16 Members of the Colombia Solidarity Campaign participated in the International Caravan to Save the Lives of Colombian Workers, in June 2004. Below is the first of several reports in this bulletin on organisations that we met.
The week we spent in Colombia as part of the International Caravan was full of intense meetings with social movements and with trade unionist. One of our very last meetings was with a Women’s Group from Bogota and it was an extremely powerful experience to hear the current situation of those women.
The members of that group were displaced women coming from different areas of Colombia and sharing their experience of having their human rights violated. Displacement is endemic in Colombia. The Human Rights and Displacement Consultancy (CODHES) put the figure of displaced people at more than two million people between 1995 and 2000, although the Colombian government offers a lower figure (400,000 from 1995 to 1999). What is certain is that the problem of displacement has affected a large area of the Colombia territory. A 2001 survey shows that 74% of all municipalities have been affected by displacement and that Bogota, as the capital city, receives the most displaced people. In spite of the generalised nature of the problem, it is still the case that to be displaced is to be stigmatised and discriminated against.
Each of those women had a different story to tell, but all were connected under the current situation of Colombia’s armed conflict, violence and indifference from the government. Many of them had had their husband or son kidnapped or even assassinated by paramilitaries, guerrillas or government’s agents. They had to flee from their community and home due to threats and violence coming from the armed conflict. When arriving in Bogota, they needed to adapt to the new structure of jobs and often were not included in the new working scheme, sometimes for the simple prejudice of being a displaced person. A displaced woman is confronted by a social and cultural vacuum; she faces not only a loss of economic and physical security, but also of identity. In the economic sphere, this vacuum is represented by Colombia’s booming ‘informal sector’, where there are no labour rights and no support from the government. Here the women must learn to scrape a livelihood for themselves and their families selling goods on streets policed by hostile government forces, as well as members of the stunningly brutal paramilitary forces. Teresa, one of the members of the Women’s group, was one of the victims of the violence that is happening in streets of Bogota. She was beaten by the police and had her spine dislocated, which made her unable to work.
Apart from the testimony with an economic perspective, we heard how prejudice also plays an essential role in this reality. Miriam, a black displaced woman, reported the struggle that the afro- Colombian community is fighting in Colombia. It was only in 1991, during the constitutional reform, that black Colombians where legally recognized as an ethnic group in Colombia. The black movement is fighting for their rights for land and to preservation and recognition of their culture and self-determination. Women in this movement have been triply stigmatised: they are displaced, female, and black. Miriam reported that the black community is suffering not just from race discrimination, but also from the economic slavery where their means of survive has been undermined by the multinationals that are part of the neo-liberal project implemented in Colombia.
The two specific testimonies from Teresa and Miriam were examples of the current situation that these women are living. However, they all shared their past experiences of violence and threats, which were a very powerful part of the meeting to all of us from the Caravan. These women reported that women are being used as a weapon for war by the paramilitaries where they have been raped, violated and mutilated. The atrocities committed are difficult and hard to describe. Paramilitaries invade the houses, rape girls in front of the family; rape wives in front of the husband, them cut the head of the main figure of the household and make the rest of the family play football with the head. These women have witnessed and lived these histories.
The testimonies of abuses and humiliation were a powerful part of our meeting. They reported that women in some areas are taken by the paramilitaries to be sex slaves and to do the domestic work as well as to be informants. These women have to live under certain rules of conduct where they are told what to wear, how to behave and who to relate with. A break of these rules can lead to severe punishment to these women. As an example, by breaking the rules, a woman has her head shaved, she has her naked body cover in honey and she is left tied to the ground during the day and the night until the following morning, when she is washed with extremely cold water.
Although with different experiences, the stories of these women are connected under the political reality of Colombia. The government is contributing to the increase of displaced people. One of the women in the group reported how her home city was the laboratory for the Anti terrorist law that is now affecting the lives of many Colombians. In this city, the military carried house invasions at night, they detained 130 people in 15 days and several murders occurred. The psychology of terror was implemented at the population by the army: machine guns were placed on the corners of the city and were fired constantly from 12pm to 6am. And now, by implementing the anti terrorist law in a national scale, the government is undermining the power and the struggle of the social movements in the country.
The meeting with the Women’s Group highlighted another side of the Colombian conflict. Women are now part of the struggle where the government security forces and their paramilitary allies have labelled women’s community leaders, activists and human rights defenders as guerrillas collaborators and legitimate targets in the counter-insurgency war. However, we witnessed the power and hope of these women for a better Colombia. These are women who decided to have a voice in the political reality of the country by uniting their forces, their hopes and their struggle. And they believe that the support and the recognition of their struggle by the international community is one important factor that gives them hope and strengthen to continue their fight for a justice and for peace in Colombia.