on a visit to Dublin, Maria Eugenia Cruz Alarcón, co-ordinator of the National Network of Women Human Rights Defenders in Colombia, said that female activists and candidates are being targeted as a direct result of their gender.
“So many of the threats have a gendered mark. Sexist language is used but also the fact that we are women is used in the threat,” said Alarcón.
“We are threatened that we should be at home looking after our children. They are threatening our children and many women are punished with rape and sexual attacks.”
The threats of violence can be delivered face to face, by dissidents knocking on women’s homes, or even through written letters sent to family members.
Alarcón, who has been working as a human rights defender for a decade, was raped at the age of 17 by paramilitary soldiers. It is because of this experience, she says, that she decided to fight for women’s rights.
“Within this process, we’ve been able to give new significance to the violence we’ve experienced and now we see ourselves as constructive peace builders. Now we’re human rights defenders, as opposed to victims,” she said.
“Learning that we actually have rights was fundamental. Before we just lived this, and experienced this, thinking it was something that we had to do because we were women,” she added.
The rise in violence towards women has been attributed to the delayed implementation of some of the promises outlined in 2016.
Colombia’s new president, Iván Duque, a right-wing politician who took office in August 2018, has expressed scepticism about the accords and wants to change some of the commitments that were fundamental to the rebels agreeing to lay down their weapons.
In addition, lands that Farc surrendered post-agreement were left empty, despite government promises to occupy them. As a result, other armed actors have entered the vacuum.
“They [armed groups] have come into these areas and they now control the production of different resources, not just drugs but like gold and diamonds. These areas are now full of criminality and chaos,” said Alarcón.
“The state is arriving with its troops and its soldiers and they’re generating fear and repression in the way that armed actors do. They’re not coming with the proposals that were seen in the peace accords. They’re not coming with ideas on how to construct society.”
Despite the danger that campaigning for change can mean for women, the advocacy groups and election candidates are going to continue their work because “it’s too important”.
“The work that we’re doing signifies that we’re trying to break away from old schemes, old ways of being. Women are standing at the forefront of doing this,” said Alarcón.