A holistic view of women in the armed conflict

Women, indigenous, Afro-Colombians, girls, teenagers, adults, elderly, those who have just been born, those who have already left… in sum, all women in countries like Colombia have been on the receiving end of some sort of violence.

This historical and structural violence has left its marks and scars on women; for many it is normal, invisible even today to those around her, and a natural part of daily life.  Women have always defended life, that of their children, their partners, their families.  A colleague from Cauca told me how her mother, when the illegal armed groups were there, would hide her children or any child that was with her in the clay oven to protect them, exposing herself to risk in order to shield the children; the men would ask for coffee, they would ask for food, she prepared it all and nothing mattered to her except that the children stay alive, and that is how, thirty years later, she can be here to tell us the story.  Today she recognises that her mother was the first person she knew who defended life, and defended their rights.

Threats made against children are a way of using motherhood to generate compliance and fear.

Being a woman in the context of war comes with the burden of different kinds of aggression, and those women whose lives are devoted to activism are continually attacked not just for defending human rights, but also for being women.  This significantly differentiates the level of risk, and the level of physical, mental and emotional impact for them, day after day, compared to their male colleagues who defend human rights.

The risks for women are also higher because of their sociocultural characteristics. “The IACHR corroborated that the situation of Indigenous and Afro-Colombian women is particularly critical, as they are victims of multiple forms of discrimination on the basis of their race, ethnic background and their condition as women, a situation aggravated within the armed conflict”. [1] The Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities have historically been the victims in society’s power relationships, and the women in these communities have suffered from their integrity being devalued because their identity.

And so it is not the same being a woman, black, indigenous, mestiza or white, and if we move into other areas, in a country with different social strata, we find discrimination even in the small spaces where women have a particular sociocultural characteristic. In any event, in all these spaces, women are victims of a violence that is exacerbated in the context of conflict and war.

The women’s stories reveal how violence is used in the conflict as a form of control that destroys their physical, psychological and sexual integrity.  Inflicting this suffering is apparently an expression of power and absolute domination over women and girls wielded by the armed actors in all parties in the conflict. [2]

Terror will always be the most commonly used strategy; based on fear, the same fear that the men are facing.  But the fear is different, there is a direct threat to women’s family nucleus, and in that sense alludes directly to one of the roles in society that women have by imposition or choice: maternity is used as a mechanism of control.  “The threats directed against children are a means of using maternity to generate compliance and fear”.[3]

87.Casa de mujeres_marcia valverde
The situation of indigenous and Afro-Colombian women is particularly critical because they are the victims of multiple forms of discrimination. Photo: Marcia Valverde

Attacks against the body which are physical, verbal or subjective, or the value judgements that are made about it, are other ways of perpetuating the objectification of women, and enter the realm of human rights violations.  This attack is once again invisible, because for it to be “important” means that it is necessarily extreme, and must leave visible and reportable injuries or it’s as if it never happened, but it does exist, it is real, it is violent!

Sexual violence, as a weapon of domination and humiliation, has been one more strategy used to attack the dignity of women, and gain access to their bodies, their territory: “Rape was an expression of strength and power by the paramilitary groups.  Their dominance was demonstrated through actions of this nature, where the denigration of their bodies and the humiliation of women’s dignity are materialised”.[4]

Rape implies a violent access to a personal, physical and emotional space that seeks to find pleasure in the suffering of another person, who loses control over herself and her self-worth in the face of an act of victimisation of such magnitude.  “The feeling of the body being sullied is often coupled with the desire to end one’s life, which reflects the impact this has on their own dignity for many women. While this is the most obvious effect, it is actually the deliberate aim pursued in the policy of undermining women”. [5]

Ventura de 77 años, madre de Aida (lideresa)
In the midst of conflict, women have organised themselves in many ways to defend the land they live on, search for loved ones, defend their bodies, protect their families, prevent their sons from being recruited and their daughters from being raped.

The impact is also evident in difficulties in talking about what happened. Remembering the attack and verbalising it implies, in some public and private contexts, re-victimisation, casting doubt on what happened or accepting the normalisation of the facts by taking away the responsibility of the authors.

There are many ways in which this sexual violence has become established in women’s lives, and the invasion of the sacred through the physical is constant, as women are proprietary objects of one or other illegal armed group.

“Sexual violence constitutes the most extreme manifestation of that violence, it is consumed in it and shows itself flagrantly, the central nucleus of the patriarchal relationship; the subjugation of women that reduces them to a body-thing, available, susceptible to being damaged and destroyed for masculine pleasure and domination”.[6]

Women after the violence

In the midst of conflict, women have organised themselves in many ways to defend the land they live on, search for loved ones, defend their bodies, protect their families, prevent their sons from being recruited and their daughters from being raped.

It bothers the parties to the conflict that women have achieved some level of organisation. The autonomy of people who defend human rights is a blow to them; but the autonomy and organisation of women is not just a blow, it is also an offense.  Threats are very common against women because they belong to and precisely because they are members of organisations dedicated to protecting their rights.  The right of women to associate and participate is not tolerated by the non-state armed groups, including the new generations of paramilitary organisations.[7]

And still, the women have stayed on in different ways, some choosing a profile that enables them to continue protecting their lives and those of their loves ones in their day to day lives.  In these silent struggles, that have no name, they are present because defending women in any of their spheres is to defend life, not just theirs but the lives of everyone, men and women.

Other colleagues have chosen to get organised, articulate and empowered in visible public and political spheres; be they women’s organisations, mixed organisations or community building, and they have stepped up to become part of a collective struggle to dignify life through the defence of fundamental rights.

Two kinds of organisation have emerged, not just advocacy and legal strategies to denounce what happened, but also emotional strategies which are adapted to the context, protected by popular wisdom, and rooted in the recuperation of customs and rituals.  All these strategies point to women gaining dignity from a broad, just and humane perspective.  No justice or reparation is possible when there are deeper wounds than those we can see on the physical body. Justice and reparation for women means the possibility of being able to walk peacefully around the community, to be able to speak, complain, not fear for their bodies, nor fear for their sexual intimacy, nor for their emotions, their life or their freedom.

For all these reasons women have created bonds of sisterhood that have enabled them to cry and heal themselves collectively, never forgetting, because there are marks on the soul; but transforming, building, listening to stories, giving testimony about what has happened to clamour and demand that it never happens again.

Accompanying women emotionally

For Peace Brigades International (PBI), the challenge never ends, because PBI seeks ways to pass on methods of protection that have a differential focus, that enable the recognition of the different ways that women have chosen to continue resisting from the standpoint of the socio-cultural sphere they identify themselves with.

Gabriela Vargas worked with PBI´s psychosocial team for two years.

PBI’s psychosocial team works with protection tools and methodologies that take a holistic view of the protection and self-protection of women, on the basis that protecting our bodies also means protecting our emotions and aspirations.

Through workshops and other interactions, PBI has met women with different social and cultural characteristics, and provided individual emotional support, as well as collective psychosocial accompaniment; for example, in Buenaventura, Cali, Popayan and Santa Rosa de Guayacan they shared painful but also dignifying experiences of their day to day lives, of building a different community, recognising their abilities and joining efforts to search for better living conditions, not just for them but also for communities in general.

In 2015, PBI organised a meeting of women defenders in Bogota from different organisations that PBI accompanies, with the objective of strengthening the social fabric that binds the defenders together and building together some means of self-protection.

The gathering was shaped by the participation of women of different ages, socio-economic origins and experiences. It generated the first in a series of exchanges that take an introspective look to identify internal elements and bring them together for the common purpose of defenders, always mindful of being conscientious and exercising self-care as a fundamental element in the resistance they exercise and consistent with the defence of a dignified life.

Gabriela Vargas


[1] Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR): Violence and discrimination against women in the armed conflict in Colombia

[2] Ruta Pacífica de las Mujeres: La verdad de las mujeres en el conflicto armado Summary report, 2014, page 50

[3] Ibid., Tomo II, page 94

[4] Ibid., Tomo II, page 297

[5] Ibid., Tomo I, page 253

[6] Ibid., Tomo I, page 353

[7] Ibid., Tomo II, page 85

Leave a Reply