The time has come for Colombia to support the efforts of women and others searching for victims of enforced disappearance. Women suffer very serious human rights violations while, individually or collectively, searching for loved ones, including sexual violence, kidnapping, privation of liberty, extortion, threats, and reprisals.
The leadership role is not recognized by society or even the Colombian state, which is often, “a spoke in the wheel” of compliance on existing laws relative to enforced disappearance. “In many cases, officials do not fulfill their job due to negligence, indifference and indolence,” say women searchers.
The Escazú Agreement contains specific sections focused on environmentalists, promotes the protection of environmental leaders, provides increased access to environmental-related information, and increased mechanisms to ensure the effective participation of civil society. These mechanisms are crucial in a country where, in the last decade alone, 322 environmental defenders have been assassinated.2021 was the most lethal year for those defending the land and the environment, during which 33 people were killed.
Of particular concern is the intensification of attacks against environmentalists in the region of Magdalena Medio, particularly the attacks against women environmental defenders who are defending water and life. It is increasingly the case that attacks against women environmental leaders in the region occur while they are carrying out their work denouncing the oil industry and its links with armed structures, in addition to corruption involving local public officials.
One of the most serious cases involves the sustained attacks on environmental leader Yuli Andrea Velásquez Briceño, president of the Federation of Artisanal, Environmental and Tourist Fishermen of Santander (Fedepesán) and executive director of the National Network of Artisanal Fisherwomen, a network which will be officially inaugurated on November 26, 2022. Yuli introduces herself as an “amphibious being, daughter of a murdered fisherman, born and raised on the banks of the Magdalena River”, Colombia’s main artery. The leader is clear about where her risks come from: “we defend our territory, we bring attention to the pollution being caused by industry, and we oppose the armed groups that have ties to the companies [operating in the area]. When a defender denounces the entities that should guarantee environmental conservation, they begin to receive threats because of the relationships that those entities have with armed actors. In an attempt to silence us, we become victims of systematic attacks.”
Today, on the Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, we celebrate all women human rights defenders, especially those who face constant aggression and threats because of their leadership in addition to a wide range of violence related to the fact that they are women. Eradicating violence against women and girls is essential. They are key to peacebuilding, protecting the environment, and eradicating violence; all issues that are essential to dignify life and enjoy more just societies. We interviewed five women, with whom we have walked over the years. On this 25 November, we invite you to get to know these women as examples of strength and resilience.
For some time now, Peace Brigades International has been reflecting on the concept of holistic protection. Contributions from women defenders and feminist organizations have brought to light the need to question militaristic protection models but also to understand protection in all its dimensions. Holistic protection is a political mindset that seeks to create protection models that question the state monopoly, power relations, and individualism but it is also rooted in the idea that what is “personel is political”. That is to say, protection is also related to the ties that we create, and with our affections, identities, bodily pains, values, symbols, and ties with nature. That is why we talk about meaning or spirituality, the body-mind-heart dimension, and the collective dimension of protection. Protecting ourselves is more than just surviving, it is being able to continue with our activities as defenders of rights, it is also constructing our lives, nourishing our dreams, and strengthening our bonds.
Accordingly, protection is connected to care and, thankfully, with healing. Protecting ourselves is creating tools to prevent painful situations, that is to say, taking decisions in the face of risks generated by the context. In contexts that also have so much socio-political violence, the risks are high, as are the impacts experienced as women who seek to prevent or live with these risks. Thus, to protect ourselves we must recognize everything that the violence has, and continues to, generates in us, giving it space and value.
The struggle of women in search of their loved ones, victims of enforced disappearance
“So many years have gone by since my son was disappeared. Although time goes by, months and years, I won’t stop searching for him or the truth about what happened. Those of us mothers who search for our disappeared loved ones, we don’t see obstacles, we don’t hear discouraging voices; we are strong women with our eyes set on the horizon, searching for those who were taken from us; we are thousands of mothers searching for truth, a body to cry over, and more than anything… that this doesn’t happen again”.