• Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli is a contributor to WOLA’s blog. The views expressed are the author's own.
As the Colombian Government prepares to meet with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Havana, Cuba, later this month for the second phase of the peace talks, the role of women – and in particular Afrodescendant women – in guaranteeing a successful peace effort requires support from the international community.
Olga Amparo of Colombianos y Colombianas por la Paz noted that while it is unsurprising that [Colombian] women are not on the negotiating teams—women are neither part of the FARC nor in the armed forces’ top command structures – “it does expose Colombia’s democratic deficit” of female political participation. Though Colombia has adopted norms favoring women’s rights, in practice, the political voice of Colombian women has remained muffled, and exclusion of Afro-Colombian women is particularly problematic. Incorporating the perspective of Afro-Colombian women into the issues debated at the peace talks will do more than just dramatically increase the odds that the process will succeed. It will strengthen Colombia’s democracy by bridging the political gap that exists for Colombian women and ethnic minorities and stabilize this post-conflict country.
According to Ms. Amparo, a WOLA partner, the peace talks are not going to resolve all of Colombia’s chronic, systemic problems. The most likely outcome is that they result in an agreement to end the internal armed conflict and establish a series of mechanisms for how to address the underlying issues that contribute to conflict. For the latter to happen effectively, certain major challenges must be addressed.
First, Colombia is a place where violence has been used for decades to resolve differences. To change that dynamic, confidence must be built among Colombians of all walks of life. Stakeholders must promote the idea that political change is possible through a participatory democratic system in which the different perspectives within Colombian society are guaranteed a voice.
Second, bold efforts must be undertaken to dismantle the remnants of paramilitary and organized criminal structures.
Third, civil society input – particularly by women – is necessary to help reconcile Colombian society and to contribute to constructive avenues by which to deal with difficult issues.
A final challenge lies with the demilitarization of Colombian society. All sides of the conflict, and the society itself, must begin to think of order and security without arms as the way forward. Women are essential in ensuring that all of these challenges are addressed.
Both as activists and as victims, women have played an important role in raising awareness of how the internal armed conflict and violence has impacted them. With the support of the Open Society Foundations, WOLA had the privilege of conducting advocacy workshops with Afro-Colombian women in four conflict-ridden areas along the country’s Pacific Coast earlier this year. We were able to view firsthand the tenacity, resilience, strength, and political sophistication of women in the Chocó, Valle del Cauca, and Cauca.
During our conversations with Afro-Colombian women, we learned of the complexities of internal displacement, militarization, sexual violence, and mothers’ horrors of experiencing forced recruitment of their children into the conflict. More striking than the terrible stories of violence and abuses, though, was the leadership exerted by many of these women and the belief that their circumstances could change and justice could be achieved if their recommendations and efforts were supported.
It is women who are leading the rebuilding efforts after displacement occurs. The internally displaced (IDP) women of Clamores, for example, survived the mass displacement in the late 1990’s and subsequent paramilitary attacks. Having lost their men to the war, these women were forced to care for large families on their own without help from the authorities or the skills required to thrive in an urban environment. Often stigmatized due to their displaced status, the women formed the organization Clamores to seek solutions to their difficulties. Through Clamores they have pooled resources to buy a bread machine allowing them to generate the income to survive. With perseverance, the women were able to give most of their kids a high school education.
As activists, Afro-Colombian women are increasingly becoming a political force to be reckoned with. Perhaps the most internationally recognized Afro-Colombian woman is Piedad Cordoba, a former Senator and the current face of Colombianos y Colombianas por la Paz who has gained international recognition for her tireless pursuit of peace efforts, the release of hostages, victim’s rights, and the dismantling of paramilitary structures. Yet Ms. Cordoba is just one of several exceptional Afro-Colombian women working hard to transform Colombian society.
Quibdó’s Mayor Zulia Mena is leading efforts in her government to make politics and governance more transparent and inclusive of the communities they represent. Parallel to this, the women who make up the grassroots group “Network of Chocoan Women” (Red Departamental de Mujeres Chocoanas) regularly organize good governance workshops on accountability and transparency in an effort to create a generation of public servants who break from this region’s history of collusion with paramilitaries, corruption, clientelism, and nepotism. In the same region, women survivors of the 2002 Bojayá massacre, where a FARC bomb incinerated over 114 Afro-Colombians in a church, led public protests urging armed groups to lay down their arms, respect the autonomy of their communities, and demanding truth, justice, and reparations for the victims of this gruesome massacre.
In the Curvaradó region, many communities are forced to coexist with paramilitaries. Some have fought back, establishing “humanitarian zones,” areas free of the armed groups’ presence. When armed groups blockaded the region, Afro-Colombian and mestizo women formed a communal store to supply food to their communities. Despite death threats and character assassination, Maria Ligia Chavera, a mother of eight and grandmother of 44, remains the backbone of these communities’ struggle for land rights and preservation of their ancestral culture. In the Cacarica River Basin, Rosalba Cordoba and her organization called CAVIDA is organizing to stop illegal logging and armed groups from encroaching on their territories.
The women of northern Cauca have gained prominence after being featured in the PBS Women, War and Peace episode “The War We are Living.” It shows the efforts of several groups, including the Association of Women of Northern Cauca (ASOM) and the Black Communities Process (PCN), in which women are defending the territorial rights of their communities from illegal gold mining to keep their families from being displaced and building economic self-sufficiency for their children. In the Catholic Dioceses along the Pacific Coast (Chocó, Nariño, Cauca, and Valle del Cauca), nuns and lay women work together with priests to assist the victims of violence and aerial fumigation. In Cali, Afro-Colombian trade unionists like Agripina Hurtado are working to improve the labor rights and working conditions of Afro-Colombian sugarcane cutters and other laborers. In Colombia’s cities and shantytowns, the women leaders of AFRODES are organizing to find effective solutions for displaced families’ security and economic needs.
A report released on Nov. 13, 2012, by the PCN documents how crimes committed against Afro-Colombian women are rampant. Despite Colombia’s de jure adherence to international commitments and progressive domestic laws, in practice the human rights situation for Afro-Colombians, and women in particular, remains dire. The militarization of Afro-Colombian areas has led to increased incidents of sexual violence, exploitation, and abuse against women. While the number of homicides decreased in Buenaventura from 2003 until 2010, the killing of women increased. Death threats and murders of Afro-Colombian women advocates are becoming more prevalent as women are upping their public profiles in defense of Afro-Colombian rights. Emblematic of this disturbing trend are the murders of Buenaventura’s Doña Chila in 2008 and Medellin’s Ana Fabricia Cordoba in 2011.
Violence continues to take place throughout Afro-Colombian territories and areas of refuge at an alarming rate. In the Agua Blanca District of Cali, a receptor site for Afro-Colombians displaced from the Pacific Coast, six Afro-Colombian women and their children, who are beneficiaries of provisional protective measures from the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, were declared “military objectives” by illegal armed groups. On Oct. 28, 2012, men grabbed three-year-old Joiner Estiven Banguera and used him for target practice until community members begged them to stop. They let him go after screaming at her “old frog (Colombian slang for informant) we’ll kill you and your family.” In the past two weeks, this illegal armed group engaged in shoot outs with rivals in this neighborhood and threatened to kill several other women, including pregnant Ana Gloria Cabeza, and their children. On Nov. 12, this illegal group forcibly recruited a female minor and is forcing her to participate in degrading acts. In Buenaventura, Tumaco, Quibdó, and the outskirts of Cartagena, Bogota and Medellin, we find similar situations where women have to defend themselves and their children from illegal armed groups and criminal gangs.
For a successful peace process in Colombia, women’s participation must be guaranteed. Their input is required not just at the negotiating table where plans are made, but also in the post-conflict implementation of the agreement. While an agreement is in the works, now is the time for the international community to support the voices and actions of brave Afro-Colombian women activists in Colombia. They will be the ones to ensure that what comes out of the peace process is reality based and has the best chance for success. WOLA continues to support their efforts to strengthen the role of women in Colombian society as their country moves toward a peace agreement.
– Gimena Sanchez-Garzoli is Senior Associate for the Andes Program at the Washington Office on Latin America.