The Role of Women Defenders of Human Rights in Colombia

Article excerpt

Women in Colombia are increasingly being attacked because of their efforts to defend human rights and to bring an end to the conflict and displacement in their country.

Violence against women defenders of human rights is rarely recognised for what it really is: part of a deliberate, calculated strategy to force them to desist from their attempts to change society, save lives and receive justice. Recent reports show there has been a serious increase in the incidence of aggression against the movement for the defence of human rights in Colombia and in particular against women defenders of human rights.1 These attacks are aimed at silencing women defenders and as such they have a profound impact on perpetuation of the conflict - and prolonging displacement, given that the women's movement has become a key player in effective reestablishment of the rights of the displaced population in Colombia, including the right to restitution of their lands.

In their work, women defenders have experienced sexual violence, attacks or threats of attacks on themselves and also on their children, families and communities. These women also commonly experience the disintegration of their family unit, open reproaches and social stigmatisation for the substitution of their role as mother with that of protector of wider human rights.

However, and in spite of this, in Colombia it is often women who take the lead in demanding truth, justice and reparations for victims of the armed conflict, including the restitution of their lands. The internal armed conflict has forcibly displaced more than 5.2 million people throughout the country, 80% of them women and children, submitting this population to a profound human rights crisis. Therefore, given the failings of the state in terms of an effective response to the crisis, the women who have suffered forced displacement in Colombia have - with the support of women's organisations dedicated to the defence of their human rights - united and fought strongly to demand the effective reestablishment of their rights and the restitution of their lands, fully backed by the necessary guarantees.

This growing strength has been matched by a correlating increase in the risk of attempts on their lives, integrity, security and freedom by armed groups and the paramilitary groups in particular - groups who do not wish the women to make demands of the state for the reestablishment of their rights, the pursuit of truth and justice, and the restitution of their lands. The role of these women leaders is absolutely essential to this process - which is why they are being attacked.

It is worth bearing in mind that peace processes promoted by the government could well generate an upsurge of human rights violations in the country. The armed groups who operate beyond the law and who have broadly and systematically violated the human rights of the civilian population will want to weaken the hand of the victims in obtaining commitments for reparations in the peace process, particularly in societies such as Colombia where civil society has the capacity to influence outcomes in political negotiations and where, as here, conflict and displacement have created an environment conducive to or forcing women's empowerment. …