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Women’s self respect vs the barrel of the gun

Murder, abduction, torture and rape have not stopped women's groups in Colombia from working and marching for peace. If anything, their peace movement has grown and even flourished.

Women's groups in Colombia, working to bring about peaceful social change and an end to 50 years of political violence, are having to face a fierce backlash by right-wing paramilitaries.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Barrancabermeja, a city of 320,000 lying some 200 km north of the capital Bogota, where the Popular Woman's Organisation (OFP), a grassroots non-government organisation, is being targeted by the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), an umbrella group of 10,000 paramilitaries.

OFP member Esperanza Amarís paid the highest price last October when gunmen kidnapped and killed her before dumping her body on the roadside. Just four months earlier the 40-year-old mother of two had been warned by the AUC to quit the NGO and leave Barrancabermeja.

"I fear for my life and the lives of my family, but this is my home and the only way I'll leave is if I'm dead," Amarís responded shortly after receiving the threat.

In January, paramilitaries abducted Inés Peña, an OFP coordinator, and tortured her by scalding her feet before shaving her head and releasing her. A day earlier a boat carrying OFP women and a delegation of international humanitarian workers came under fire by suspected paramilitaries on the Magdalena River.

The list of attacks against the OFP is long and chilling: in the past three years the group has documented nearly 100 of them, ranging from death threats and harassment to torture and killings.

OFP director Yolanda Becerra believes the AUC targets the organisation because of its role as a human rights defender and for participating in non-violent initiatives such as the national Movement of Women Against the War.

"[The paramilitaries] impose their law through the barrel of a gun," Becerra says. "We don't fit into their plans because we have another vision of how this country should be, based on the principals of non-violence and freedom."

The national women's movement is calling for the demilitarisation of a civilian society increasingly being sucked into a war between the state, the paramilitaries and left-wing guerrillas. It also asks all warring sides to respect the human rights of civilians.

Colombia's civil war began in the 1950s when armed factions of rival political parties swept the country into a war that killed some 300,000 people, mostly civilians from marginalised groups. Continued persecution of the poor, and a widening gap between the rich and the poor gave rise to an armed insurrection by two guerrilla groups: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and Army of National Liberation (ELN).

In the mid-1980s the military began creating 'self-defence forces' to repel guerrilla incursions in rural areas. But besides confronting the guerrillas, these paramilitary groups also turned against Colombia's social movements and the political left. After a series of gruesome massacres the paramilitaries were declared illegal in 1989, but continued to operate and flourish in the 1990s.

For many years the guerrillas maintained a strong presence in Barrancabermeja. In the late 1990s the AUC began to drive out the guerrillas and 'cleanse' the city of 'unwanted elements' including community leaders, NGOs and trade unionists. In 2000 alone 570 people were murdered, mostly by paras. A year later they claimed Barrancabermeja city as their own. But AUC promises of peace and an end to the extortionist activities of guerrillas were short lived. Not only did the AUC carry on wresting money from locals, it also continued to assassinate and abduct community activists and trade unionists.

Over the years, this extreme-right group has imposed strict moral codes on residents. These "rules of conduct" often single out women for special attention; young women, for example, are forbidden to wear miniskirts or tops that reveal their midriffs.

Women who ignore the orders are punished – they can have their heads shaved, or be beaten or bound to a tree for hours under the scorching sun. Women accused of infidelity or sex work have been stripped and paraded in the streets on the back of a pickup truck.

But while punishing some sex workers, the AUC paras pressure other young women from poor neighbourhoods to exchange sex for money, or in some cases rape them. Also targeted in this campaign of 'social cleansing' are homosexuals, alongside criminals and drug users.

Despite the presence of two army battalions, a naval base and a police detachment in the city, most AUC crimes go unpunished.

Although the Colombian government continually denies any official collaboration between security forces and the paramilitaries, most national and international observers recognise the link. As one local rights worker puts it, this link is "the worst-kept secret in Colombia".

OFP's Bercerra says: "These young men on the streets who speak and act in the name of paramilitarism are answering to ones who represent the state."

While armed groups have historically targeted men for political violence, the number of female victims is on the rise. A 2002 report by the UN's Special Rapporteur on violence against women stated that attacks on women are widespread and systematic, and that the Colombian justice system has failed to prosecute the perpetrators.

Viviana Bolívar, a psychologist who works in Barrancabermeja for the non governmental group Links, says women living in conflict suffer from severe stress, fearing they will be raped, abducted or killed. Mothers feel the additional responsibility of protecting their children from the ravages of war and the guilt that follows if any harm befalls them.

"Women are the ones who have to recover the bodies of their dead sons and husbands, learn to protect their families, and are the ones charged with maintaining the social fabric of their communities destroyed by the violence – that's a huge burden to carry."

Often the same women live in poverty – 26 per cent of Colombia's 43 million people live on less than $2 a day, and thousands have been forced from their homes by armed factions, taking with them little more than a change of clothes.

Despite the dangers OFP members face, the organisation has grown and flourished. In the past two years the OFP has been invited by community leaders to work in poor districts of the cities of Bogotá, Cartagen, and Neiva, where they offer food, healthcare, psychological counselling, job training and legal services. "We have many things in common with the women in those regions; we identify with what they've been going through," says Becerra.

She says conviction of purpose, a strong social base, support both in and outside Colombia, and solidarity within its ranks have all helped it grow.

But above all she credits self-respect. "We have dignity and you should never underestimate the importance of that."

John Ludwick is a freelance journalist living in Colombia, who writes for Latinamerica Press.

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