Women, Peace and Justice in Colombia

Colombia is a country of geographical contrasts and extremes. Here one can find desert in the north-east, jungle along the Pacific coast, the mountains of the Serrania de la Macarena and islands off the coast. Colombia boasts an abundance of flora and fauna and it’s a beautiful country. Underneath all of this beauty can be found vast oil reserves which are yet unexplored – only 30 percent of Colombia has been explored for oil to date. There are vast areas of Colombia where foreign companies, including Canadian companies, are anxious to exploit the oil from Colombia’s lucrative reserves. The world has been led to believe that the violence in Colombia began with drug trafficking. In fact, drug trafficking is a consequence of economic decisions and Colombia has long had a political and economic model that is based on violence. In the 19th century thousands died as a result of war. In the “1000 Days War” over 160 thousand peasants died. At the beginning of the 20th century, 50 thousand Indigenous people died – a whole nation, the Yarigun people, was wiped out. Between 1948 and 1958, around 200 thousand peasants were assassinated and 2 million were displaced. In those days the interest was the accumulation of agricultural land – today the interest is in oil, electricity and the planning of a canal. The majority of the land in Colombia belongs to large land owners who do not farm the land but have bought it on speculation of higher prices. Agriculture is now of such little importance that last year Colombia had to import coffee from Peru. Coffee production has dropped to one-half of what it was a year ago. Where did these farmers go to earn a living? Many turned to opium production – forced to grow drugs in order to exist. In the American-fueled “war against drugs,” fumigation of opium plants is now a big issue in Colombia. Not only are the opium fields fumigated but also the small, surrounding farms, the water and the trees. People are being driven from their land and lives are lost every day as the people resist.

Urban Strife and Resistance

Massacres, torture, assassinations and other means for the systemic elimination of grassroots leaders and community activists have been occurring for several years. The May 1998 massacre in Barrancabemeja, one of many against unarmed civilians by military and paramilitary forces, led to the Toronto and Montreal tribunals where Canadian jurors heard evidence of military involvement in atrocities. Leaders of the Organizacion Feminina Popular (OFP), who work to protect human lives, social justice and popular movements, have organized strikes, research projects, political projects, education, and national and international solidarity efforts. Many have fallen as victims of state and paramilitary terror. Yet, the OFP remains an example of strength and commitment against insurmountable obstacles. The Path: The “Women’s Path to Peace” is a national Colombian social movement dedicated to the achievement of social transformation and peace through non-violent struggles. “The Path” was born as a reaction to the fact that women are being ignored as victims of war, exclusion and violence in Colombia. Maria del Pilar Cordoba, one of the founders and leaders, explains how “violence is a macho approach to politics and social processes, yet women become the invisible victims of war.” The founders of the “Women’s Path to Peace” heard testimony from inhabitants of Uraba in north-west Colombia, that in this war-torn community, all women older than 12 had been raped by members of armed factions. The reaction was the establishment of this now national movement. “The Path” has gathered momentum and strength and now involves women and organizations from the entire country. On a yearly basis, on October 25th, they rally with international participants on a journey of symbolic activities, workshops and exchanges. “The Path” has established the principles of a women-based approach to peace and social transformation and is joining with other social movements in this direction. Social justice, self-determination, reciprocity and non-violent conflict resolution are some of the principles.

International Solidarity

In August 2001 I participated in the activities of the International Women’s March Against War in Barrancabermeja, Colombia. It was an exciting event with representation from 18 countries, the Canadian delegation of 30 being the largest. We were excited to be participants in this event which was openly defiant of the right wing agenda of Colombia. In the city of Barranca conflict and war are well known. The aim of the military is to silence all popular movements and indeed very few have managed to survive. The plenary event took place the following morning and about 3000 women and a few men attended. The para-militaries soon made their presence known by surrounding the building, carrying signs and blocking the access road to the event. The signs accused the organizers of “buying and corrupting the youth for the insurgency” and accused the human rights and peace workers of working on behalf of the insurgency. It was a definite attempt to instill fear against peaceful, unarmed people who are working to improve human rights and social justice in Colombia. Women’s lives are very difficult and often their pain is invisible. We heard from twelve women, each representing a different organization, who told us horror stories about the reality of their lives. Gangs roam neighbourhoods and throw home made bombs so that children cannot play in their own yards. Neighbourhoods are divided into zones and no one will dare cross from one zone to another as they are confronted by gang members who rape and kill. We were told that 35 children have been killed in Medellin between May and August. Police often blame the victims and are not considered trustworthy. One woman told us she is a union leader and she was displaced from her home due to violent threats. She organizes women who work in homes. She described the women’s work as “modern slavery” and said that the women are treated like “dogs.” One woman told a story of two children , a boy and a girl who were abducted from her neighbourhood. They were both killed a few days later and their bodies mutilated. Children are afraid to go to school for fear of rape. Many of the girls get pregnant and they are then blamed for their pregnancy and left to raise the child on their own. Gangs can pay people to do almost anything and youth who try to organize become targeted. Killings, rapes and impregnating young women is cause for celebration by the gangs. It is difficult to visit other neighbourhoods and people become isolated in their violent world. Women are afraid to talk as many of them have brothers, husbands, lovers or fathers who are members of gangs. Many women remain silent because they are afraid of repercussions. Threats are made against anyone who opposes the violence and many women are displaced. Anna Lucia Rodriguez Carbona is a 25 year old peasant women who was raped and became pregnant. She had an unassisted birth, the baby died during birth and she was accused of murdering her baby and sentenced to life imprisonment. In the first eight months of 2001, 87 union leaders, 1000 peasants and 15 Indigenous leaders were assassinated in Colombia.

Resistance and Assistance

Everywhere women are resisting the violence. Women write poetry, organize sewing circles, teach children to use the library, cook meals, hold exercise classes – all in an attempt to have some sanity and normalcy in their lives. A group of women, Mujeres de Negro (Women in Black), dress in black clothes and meet in public places and silently protest the war and violence. These symbolic acts in a war torn country, give women hope for the future as they defy the state of war and violence in their country. Women in unions organize women’s groups so that they will collectively try to find solutions to the problems that they all face every day. We visited a school for children from five to eighteen years of age. These children work on the streets in the informal economy – some are prostitutes. Often they start work as early as 4:00 AM and when they come to school, they bring their weapons and leave them at the door. It is accepted that the children must work to survive, so the emphasis is put on providing an education so that they will have alternatives in their lives. In Colombia 65 percent of displaced people are women under the age of 19 and most are mothers. About 44 percent of the displaced people are children and they are five years behind their peers at school. Everywhere we went we saw that women are the leaders in the battle to confront the violence in their community. These brave women turn to peaceful methods in the face of aggression and threats to their lives. Many of their projects depend on international aid because in Colombia there are no social programs and the economy of the country is dominated by the war. These brave women must put all of their energy into their goal of peace and a better life for their children. These women are surrounded by military types who harass them, rape them and their children, kill them and threaten everything they do and everything that they stand for. It is increasingly important that the global community, women’s groups, unions, churches, and individuals look up, take notice and aim to help the women of Colombia in their fight for justice and for peace.

Ruth Larson has a special interest in international solidarity. She is a member of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers living in Labrador City, Newfoundland.

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