Against wind and tide

Many women have transformed from victims of the conflict, to leaders fighting for the rights of their communities, and are currently playing a fundamental role in the peace process.

Men and women have suffered from the violence of the armed conflict as well as the political violence that has besieged Colombia for decades; nevertheless, women’s suffering has almost always been invisible. But the violence has not destroyed their bravery.

A hostile environment for women

Colombia is one of the countries with the highest indicators of violence against women. Sexual violence is happening both within and outside the armed conflict taking place in the country.  According to the Colombian Institute of Forensic Medicine (Instituto de Medicina Legal) almost 17,996 cases of female rape were registered in 2014.[1]  The Colombian Constitutional Court concluded that sexual violence constitutes a “systematic, habitual and generalised practice” in the conflict.[2]  The UN representative for women in Colombia, Belen Saenz, highlighted that the armed conflict has had a disproportionate effect on women and girls “there are more women survivors in the country than men.  The great majority of them have lost their husbands and/or sons because they have been recruited, assassinated or disappeared”. [3]  Another indicator is the high number of femicides in the country: four women are assassinated each day in Colombia, and 90 % of those deaths go unpunished.[4] One of the most abhorrent forms of violence against women are acid attacks, of which 185 were registered against women in the last ten years;[5] figures that put Colombia on the level of Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and East Africa.[6] These are all extremely discriminatory expressions of a society where, as a result, women who take on leadership roles and speak out are doubly rejected.

Nevertheless, despite the threats and discrimination, women continue to take on leadership roles and defend human rights in Colombia. Approximately 38.5% of households are led by women single parents:[7] it falls to them to look after and educate their sons and daughters alone; and in addition, they are responsible for earning the family’s income.  Women are also the principal victims of the conflict.

The three conflict-related facts where most of the victims are women are threats (52%), forced displacement (69%, together with children) and crimes against sexual freedom and integrity (87%).[8] This situation has brought many women to take on leadership roles, starting in their homes and families, then within their communities, in victims’ organisations and women’s rights organisations. As one of the members of the Sub-commission on Gender at the Havana negotiating tables said: “We discovered incredible experiences of women who made neighbourhoods, who transcended their pain and created social fabric, because their condition as mother, daughter, carer but also activist, leader and human rights defender was brought to the fore.”[9]

Peace Brigades International© 2011 Charlotte Kesl Photography
“We discovered incredible experiences of women who made neighbourhoods, who transcended their pain and created social fabric, because their condition as mother, daughter, carer but also activist, leader and human rights defender was brought to the fore.” Photo: Charlotte Kesl

Women defenders

Women who decided to take up these roles are human rights defenders: those who fight for their families and communities to be able to return to the territory they have been displaced from; for there to be reparations; for their daughters and sons to have access to health and education; those who search for disappeared relatives; for justice for their sons, victims of ‘false positives’; those who denounce the threats and attacks happening in the conflict.  Women are neither silent nor at ease in the face of injustice.

In terms of these attacks, women defenders are still one of the most vulnerable groups. Between June and September 2015, women defenders were the principal victims of attacks; 61% of attacks registered by the Information System on Attacks against Human Rights in Colombia are against women.[10]

In particular, the Colombian Constitutional Court has recognised that “displaced women who take on the leadership of organisations of displaced persons, the promotion of human rights or social and community leadership, expose themselves to multiple threats, pressures, and risks carried out by illegal armed groups which often lead to their assassination”.[11]

Additionally, attacks against women have a specific character: they are not just aimed at the woman defender, but also against her family, and the threats have a sexual and discriminatory element.

Women who speak out

In Colombia, women’s organisations are many.  They are strong, and achieve what was always thought to be impossible.  In recent years alone there have been many important achievements: a law that defined femicide was ratified, sentences for attacks with acid were increased, a gender focus was applied to the protection of women defenders, and a law was enacted to guarantee access to justice for victims of sexual violence.

Colombian organisations also played an important role in creating and getting passed Resolution 1325 of the UN Security Council on Peace, Women and Security in 2000.

marcha afro bogotá 2011, fotos por Julián Montoni
Photo: Julián Montoni

Women for peace

These women, who have often been very hard hit by the armed conflict, inequality, poverty and discrimination, before and during the current peace process, have nonetheless been an engine for peace building.  It is them who, more than anyone, believe that a country at peace is possible, in the face of a generally sceptical society. [12] In March 2015, in a moment when the conflict’s violence was escalating, they sent a statement asking for an immediate bilateral ceasefire. [13]

In the Colombian peace process, which entered its public phase in August 2012, women have played a crucial role since the start.  Victims participated widely in the process of drafting the agreements.  Of the five victims’ delegations of twelve people each who travelled to Havana, most of the delegates were women.[14] In the three forums (spaces for citizen participation in the peace process) on the issues tabled for agreement, 85% of participants were women. [15]

More than 5,000 women marched in Bogota, in December, to express their support for the Colombian peace process.[16] Eighteen women’s and LGBTI organisations were invited to the table in Havana, to make recommendations to the Sub-commission on Gender.[17]  The organisations contributed to the agreements with important proposals on the search for disappeared persons, [18] and particularly disappeared women, a focus on women’s rights and sexual violence in the Truth Commission[19] and demands to demilitarise land as a guarantee of non-repetition for women. [20]

After pressure from the women’s movement, the Sub-commission on Gender was set up at the negotiating tables in Havana in September 2014. [21] The Sub-commission is made up of five members from each delegation, is supported by external advisers and meets at least once during each cycle.[22]

In general, the Sub-commission was received positively, but there was criticism about the absence of a woman’s vision at the negotiating tables.  The publication of the report of the Commission on Truth, Cohabitation and Non-repetition in February 2015, which dealt with the history of the armed conflict in Colombia, its causes and origins, factors for its resilience, and the impact on the Colombian population, did not reflect the will to include a gender focus, with 13 of the 14 essays of the report drafted by men and none focusing on the impact of the conflict on women. There is only one woman taking part at the negotiation tables.[23] The Sub-commission on Gender is one of three subcommittees and is of equal standing to the others.

Through the input from the organisations and from the forums, recommendations made to the Sub-commission on Gender, reports on the situation of women in the country and the countless actions each day to affirm their rights and those of their families, women defenders will continue to play a fundamental role in what remains of the peace process.


marcha afro bogotá 2011, fotos por Julián Montoni
Photo: Julián Montoni

[1] El Tiempo. Ellas no Callan. No date

[2] ABColombia. Mujeres y violencia sexual en el conflicto y el proceso de paz. November 2013

[3] El Nuevo Día. El conflicto ha tenido un impacto desproporcionado en mujeres y niñas. 7 March 2015

[4] El ciudadano. Ni una mujer menos: en Colombia hay 4 femicidios al día y un 90 % de impunidad. 6 February 2015

[5] RCN. Fiscalía investiga 272 denuncias por ataques con ácido en Colombia. 2 February 2016

[6] El mundo. Ácido de género. 18 October 2015

[7] El Tiempo. Las señales de que el país es un mejor vividero. 21 March 2015

[8] Sisma mujer. Los derechos de las mujeres en Colombia y la esperanza de un escenario de paz. No date

[9] El Espectador. Negociación con aroma de mujer. 18 July 2015

[10] Quarterly Bulletin of the Information System on Attacks against Human Rights Defenders in Colombia, SIADDHH, Trabajo por la Paz = Amenazado/a, 23 October 2015

[11] Human Rights Watch: Rights Out of Reach, 14 November 2012

[12] Sisma Mujer. Los derechos de las mujeres y la esperanza de la paz en Colombia, p. 4. 3 March 2015

[13] El Tiempo. Dirigentes de organizaciones de mujeres en la Habana. 17 March 2015

[14] El Pais. “Las mujeres han sufrido demasiado por el conflicto”: representante de la ONU. 9 March 2015

[15] El Espectador. Negociación con aroma de mujer. 18 July 2015

[16] La Ruta Pacífica. Mas de 5000 mujeres recorren el país por la refrendación de la paz.

[17] El Espectador. Negociación con aroma de mujer. 18 July 2015

[18] primer informe sobre desapariciones forzadas de mujeres en Colombia. No date

[19] El Tiempo. Dirigentes de organizaciones de mujeres en la Habana. 17 March 2015

[20] Gara. “Un 52% de las mujeres pide la desmilitarización como garantía de no repetición”. 14 February 2015

[21]Mesa de Conversaciones. Comunicado Conjunto. 11 September 2014

[22] Mesa de Conversaciones. Comunicado Conjunto. 11 September 2014

[23] “Es inaceptable que las mujeres deban suplicar para estar en la construcción de paz”. No date

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