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RIGHTS-COLOMBIA: Defending Women’s Defenders

Helda Martínez

BOGOTA, Jun 9 2008 (IPS) - After nearly six years of the “democratic security” policy of the government of rightwing President Álvaro Uribe, women activists in Colombia are as vulnerable to human rights abuses as ever, said female rights defenders who met recently in the Colombian capital.

Some 50 peasant, indigenous and Afro-Colombian representatives of social movements and women’s groups from around the country came to Bogotá on Friday, Jun. 6 to take part in a “workshop on strategies for the protection of women human rights defenders in Colombia”, where they shared their experiences with female activists from Asia, Africa, Europe and the rest of Latin America.

The workshop formed part of the International Campaign on Women Human Rights Defenders. The campaign, which was launched in 2004, is aimed at the recognition and protection of women activists, based on the premise that women fighting for human rights and particularly women’s rights face specific dangers and abuses because of their gender.

The Colombian women who participated in the workshop face dangers like murder, forced disappearance, rape, torture and forced displacement.

“Even thinking has become a cause for being attacked,” said Pilar Sánchez from the eastern province of Boyacá, where the far-right paramilitaries and the armed forces have a marked presence.

“We women are abused for everything – for taking on leadership roles, for defending our rights, those of our children, those of our community. But also because of sex, religion – everything. In border areas it’s even worse, because we have to face the guerrillas, the ‘paras’ (paramilitaries), and the army,” said Sánchez.

“Uribe’s policies have brought greater insecurity for women. The misnamed ‘demobilisation’ of paramilitary groups, which actually continue to maintain control in regional administrative and judicial structures, has had an especially negative effect on women and girls,” María Eugenia Ramírez, of the Bogotá-based Latin American Institute for Alternative Legal Services (ILSA), told IPS.

In 2007, for example, activist Yolanda Izquierdo was killed in the northwestern province of Córdoba.

Izquierdo represented hundreds of peasant farmers who were demanding the return of their land, which was seized by paramilitary groups led by Salvatore Mancuso, one of the paramilitary chiefs extradited to the United States in May to face drug trafficking charges.

And in February 2007, Carmen Santana was murdered in the northern province of La Guajira and four other women were killed in other areas, all for the same cause: their activism in seeking the restitution of their land, in compliance with the Peace and Justice Law.

That law governed the recent demobilisation of paramilitary groups that are allies of the government forces in the fight against Colombia’s leftist guerrillas. Under the Peace and Justice Law, paramilitary leaders who confess to all of their crimes and make reparations to their victims are eligible for light prison sentences of no more than eight years.

But according to the activists taking part in Friday’s workshop, the law has not been complied with.

The Constitutional Court ordered changes to the law, such as a loss of legal benefits for demobilised paramilitaries who conceal crimes when they testify.

But the government’s surprise extradition in May of the top paramilitary chiefs cut short several key prosecutions that would have helped shed light on many of the most appalling war crimes committed in Colombia’s armed conflict over the last two decades.

Uribe’s controversial “democratic security” policy has extended state control to territory under the influence of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the main rebel group, and has drawn local residents into the counterinsurgency effort by arming “peasant soldiers”. It has also come under criticism from human rights groups, who say direct participation in human rights violations by the security forces has increased.

The Escuela Nacional Sindical (National Trade Union School) reports that 13 female trade union leaders were killed in the first 11 months of 2006, 15 in 2005 and 16 in 2004.

Yolanda Becerra of the Organización Femenina Popular (OFP), a women’s peace group whose members for years have received threats in the northeastern oil-rich river port city of Barrancabermeja, was attacked in her home in November 2007.

Members of the paramilitary group Águilas Negras (Black Eagles), which emerged in the wake of the demobilisation process, “broke into my apartment, destroyed documents, threatened and tortured me psychologically, and took me out of the city,” Becerra told IPS.

“But they didn’t break my will. From Bucaramanga (the capital of the northeastern province of Santander), I have continued to work, fully committed to defending life and democracy,” she added.

“Anyway, I say I’m in a good mood because I am never threatened all by myself,” she joked. “They always threaten me along with respected, well-known figures, like (Jesuit) Father Francisco de Roux.”

Not only community leaders and activists are targeted by the violence, but also ordinary people living in regions where the leftist guerrillas have traditionally maintained control.

“We have put in place early warning and protection systems, and work constantly” to defend women activists, said Ramírez. “Last year, we managed to get eight women and their families out of the country because of the repeated threats against them. But the situation is very serious.”

Psychologist Claudia Girón said six women community leaders and activists have been killed, and many more have received death threats, in areas near the capital since the Mar. 6 national march against state and paramilitary violence.

Girón is the wife of Iván Cepeda, the head of the National Movement for Victims of State Crimes (MOVICE), which organised the Mar. 6 march.

“For that reason I am calling on the international bodies to stay alert to the situation in Colombia,” Girón told the audience at the workshop.

Swedish Ambassador Lena Nordstrom said “we will continue working, as we have in recent years, on behalf of Colombian women affected by forced displacement and rights violations. This is a strong commitment for my country,” she said.

Ramírez said her group would continue pressing for enforcement of existing laws in Colombia and for the implementation of the recommendations of the United Nations special rapporteur on violence against women and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

“We are also putting into practice protection mechanisms among ourselves, and meetings like these ones are important sustenance for the soul,” said Ramírez.

Sumila Abeyke, a representative of the International Campaign on Women Human Rights Defenders, said efforts would continue to be made to strengthen strategies aimed at protecting women victims and human rights activists.

“This is a challenge that we will face, with a sense of solidarity,” she said.

Abeyke underlined the commitment to “tell these stories throughout our networks,” in order to maintain “a sense of solidarity, and to continue watching out for each other, overcoming the real and imaginary borders that have been imposed on us.”

The main groups involved in the International Campaign are Amnesty International, Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML), International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), the Centre for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL), Forum Asia, Inform, Frontline, International League for Human Rights, Amanitare, Isis-Women’s International Cross-Cultural Exchange, and the Latin American and Caribbean Committee for the Defence of Women’s Rights (CLADEM).

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