Colombia: After the War- What Future for Women?

As the peace process with FARC inches along in Colombia, a question remains unasked: after the war, what will the future look like for women?

This question was the focal point for a series of events at Universidad de Los Andes in Bogotá May 2 and 3, bringing together women grassroots leaders, Colombian cause lawyers, government officials and international scholars to imagine a Colombia after the war. From the viewpoint of transitional Justice (Ruth Rubio); social suffering (Lucie White) and suffering after war (Veena Das), and the Colombian conflict (Angélika Rettberg, Camila De Gamboa, Donny Meertens and María E. Wills).

Panelists were invited to imagine a future for women after the war, based on the premise that as academics committed to social justice, we have a high stake in ensuring women’s transformative and redistributive concerns are part of the post-conflict. And, more poignantly, that should the process fail to achieve peace for women, this be a failure of the will, not of the imagination.

Generally the experts were cautious. In the case of Colombia, even imagining an end to war is difficult. While a peace agreement between the government and the FARC guerrilla may be signed this year, such agreement will not mean an end to violence. The current war is only part of a long-lasting conflict that has torn apart several generations, and that today increasingly finds its expressions in illegal natural resource extraction practices, shady business deals, and the ubiquitous, armed presence of organized crime.

While the country is developing fast,  inequality levels remain among the highest in the world, and  murders and death threats  against social movement leaders, trade unionists, human rights defenders and other visible community leaders and intellectuals remain part and parcel of Colombian social and political life.

At the same time, Colombia is a constitutional democracy with a strong administrative state, and far-reaching legal protection mechanisms for vulnerable groups, mechanisms that are used actively by a plethora of grassroots organizations in their struggle for social change. It is also the scene of rapidly changing institutional mechanisms for both responding to the ongoing humanitarian crisis, and, if the government has its way, to ensure a transition to peace.

In 2011 the government and Congress adopted land-breaking legislation (Law 1448 of 2011) to repair victims of armed conflict, which, like the many Constitutional Court decisions which address the matter, take women’s concerns seriously. This legal framework replaced that of internal displacement as the official response to the humanitarian crisis, transforming the category of internally displaced people to a broad category of “victims” of different crimes by different perpetrators  under the 2011 victims law, all entitled to reparations in the truth/justice/reparations mantra of transitional justice.

Yet, the new system has met significant difficulties in implementation. These arise in part from the usual problems with setting up a new national agency with insufficient resources to deal with an enormous vulnerable population. They also arise from the persistent reprisals by illegal armed actors against potential beneficiaries and, increasingly, against officials of the victim’s relief programs.

In this context, hope is hard to muster, even in the protected hallways of the elite Universidad de los Andes. And while there is a substantive amount of civil society activism on feminist issues, most of this activism focus on making sexual violence, and its victims, visible. Few activists, if any, are asking difficult questions about the transformations (including redistribution of resources) that a peace process, with its ensuing transition, might bring for women, especially for the rural women who have born the enormous weight of war. Hence, we must keep asking the question: After the war; what future for these women?

Julieta Lemaitre and Kristin Bergtora Sandvik

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Where Legal Mobilization is Lethal: Displaced Women‘s Organizing in Colombia

In November 2012, Human Rights Watch published the report  “Rights Out of Reach: Obstacles to Health, Justice, and Protection for Displaced Victims of Gender-Based Violence in Colombia” documenting the failure of recent improvements in Colombia’s laws, policies and programs to translate into effective justice for internally displaced women (IDPs.)  The long-term activist Angélica Bello was interviewed, decrying the lack of protection against rape, the lack of health care and the lack of compensation for displaced women.

At 45, Bello, the director of the National Foundation in Defense of Women’s Rights (FUNDHEFEM) had been displaced four times due to her crusade on behalf of Colombia’s  3,5-5,4 million displaced, of whom a majority are women. Coming out of a meeting at the Ministry of Justice in Bogotá in 2009, she was abducted and raped – and told by her assailants that she was being punished for her activist work.

February 16 2013, Bello’s struggle for social justice ended with a bullet to the head. Her death was initially ruled suicide- the authorities stated that she had killed herself with a gun left behind by one of her bodyguards in the government-provided security detail. The Colombian human rights community is deeply suspicious and the National Ombudsman has requested an autopsy. Regardless of Bello’s personal courage and whatever the truth about Bello’s death, the kind of insecurity she faced as a consequence of her activism, is an all too familiar story of suffering, violence, suspicion- and of laws not implemented.

CIJUS in Colombia and PRIO in Norway have collaborated on a three-year multi-methods study of the relationship between legal mobilization, political organizing and access to resources for IDP grassroots organizations in Colombia.  Often overlooked in scholarship on legal mobilization, the acute insecurity of those advocating for implementation of existing law and local administrative regulations have emerged as a key finding in our research.

Recognized as a severe humanitarian crisis, Colombia’s massive internal displacement is a consequence of a prolonged internal conflict between guerrilla groups, government forces and paramilitary groups, compounded by an extended war on drugs. We have carefully studied the efforts of two relatively successful organizations, the Liga de la Mujeres Desplazadas, the League of Displaced Women, at the Caribbean coast, and the Mesa de Víctimas de Mocoa (a network of IDP organizations in the Amazon region of Colombia). Both have managed to use a legal mobilization repertoire, to achieve a measure of rights-enjoyment for their affiliates, as well as positioned themselves as local political actors. The Liga de Mujeres, further, has achieved a landmark presence before the Colombian Constitutional Court and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Like Bello, the leaders of Liga de Mujeres and the Mesa have received numerous death threats, and their members and their relatives have been harassed, raped, disappeared and killed by neo-paramilitary groups, also called Bacrims (Bandas Criminales). The Bacrims are organized criminal outfits emerging on the tails of the Paramilitary demobilization process, initiated under the 2005 Justice and Peace Law. We found the situation to be similar around the country as reported by the 66 community leaders we interviewed for a mapping exercise of female IDP organizations in the 2011-2012 period. A recent report by the Historical Memory Commission, a government organ that recover’s victim’s tales, reports that all of the 50 leaders it interviewed had received death threats.

The Colombian Constitutional Court has been vocal in its defense of Colombia’s IDPS, and several important decisions have specifically considered the precarious security situation of women community leaders, and ordered the government to provide effective protection. Protection however has been consistently insufficient, and the dampening effect of threats on rights-claiming is not hard to imagine, even with an activist Court.

Angélica Bello’s plight is unusually tragic. But the intense insecurity surrounding her quest for protection and redress from Courts, government officials and various international entities is not uncommon.