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Making links between all forms of violence, Colombian women activists are building a national women's movement against the war. Martha Colorado reports.
A permanent process
Some politicians are currently selling the idea that total war is “The Choice” to change the history of violence in Colombia once and for all. The Colombian women's movement, however, does not just bring attention to the situation of women, we also do not believe in war as an option, or that the ends justify the means. We do not believe in violence as the best path for our country, nor for the rest of the world. Many women and men in Colombia have opted for an ethical position of nonviolence, calling for the negotiated settlement of the conflict, and have joined the struggle against arms, militarism and authoritarianism.
The armed conflict in Colombia, which has been felt with most force before at the rural level, has become heightened in the cities, where 70% of the population live, most particularly in the marginalised neighbourhoods. Now in both cities and suburbs, as well as in rural areas, people are displaced by the force of arms: they live in precarious conditions of survival, unaware of their rights, and in a fragmented society, pressured by violence and fear. Another factor of this human crisis is that 80% of those killed in the war are civilians.
The urban armed conflict has worsened because of the strong presence of paramilitary and guerrilla ideologies and their activities. Delinquent gangs have reorganised themselves in alliance with the dominant armed groups. The armed actors begin to control not only territory but also daily life and the feelings and even the bodies of the women. They makeup laws that govern everything, even relationships between people.
Here are some examples of this and how it affects women's' lives:
- Women live this war as a personal drama, because on many occasions their sons, brothers, or some other family members, are involved in one of these armed groups. Faced with this, the feeling that is generated is one of impotence, of anger, fear of not being able to do anything to avoid this situation.
- Rape and sexual harassment: women of all ages have been raped by different armed actors in the conflict. Women have been turned into “war booty”, they are the prize for the strongest actor, or they are the instrument for punishing the loser. Those that try to mobilise are threatened with rape.
- Prohibitions on dress style. To give just one example: to enforce their dress code in the small town of El Santuario, paramilitaries burnt the midriffs of two young women as a punishment for having pierced belly buttons, cropped tops and low-waisted trousers.
- Prohibition of collecting, watching over and burying of the dead: To do so would show you are against whoever was responsible for killing them.
- Prohibitions on love and relationships: killing women because they are girlfriends, friends or lovers of police, soldiers, guerrillas or paramilitaries. Selective killings, because they have helped one gang or another. In the El Corazón neighbourhood of Medellín, 15 women were killed in October 2001 for being girlfriends, wives or family of those who were part of another armed group.
- Payment of “vaccines” or taxes to armed groups, the occupation of homes by armed actors for use as centres of their operations.
- The effect on children of the closure of schools and colleges. The de-schooling of children is also being generated because of the confrontations and the establishment of limits and territorial frontiers that stop them going to study. Children are also suffering from nervous illnesses and paranoia. Each year 100 children commit suicide and 1,000 are killed in the armed conflict.
- Loss of the right of freedom of movement: in the streets, neighbourhoods and paths, with loss of work as a consequence of the difficulties of getting around. This situation has affected women's and community organisations because of the inability to pass from one neighbourhood to another.
- The economy of war means more poor people. That is to say, more poor women - due to the feminisation of poverty, because of the overburdening of work responsibilities, higher unemployment and the cutting of all social programmes that had been won by women's social movements.
For all the reasons above, many Colombians consider that the way of violence and arms which has imposed itself in our country has driven us towards uncontrollable war, with all armed actors violating international humanitarian laws.
We say “NO” to war!
In this context - because of the grave situation that women found themselves in the conflict, in both cities and rural areas - La Ruta Pacifica de Mujeres (Women's Pacific Route) was born in 1995. On 25 November 1996 - International Day of Violence Against Women - La Ruta's first national march of more than 2,000 women took place.
Women travelled to Urabá from all over Colombia. From that moment on, La Ruta has continued organising and working regularly as part of the wider movement for peace. Women from many different organisations and grassroots groups work with La Ruta, from 10 provinces, cities and parts of Colombia.
Alongside massacres and when death is a common, everyday event, other forms of violence become under valued. La Ruta has managed to articulate an analysis concerning domestic violence along with the war, making a political effort to denounce and make visible the various forms violence exercised against women.
In its conception, La Ruta is feminist, and seeks negotiated settlement of the armed conflict in Colombia. We declare ourselves pacifists, anti-arms, and builders of a nonviolent ethic. Against the forces of violence, we work to restore solidarity and kindness, things that help us to sustain ourselves as human beings and as a collective living life on the edge. With our mobilisation and our presence, we say “NO” to war, we say to the armed groups that they do not represent us, we say yes to a life with dignity, no to indifference and no to the complicity of forgetfulness.
Our strategy is to deconstruct the symbols that strengthen war, exclusion and extermination. We combat them with poetry, with other symbols, language and social practices that build alternatives to militarisation and the logic of domination and exclusion that make a cult out of violence and weapons.
This is how the women of La Ruta Pacifica, together with other organisations in Colombia (such as the grassroots women's organisation the OFP of Barrancabermeja) have constructed an alliance in order to express ourselves and mobilise as Women in Black.
We dress in black for all the crimes committed, for the diverse violence that we are experiencing in Colombia, in order to express our profound rejection of the war. In this way, we take up the legacy of anti-militarist women around the world who have also dressed in black and, in silence, oppose war and militarisation publicly in their countries.
We use the symbolic image of a cloth which we weave to counteract the war; we weave solidarities, social fabric and links of love, we weave memory in a country where forgetfulness and impunity detracts from our dignity, our value and self respect as a society a little more each time. That is why in our agro-ecological, craft, creative and symbolic projects we work with accumulated grief, past and present, from so much violence unspoken of, which always threatens to repeat itself. At the same time we are trying to rebuild gender identities, working for more equitable and fair relations between men and women, for a society where women and the feminine has a place in the world.
There are innumerable women's projects by groups connected with La Ruta that symbolically and practically work to rebuild and repair the social fabric and communities. As well as providing ameans of generating some income for women, such projects also are places of mutual support for women coping with grief and loss. However, every initiative in community self-organisation is likely to run into threats. Like the women's shop in Yolombó that was selling products made by women and also providing their community with basic necessities until they were threatened by armed men.
Our vision in the face of war
We are convinced that security and peace do not come from the power of arms but from the ability to engage in dialogue, and from justice, from social and economic development, from social responsibility, from negotiation and inclusion with which we may manage to promote and express - not only at the negotiation table but in our everyday relationships - a model for living together that can transform our cultural practice. For us, the war encapsulates domination and power-seeking.
Using our vision to analyse the global economic system, world politics and concepts of development, everything that installs itself within collective public space installs itself within personal relations as much as within global dynamics, thus breaking into personal life and the domestic space. For this reason, for us, capitalism, globalisation, neoliberalism and the war, are faces of the same coin. We understand them from an integrated point of view as expressions of a system that by its nature imposes domination and death, and that uses violence and war to manage conflict.
From this stance, we share the position of many national and international sectors of opinion who reject the Plan Colombia initiative proposed by the USA to strengthen the fight against drug trafficking. This plan accentuates war-mongering and militaristic logic, increasing human rights violations, harming the civilian population, and generating new ingredients in the Colombian conflict.
It is not that we reject the international economic and political support. On the contrary, international support is needed for development projects that strengthen civil society initiatives and to pressure the Colombian state to protect human rights and to negotiate.
Internationally La Ruta has begun to weave a network of women, people and organisations which support the initiatives of women and civil society in favour of a political negotiation of the armed conflict and which create links of solidarity with women and men from other countries, in order to counteract the arms race, militarism and war worldwide. La Ruta and other Colombian women's organisations have built a national movement of women against the war, which will be a permanent process that will include actions and events. It started on 25 July 2002 with a great national mobilisation of women against the war and the arrival of 20,000 women to the plaza de Bolivar in the city of Bogota.
We are committed to seeking a sustainable, just, and equal peace to repair the damage done to the lives and bodies of all those affected by the war and violence and so call for international solidarity and mobilisation:
- Against the war
- For political negotiation
- For the demilitarisation of civil life and the recovery of citizens' rights for all the men and women of Colombia.
Most of the text was translated by Naomi Fowler. Photographs: taken on the national women's demonstration on 25 July 2002.