Colombia's Displaced Women and Girls

We just received this interview from our sister foundation, Association for Women's Rights in Development. Patricia Guerrero is an advisor to the Global Fund in Colombia, and works with the League of Displaced Women.

By Rochelle Jones

Translated from the Spanish by Lina Gomez and Fernanda Hopenhaym, with assistance from Anna Turley.

AWID: Colombia has one of the largest internally displaced populations in the world. Tell us about the work of Liga de Mujeres Desplazadas, and particularly about the reasons behind the displacement of women and children in Colombia's Atlantic Coast region.

Patricia Guerrero: The Liga de Mujeres Desplazadas (LMD) is a grassroots organization made up of over 200 women of different ethnicities and their families. They are displaced women from different regions of the country such as the Department of Bolivar, Antioquia, los Santanderes, Choco and Guajira.  These women have been displaced as a result of Colombia's longstanding internal conflict, which has been going on for more than 40 years. They have been displaced by all the groups involved in the war: paramilitary forces, guerilla groups and by the state itself. This displacement has worsened in the last 10 years due to territorial disputes between illegal armed groups fighting for control over land.

Women, girls and boys are most affected by this phenomenon. Over 54% of the internally displaced are widows and female heads of households.  Women have been victims of serious war crimes particularly gender-based violence such as sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced abortions, forced recruitment and rape. These crimes have been perpetrated against some of the women of our organization. Moreover, since its foundation in 1997, the LMD has been the target of several assaults that go from murder, forced disappearance, kidnappings, and robbery to persecutions and death threats against the organization's leaders and their families.

The LMD's main project is the Centro Comunitario en la Ciudad de las Mujeres (Women's City Community Center), the home of over 500 people.Some of the activities that the LMD is developing through the Women's City project include: a women's cooperative called "MujerCoop", a line of credit and a shelter that is used as a day care facility for over 100 children. Women from this project also work on re-location issues directly with the municipal authorities and advocate for the implementation of public policies that protect women's rights and internally displaced people's rights.

Additionally, this project works on accountability issues, and also conducts participatory action-research in order to unveil the lack of funding for women's rights restitution initiatives. As a result of this work, the LMD has made complaints against the mayor to the Public Ministry and consequently, he is being investigated for negligence and fiscal obstruction.            

The Women's City has been the only social housing project for displaced people in the region in the last three years, which highlights the incompetence of the government as compared with the power of women organizing.

As a consequence of the social and armed conflict, the Atlantic Coast is one of the regions that has been most affected by forced displacement. Among the armed groups present in this area there is the FARC, the ELN and various paramilitary fronts. The Caribbean region is one of the country's richest in cattle farming, land and natural resources such as charcoal. It is also one of the least developed regions with high poverty levels and very poor living conditions. Additionally, this region has a high incidence of drug trafficking and wealth is concentrated among a few families. These families have been historically linked to both the local and regional power structure and to the so-called "para-politics" -politicians involved with the paramilitaries and narco-trafficking activities. The Caribbean region is also highly affected by corruption at all levels. A large number of massacres have taken place in this region where mass graves with hundreds of bodies - assassinated by the paramilitaries in the last 10 years - have been found.

AWID: In January, the Women's City Community Centre in Turbaco was the target of an arson attack and destroyed. What happened?

PG: The LMD's main project, Centro Comunitario en la Ciudad de las Mujeres (Women's City Community Centre), was set on fire on the night of January 20th.  Criminals started the fire while the women were asleep in their homes. This center was going to be used as a school facility for 144 girls and boys from the organization and neighboring communities.    

AWID: Why is the League being threatened and by whom, and what is it that makes your work such a threat?

PG: We believe there are many reasons why we are being threatened. Firstly, we are being threatened because we are trying to restore the social fabric of the region based on the principles of equality, no discrimination, no violence, no corruption and we stand against everything else that is detrimental to the population in the region. Historically, corrupt politicians have used death threats to frighten and intimidate community leaders.

Secondly, some of the League's displaced women witnessed crimes perpetrated by paramilitary members that are currently being prosecuted. Thirdly, the process of paramilitary disarmament, demobilization and reintegration that is being implemented in Colombia is rather atypical because it is taking place in the middle of the conflict. The paramilitary demobilization is not being properly monitored by the local authorities. It has been proven that demobilized paramilitary groups are taking advantage of unclear amnesty laws to return to their criminal activities and are continuing to persecute social and community leaders. Two women leaders that have witnessed crimes perpetrated by the paramilitary were assassinated within the last two weeks in Colombia. 

AWID: What has happened since the fire, and what is the government doing in response?

PG: The typical response from the local authorities is to militarize the'City of Women', to create "security fronts". We have strongly refused to be part of these 'security fronts' as we want to be identified solely as civil society actors. Women's security is not about having a police officer or a soldier at our side. We want human security that implies the restitution of our human rights, that justice is done, that the facts are investigated, that there are public policies for women, investment in the community, education for our children, health, and the possibility to live a life with dignity and without fear.

AWID: How have other organizations responded to this incident?

PG: With solidarity. Social organizations and women's organizations have demonstrated a lot of solidarity with us. Some women from the Colombian
Congress have written to us and are demanding a response from the authorities. The UNHCR, European Union, the US embassy and the Canadian embassy have also shown solidarity with us. A Security Council has been set up to address this issue, but so far none of those responsible for this crime have been detained.

Women's organizations in particular, have shown great solidarity. AWID, through Lydia Alpizar, has been very attentive to my security and my family's. The Urgent Action for Women has also offered its support. The Global Fund for Women, for which I'm an advisor, has sent a letter to the Colombian president demanding security and a response to this case.

I have felt really surrounded by women. It has always been like this, and I thank them with all my heart. I could never have done what I've done without women's solidarity and love.

AWID: I know that UNHCR has been working to address the internal displacement of people in Colombia, but this latest incident seems to be an escalation of the violence. How can the international community help?

PG: UNHCR has made an international statement about the case of the Displaced Women's League. They have expressed their concern and have demanded protection by the Colombian Government. In addition they have declared 2007 as the year for the rights of the displaced population in Colombia.

A new law that is currently passing through Congress will declare 2007 as the year of the displaced population with the aim of calling attention to this critical problem in Colombia - more than 4 million people are displaced. We are meeting with the congresswoman who is driving this law. She wants to understand our point of view. The UN radio station has also interviewed us, which was an opportunity to once again place the subject of women's rights violations in Colombia on the agenda.

The European Union has committed to the reconstruction of the Community
Center and we are working hard to be able to rebuild it as soon as possible. At the same time, the US Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy has made a strong statement against the attack on the Displaced Women's League, in the Los Angeles Times.

AWID: How do you stay strong, Patricia? What keeps you going?

PG: I've been fighting for women's rights in Colombia for over 20 years.
First, I did it for the women in the flower industry who face serious problems. I worked with imprisoned women whose rights were violated - they were not allowed to have their children with them nor conjugal visits. As a human rights lawyer, I was the first woman judge in Colombia to speak out about the possibility of rape inside marriage. I advocated for the decriminalization of abortion before the Constitutional Court and I did it from the perspective of women who had been raped during the armed conflict in order to outline their right to restitution.

Currently I am advocating against government actions that impede investigation into the crime of forced displacement before the State Council. I have done research into impunity in the case of displaced women and into gender based violence. I founded the Displaced Women's League nine years ago and in 2005 we were nominated for the national peace award. Recently we received an honorable mention for the II King of Spain award for Human Rights. I also have three daughters.

As you see, I'm very busy, and it's the women and my conviction that we have less and less time to take the world from the hands of the violent, the exploiters and the criminals against humanity, that gives me the strength to continue my struggle.

For more information, visit the League of Displaced Women.


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