Women defenders: bold, brave and fearless

Colombia is one of the countries with the highest indicators of violence against women in the region.  Sexual violence has been used as a weapon against women both within and outside the context of armed conflict; a crime that remains in impunity in the majority of cases. Women have historically been denied fundamental access to justice mechanisms, land titles and the possibility to participate politically, meaning their situation of vulnerability has increased and many women live in poverty with little ability to improve their living conditions.

In this context women who outwardly defy the steadfast patriarchy and rigidly prescribed gender roles, exercising important leadership within their families, communities and organisations, are stigmatised and ostracised.  Michel Forst, UN Special Rapporteur for the situation of human rights defenders stated in his most recent report of July 2017 that “Women human rights defenders are often in the front lines of battles for human rights, partly because they are directly affected by human rights violations and because they question the power of companies and deeply ingrained patriarchy”.

Attacks against women human rights defenders have escalated over the past year in Colombia since the signing of the Peace Agreement. Since the beginning of the Peace Process, year after year the percentage of women killed in relation to the total of all assassinations has risen. According to the organisation Humanas that works on human rights and gender justice, between December 1st 2016 and April 30th 2017, 34 human rights defenders were killed, of which 10 were women.  From 2012 to 2016 aggressions against women human rights defenders increased by 6%.  Humanas states that currently women human rights defenders most at risk are LGBTI leaders, leaders of local community processes, countrywomen leaders and victim´s leaders.

Despite the transversal nature of the gender focus in the Peace Agreements between the Farc and the Colombian government, implementation has been slow overall and according to Kroc Institute´s recent report, 59% of all elements which specifically address issues of gender have yet to begin implementation.  Just 6% of the 122 elements of the Peace Agreements concerning gender equality have been fully implemented.  Kroc notes advances in the representation of women in spaces created by the Peace Agreements such as the Working Group on Gender and Peace, however only 33% of the appointments made in the framework of Peace Process Implementation are women.  53% of magistrates in the Special Peace Jurisdiction (JEP) are women which is promising, however other entities have much lower representation, such as the National Commission for Security Guarantees where of the 14 members only 1 is a woman.

Claudia Julieta Duque
Claudia Julieta Duque is one of the journalists that were extensively watched by the President’s Administrative Department of Security (DAS).

Claudia Julieta Duque

Claudia Julieta Duque is a woman who despite years of persecution for her brave and fearless work as an investigative journalist uncovering corruption scandals and proving links between grave human rights violations and State entities, continues to fight for justice.  In her 22 years as a journalist she has investigated and reported on issues of forced disappearance, forced recruitment of children by legal and illegal armed actors, the impact of impunity and the right to justice, and infiltration of paramilitary groups in government agencies.

Claudia is one of the journalists that were extensively watched by the President’s Administrative Department of Security (DAS). A report by the Prosecutor General’s Technical Investigation Unit (CTI) reveals a number of cases of espionage and threats made against Claudia by the DAS. These revelations coincide with reports that Claudia has submitted to the Foundation for Freedom of the Press (Flip) over the past several years.[1]

From 2012 onwards, Colombian courts have convicted several former members of the DAS for the psychological torture of journalist Claudia Julieta Duque, her young daughter and other members of her family. The torture, that included death threats and constant surveillance of her house and members of her family and friends, began in 2001 after Duque published the results of her investigation into the 1999 murder of political satirist Jaime Garzon. The report proved that DAS agents had taken part in a cover-up aimed at derailing the investigation into Garzon’s murder by the Public Prosecutor.

It is the first time a case of that nature is based on the documents from the intelligence agency which carried out the crime, demonstrating the modus operandi of Alvaro Uribe’s administration against human rights defenders and journalists. This makes it the paradigmatic case about counter-intelligence techniques being used for political and social control, meaning it has received attention on a national and international level.[2]  Recently the psychological torture against Claudia has been declared a crime against humanity.  Throughout the trials Claudia has continued to receive threats and therefore has specific protection measures so she can continue her important work, despite the risk she continues to live under.

PBI has accompanied Claudia since 2010 and has witnessed the continued attempts to silence her, given her outwardly critical stance towards the functioning of various Colombian State entities.  We have seen the way Claudia has been attacked and accused of being a “hysterical and paranoid woman”, using gender stereotypes to discredit her work and undermine the legitimacy of her testimony as protagonist in her own case.

During the trial Claudia has had to recount the memories of her torture in front of her perpetrators several times, remembering how they targeted her daughter, identifying her as Claudia´s weak point as a mother as well as a human rights defender; how they contacted members of her family and old friends and eventually put so much pressure on Claudia that she was forced into exile with her daughter.  On several occasions the perpetrators accused of torture have had the opportunity to interrogate Claudia during the trials, an idiosyncrasy of the Colombian justice system that adds to the re-victimisation dynamics of victims in cases of human rights violations.

Despite constant persecution and attempts to “neutralise” the threat that Claudia represents to the status quo of a profoundly patriarchal society that rejects innovation, critique and challenges to traditional gender roles, Claudia continues to be an unstoppable force in journalism and in the progress of her own case.  Without her determination, conviction and professionalism, the many forces against her would have been enough to silence her, her case would have remained in impunity, and her perpetrators would continue to repress strong women for speaking out and challenging injustice.

Julia Figueroa, human rights lawyer and leader of the CCALP, all women’s legal collective, in the street outside her office. She has received multiple death threats in the street and has been followed, fearing for her life at times. She is now assigned two armed escorts, a bullet proof jacket and an armored truck for her protection, although she fears her very own escorts’ ties to the military also put her at risk. Bucaramanga, Colombia. May 9, 2017. Photo: Tom Laffay / Cajar

Julia Figueroa

Julia is a woman that commands respect through her dignified presence and authoritative manner.  She is the president of the Luis Carlos Perez Lawyers Collective (Ccalcp), and a beacon of hope for many communities in the Magdalena Medio region as well as Santander and North Santander.  Her fierce demeanor could fool you into thinking she was invincible, that nothing could break through her determination to defend the rights of the most vulnerable.  But having accompanied Julia personally, I feel I see through her exterior to the heart of a woman who is undeniably strong and defiant, but also acutely aware of the risk her work implies.

Julia, alongside her colleagues in Ccalcp, is a lawyer committed to the application of the rule of law in the territories traditionally abandoned by the State, where economic interests have always overruled the rights of communities.  She presents legal actions against companies who have systematically denied the communities their constitutional rights to be consulted before an economic project is initiated and to participate in its development.  Julia is the voice of suppressed populations who seek nothing more than to remain on their territory and exercise their right to self-determination.

Seeing her in action addressing crowds of campesinos with rousing words that motivate and inspire, or in workshops as she diligently explains complex parts of national mining legislation to communities at risk of being forced from their land, displaced by economic projects, I watch her in admiration, proud to accompany her and support her in any way I can.  The communities respect her and look up to her, as leader and ally.

For this brave and seldom-recognised work, Julia lives in a state of constant vigilance and paranoia which derives from her experience over recent years of threats, persecution, intimidation and stigmatisation.  Julia has been accused of being a “radical leftist woman” and continues to receive threats through social media relating to her activism and using the fact that she is a woman in a position of authority and considerable power to undermine her and attempt to silence her.

The female lawyers of Ccalcp have also been the victims of the systematic persecution, intimidation, wiretapping, espionage and surveillance carried out by the DAS during the presidency of Álvaro Uribe Vélez.[3]  Ccalcp has filed criminal complaints regarding the aforementioned violations with the Office of the Attorney General, regulatory bodies and the National Government. To date Ccalcp is unaware of any meaningful progress regarding investigations into the 43 complaints that it has filed since 2009.[4]

In August 2016 an investigation carried out by the National Protection Unit (UNP) deemed Julia to be at “high” risk and as a result she was provided with a protective scheme comprised of a bulletproof car and two bodyguards; despite these measures her risk level remains largely undiminished.[5]  Julia does not consider the presence of two male bodyguards by her side a protection measure, on the contrary, she has specifically asked for a gender focus to be applied in the awarding of protection measures by the UNP so that women´s particular needs are taken into account.  In this respect Julia has requested female bodyguards but until now this request has not been fulfilled.

Julia brims with a wealth of information, amusing anecdotes and wry analysis.  It is a privilege to be in her company and to stand beside her as she takes on the Goliaths and defends the Davids.  She has sacrificed a lot for the work she does, but she wouldn´t have it any other way.  Her commitment and solidarity shine victorious over the challenges and difficulties she faces.  An inspiring woman that will never give up her fight for social justice.

Hannah Matthews


[1]  The information is based on “Interceptaciones y seguimientos ilegales: grave intimidación al periodismo colombiano Informe sobre el estado de la libertad de prensa en Colombia en 2009,” Foundation for Freedom of the Press (FLIP), 2010
[2]  Frontline Defenders: Caso Claudia Julieta Duque: un precedente mundial por la búsqueda de justicia, 1 March 2016
[3] Semana: The DAS agency ceases to exist and gives way to the National Intelligence Agency, October 2011
[4] CCALCP: 20th August 2016, p. 6.
[5] Interview with CAJAR and Julia Adriana Figueroa Cortés from CCALP, 28th April 2017

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