Women leaders and human rights defenders in Colombia: A legacy of dreams, struggles and affection that we will not silence
Natalia Escobar Sabogal
“[To be a woman leader] is to love and defend our
culture, land, race, identity.
It is to defend who we are.”
- Claudia Rincón, Colombian leader
In a context like Colombia’s, the work of imagining, dreaming and even creating processes of transformation so we can live in worlds that are decent, just, careful, and affectionate is worthy of admiration.
That is precisely what women leaders and human rights defenders in Colombia are building, bit by bit, through their alternative life projects—an attempt at achieving feminist realities in their territories. The leaders celebrate differences, protect their territories, and make claims on behalf of those suffering from State neglect, a long and painful conflict, and a system based on multiple forms of exclusion. Their weaving together of other possible worlds of meaning occurs in the midst of a context of oppressive forces that threaten them for raising their voice, persecute them for defending their rights and, in many cases, even take away their lives. Nonetheless, the women human rights defenders in Colombia persist in their struggles.
The leaders have not only learned for themselves; they have shared their knowledge, ideals, and struggles. They are sought out by others who have not received an institutional response to their losses, shortages, pain or needs, fundamentally because they raise their voice on behalf of those whose voices are not being heard. Let us not forget that their claims derive from worlds clamouring for joy and coexistence; theirs is a struggle in defence of peasant, indigenous, and Afro-Colombian communities and the preservation of their collective knowledge, traditions, cultures, and roots.
So, it is imperative that we remember all of their work defending agriculture, the right to land, the environment and the animals, as well as the campaign to eradicate and replace illicit crops. Let us name out loud their resistance to the mega projects, their confrontations with mining companies, and their demands for prior community consultation and participation. Let’s join our own voices with theirs as they take a critical stance, claim their communities’ political participation, defend the cause of the victims, and struggle every day to build peace.
All of these struggles share the common challenge of asserting that the murder of a woman leader is not only a politically motivated crime and a femicide, but also an attack against an entire community. It is an act which deeply affects the social movement and debilitates organizing work. As people are terrorized, the very foundations upon which communities were claiming rights and women were making their voices heard are destabilized. The murder of women human rights defenders is an attempt to erase both the history of women’s struggle for life and the territorial resistance movements.
We would like to pay tribute to each one of the more than 50 women leaders who have been murdered in the last four years. However, we will commemorate their lives through the stories of five human rights defenders. We have pieced together their remembrance through contributions sent by their families and friends.
Like many women human rights defenders in Colombia, Cristina Bautista Taquinas was working together with her community toward the dream of unity among the Indigenous peoples and for the right to live on their ancestral lands. As a governor and authority figure of the Nasa de Tacueyó (Cauca) Indigenous reserve, she fought to build a livable community and decent living conditions for peasant and Indigenous women. She was tireless in her fight for the security of the Indigenous Guard, for peace and for the rejection of the presence of armed groups in their territory. Let us never forget her voice or the words she left us just one day before her assassination:
“If we stay quiet, they kill us, and if we speak, they kill us, too. So, we speak.”
Paula Andrea Rosero’s voice was another one clamouring for justice, whose vital force was grounded in her hope of seeing real democracy in Colombia. As a lawyer, rights defender, and official of Samaniego (Nariño), she worked to defend women and fearlessly denounced corruption in the Lorencita Villegas Hospital, the same place where she died after an attempt on her life. In response to her murder, we join our voices with her fellow activists:
“It is an attack on life itself. Not just on the life of one official, but an attack on the soul, on the spirit of an entire people who feels frustrated”
Another visionary whose life we wish to commemorate is Yamile Guerra. She was a lawyer from Santander who, like many families in Colombia, fought to defend the right to land. Yamile did important community work as an environmentalist and woman human rights defender of the Santurban Páramo.
She led a legal process against foreign-owned mining operations which were destabilizing the ecosystem and contaminating it through gold mining on their territory.
Let us remember Doris Valenzuela, an Afro-descendant activist. She worked in a community organization of people affected by paramilitarism; denounced the impact of mega projects in her region and the complicity of the State; raised her voice against the recruitment of children; and denounced the existence of casas de pique [‘chop houses’ where torture occurs] in her region.
Doris left the country to protect her life. But the distance was not far enough to save her from violence against women, as she was murdered by her own partner.
Another woman who fought to defend the rights of Afro-descendant communities was Maritza Quiroz Leiva. She was a human rights defender, peasant, and Afro-Colombian from Santa Marta.
Maritza was a “courageous leader, fighter, strong woman and pacifist who on many occasions represented us at the departmental and even the national level […], where she was always fighting for the benefit of rural people and especially rural women”
-María Ángela Salas, representative of rural women
Given her experiences of having been displaced, Maritza developed and led several initiatives. As a member of the National Afro-Colombian Authority (ANAFRO), she imagined a world where she and other women of the region could live on the land, farm, and live in peace.
We are thinking of them
We are thinking of them and of all the women leaders who are continuing the fight, having gained consciousness, from their respective ethnic, political, cultural, and identity locations and from their work, of their selves and the social problems facing their communities.
Let us remember them as women who searched for solutions for their families, territories, and communities and, in the process, learned to defend life itself. Not because the State had given them the tools to do so, but because out of their own tenacity they built scenarios of possibility—ways of inhabiting their territories, defending their resources, feeding their communities, and defending the rights of the most vulnerable. Therefore, remembering and celebrating them is also an act of resistance, one that embraces and names them in the hopes of continuing their legacy.
May the realities they dreamed of become worlds of meaning and a life worth living in the Colombian territories.
This article was written from a polyphony of voices who are denouncing the grave situation facing women human rights defenders in Colombia. Documents consulted include reports by: Pacifistas, Pares, Oxfam, ECLAC, Humanas, Deutsche Welle, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Front Line Defenders, USAID, BBC, CEDAW, IACHR, Asuntos del sur, Somos Defensores, Marcha Patriótica, Sisma Mujer, CAPAZ, National Network of Women Human Rights Defenders of Colombia, CeroSetenta, Codhes, Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders in Colombia.