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The specific targeting of women and young people in Barrancabermerja has led, not to a passive acceptance of authority and domination, but to their organisation and empowerment. This article, written by Mujeres de Negro (Women in Black), Madrid, focuses on the work of the Organización Femenina Popular (Women's Organisation of the People).
Blood and fire
The paramilitaries of the AUC arrived in Barrancabermerja, the capital of Magdalena Medio and the oil capital of Colombia, in 1998, and at the turn of the year 2000-2001 “our city underwent a pacification by blood and fire ... by which one armed actor was thrown out and another has taken control as overlord of the city”. The result has been displacement, assassinations and intimidation of social activists, and the imposition of a “Manual de Convivencia” (Handbook for Living Together) with social regulations to control, above all, youth and women.
The AUC have a range of punishments for those who violate these norms: from sweeping the streets to being publicly whipped, from being tied outside for 24 hours exposed to sun, rain and the dark of night to having their hair shorn or eyebrows shaved, from mutilation and sexual violation to murder.
It is in this atmosphere that the Organización Femenina Popular (OFP - Women's Organisation of the People) has to work. When in October 2001 paramilitaries destroyed one of the OFP's eight community houses for women, the OFP vowed to rebuild it, not just raising funds but organising a symbolic “march of bricks” to dramatise the issue. Despite the assassination of the OFP's dance instructor and death threats against its leading activists, the OFP continues to issue forthright declarations against war and violence, from whatever source, and for the empowerment of women and all those who say “no to war”.
For several years, OFP has been accompanied in its activities by volunteers from Peace Brigades International. The text below is from Mujeres de Negro, Madrid, and was prepared to promote the tour of Spain of Gloria Amparo, an OFP co-ordinator, this October.
Who are the women of the OFP?
The OFP was born in 1972 as a response to domestic and socio-economic violence in Barrancabermerja. “We were born as a way of offering women alternatives for the education of their children, but also as a form of training for women.” Now OFP has 1,250 women members in Barrancabermeja, Puerto Wilches (Santander), San Pablo, Catagal (south of Bolivar) and Yondó (Antioquia).
For 29 years the OFP has been a process of constructing full respect for the rights of women, and the construction too of new men, women and families. It is a space where diverse and multiple forms of expressing opinion exist, to debate, to build, to commit to life, to peace, to social justice, to democracy, equity and dignity. In the face of paramilitary pressure, the OFP seeks to strengthen networks of social solidarity.
The women of the OFP have constructed and reconstructed life through:
- setting up a network of community “Houses for Women”, offering a range of activities including a daily lunch canteen for displaced people;
- health programmes dealing with prevention, reproduction and women's health;
- programmes for prevention and response to domestic violence, for economic solidarity, training, organisation;
- working with common women, young people, with displaced men, women and children;
- realistic messages committed to life expressed with their black clothes, “We women want to live”;
- communications with the media;
- participation in marches and popular mobilisations;
- commemorations, celebrations and events demanding the rights of women;
- the slogan “Women neither give birth nor make life for the war”;
- demonstrations against violence, for life and dignity: 12,000 women participated in the “chain of women against the war and for peace”, breaking the silence, refusing the politics of death, and committing themselves to regain life, dignity, equity, democracy, freedom, autonomy and justice;
- a manifesto endorsed by more than 7,000 signatures in the region of Magdalena Medio against violence, for life and peace with dignity.
Working under threat
The paramilitaries want to eliminate social organisations and human rights groups that won't submit to the logic of war. They have told OFP to stop their organising and community development work, for example that they give up the keys to the Women's House in the neighbourhood of El Prado Campestre. They have stopped people on their way to an OFP lunch canteen, lying to them that it has shut down and redirecting them to one of the rival canteens they have set up.
The women of the OFP have received numerous threats and continuous harassment, death threats to them or their families, the physical destruction of their work places, and burning papers that announce OFP events. These men have demanded that the OFP abandon the neighbourhoods where they organise.
The women maintain their position of “no to war and yes to peaceful political negotiation”:
”We continue resisting peacefully in defence of life and the autonomy of women and our organisations. Our commitment is to life, our strength is solidarity.
”Although at present we hurt deep inside with the sorrow and horror generated by these ever more systematic threats, with minds and actions disposed to sow terror and death, we lift ourselves up with the anger and courage of lovers, spouses, mothers, sisters and neighbours, constructors of life in the midst of annihilation and social, economic and cultural deprivation.
”We will not let them blow away what the women of Barrancabermeja and Magdalena Media have gained in the 30 years of our existence. Faced with fear, today we stand firm in our libertarian resistance that is our heritage from our ancestral sisters and brothers the Yariguíes.”
OFP and the social organisations of Barrancabermeja face a hard reality of selective assassinations, the indifference and quiet complicity of the civil authorities and the open complicity of the military and police. The paramilitary presence is more and more open, calling neighbours meetings to warn people off the OFP and other social organisations. They intimidate people, punishing young women for having short skirts or walking in the streets at night and young men for wearing earrings, having long hair or, worst of all, being homosexual. They force people to abandon homes that they want to use as a base of operations.
War tax resistance
OFP has been interested in refusing war taxes for several years, but this has been difficult when basic food and other materials that it needs in its social projects are taxed. Earlier this year, they successfully resisted the paramilitaries' war tax on the materials they had to transport from Barrancabermeja to Puerto Wilches to rebuild a house. They called round all the human rights groups and eventually a convoy travelled publicly to Puerto Wilches, without paying heed to the paramilitary “checkpoint” and their demand for “la vacuna” (the vaccine - protection money).
President Uribe's announcement of a new tax has opened the possibility for war tax resistance by an income-generating cooperative set up by the OFP 12 years ago. On 1 October, Coopfmujer issued a statement arguing that “democratic security cannot be achieved by increasing the number of combatants, neither soldiers or police at the service of the government, nor illegal armed groups”. Therefore they declare themselves “objectors” to the new tax and call on other social groups to opt for “civil disobedience for life”.
Organización Femenina Popular (OFP), Carrera 22 Calle 52 B-36, Barrio Torcoroma, Barrancabermeja, Colombia (+57 6 22 66 25; email firstname.lastname@example.org ).