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Women and the Struggle for Social Change in Colombia

Many Colombian women on the political left see their daily participation in community and peasant organizations, social movements, and armed revolutionary groups as intimately bound up with the society they seek to build in Colombia. A lot of these women feel the need to confront inequality and implement a more redistributive political and economic agenda, suggesting that political economy is as important to gender politics as identity. In fact, a significant number of these women did not come to their politics from a gender or feminist perspective, but rather they began their engagement from a sense of injustice at the broader socio-economic conditions in which a majority of Colombians live. As a result, women struggle to organize in the context of a dirty war in which they are threatened, harassed and killed for being “subversives.”

It is important to place an analysis of gender politics within the broader geo-politics of Colombian society. According to Colombian Senator Gloria Inés Ramírez of the center-left Democratic Pole party, there are two realities for women in Colombia. There is the official culture of non-discrimination reinforced by the mainstream media. The media, she notes, focus on the fact that there are women in positions of leadership in Colombia. In other words, that there is political space for women and that women have access to positions of power.

However, Ramírez points out that the reality for most women is markedly different because they do not participate in these spaces. “Equality is not just a numbers game and simply filling positions with women does not guarantee policies that serve the interests of women in general,” she states. “We are a patriarchal and capitalist culture. We have to attack the problem on both of these fronts. Education and participation play a crucial role in this struggle.

Ramírez notes that working on “women’s issues” is still seen by many to be secondary to the “real” political work of the country. This has led women to initiate critical discussions within the party about which should come first, class or gender. “We came to the conclusion, after an intense discussion, that the focus should be class with a gender perspective. We shouldn’t prioritize one over the other because both coincide in the conditions of women and men, in the machista sphere and the patriarchal order of society.

In the capital Bogotá, Democratic Pole Mayor Luis Eduardo “Lucho” Garzón initiated a large-scale campaign called “Bogotá Without Indifference” to confront poverty in the city. The elected mayor of Bogotá appoints the local mayors of the 20 districts of the city known as localities. Garzón appointed women as local mayors in all 20 districts, thereby giving women a prominent voice in the campaign and other political issues.

In the locality of Bosa in southern Bogotá, local mayor Jannethe Jimenez has attempted to confront the high levels of poverty and marginalization. This poverty ridden barrio, which has long been ignored by both the Bogotá and national governments, is expanding rapidly as displaced families arrive daily, exacerbating the problems of crime and pollution. Approximately 80 percent of the community survives by engaging in the informal economy. Jimenez’s administration is working to legalize these entrepreneurial activities and to find ways to give families legal title to the lands they have come to occupy.

The plight of women in Bosa is particularly difficult as they face the double burden of poverty and sexism. “This is a very macho locality,” Jimenez notes. “There is intra-familial violence, sexual violence, low levels of education, many women-headed households, many single mothers and, because of the lack of education, many men do not allow their wives to access family planning so they have seven to ten children. Here, as we say on the security committee, the ‘law of beer’ reigns supreme.

The achievements of Jimenez’s administration are impressive. It has built schools that provide meals for the students, constructed housing, built “justice centres” where families can access legal and psychological services, and it works with the displaced to try and provide employment opportunities and to clean-up the polluted river that runs through their neighborhoods. Reflecting on women’s leadership in Bogotá, Jimenez claims, “Last year we had the most effective budget management that this city has seen and it was a process led by 20 women. We are demonstrating—and the figures bear this out not only at the local but at the district level—that as women we are capable.

The problem of displacement in Colombia has a prominent gender component. There are three million internally displaced persons in the country and, as Senator Ramírez notes, 57 percent of them are women. In addition to the particular problems of women as heads of displaced households, many of whom have lost husbands and sons to the war, there is also the problem of sexual violence. Displaced women and girls are particularly at risk because of the insecurity and desperation in which they are forced to survive.

The problems of poverty and displacement are epitomized by the struggle of women in the Mochuelo neighborhood of Cuidad Bolívar, which consists of some 300 families and is one of the poorest areas of Bogotá. In a meeting with women in the community, it was explained to the author that many local women became politicized through necessity. From poverty and social dislocation, they formed community associations and began to organize in order to meet basic needs and to put pressure on the state to recognize their situation.

Some of the women in the group represent the displaced population. One of them, Clemencia Melo de Forero, explained the urban reality for displaced rural women :

I loved living in the countryside. There is no pollution. You don’t need money to survive. You can grow your platano, cilantro and onions and if you need something else then you can barter with your neighbour. Here it is so different. If you don’t have money you die of starvation and you can’t go to the neighbour for help because we’re all in the same situation. For this reason, you have to join in the work of the community. The work is hard but it’s harder if you don’t participate. We do this work to give our children a better future.

In collaboration with social workers from the National University, the women of Mochuelo participate in a program called the “Basic Breadbasket” (ASUCANASTA) wherein each family receives a minimum quantity of food to ensure nutrition for their children. This program was initiated as part of the Democratic Pole’s “Bogotá Without Indifference” campaign.

However, Mochuelo women participating in social activities such as the Basic Breadbasket program have endured harassment by the state’s security forces. In July 2007, Melo de Forero was detained by the National Police and interrogated about her economic activities, her family and community connections, and her activities with the program. In regard to the latter, the police wanted the full names of all those affiliated with the Basic Breadbasket program and information about the involvement of representatives from the National University.

Police explained that Melo de Forero’s detention was related to her connections with the guerrillas, an accusation for which they had no evidence. Meanwhile, Melo de Forero was told that she would not be released until she signed a form stating that she was not the victim of any aggression and that she was held voluntarily. According to Clara María Gómez, the director of the social inclusion project in Mochuelo, this type of harassment of community members is common not only in Cuidad Bolívar, but throughout the country. While the national government maintains the pretence of democracy, many citizens in Colombia are denied their basic civil rights, not to mention their social and economic rights.

Perhaps in no other segment of Colombian society are repression and poverty as blatant as in the agrarian sector. Women such as those from the FENSUAGRO peasant union are part of a rich historical tradition of women struggling for the right to organize and to have democratic access to the land. FENSUAGRO is made up of associations of small and landless farmers, agro-industry workers, rural women, tenant farmers, day labourers, indigenous and Afro-Colombian organizations, and other groups representing the rural sector. The union, with a membership of some 80,000, works through 60 affiliated rural organizations in 22 of Colombia’s 32 departments. Because of the strong positions that the union takes against the US-sponsored war on drugs and the Colombian government’s security and neoliberal economic policies, FENSUAGRO members have faced persecution from both paramilitaries and the state.

At a meeting on a farm, 20 female representatives of the union spoke about their activism. They emphasized the importance of participating in social organizations as a channel to becoming politically conscious and to building skills in social organizing. Many spoke of the historical “slavery” of the household, noting that while many women are still dominated by their husbands, the forms of control are now more insidious.

Some of the women identified the attitudes of men as one of the barriers that make it particularly difficult for them to organize. As one woman noted, “Despite the improvements in the rights of women both socially and in the home, there are still many men who think that a woman’s place is in the home and who do not want their wives to become active politically. Like the meeting today, many women that we invited didn’t come because their husbands wouldn’t let them.” Another woman added, “Many men don’t take seriously the work we do as women. If they form an organization, it takes on importance. If we get together, they say it’s because we want to gossip.

While FENSUAGRO women are ultimately promoting a radical redistribution of wealth in the country, their short-term objectives include working to build small, cooperative businesses. The women have engaged in capacity building workshops on topics ranging from health and business to commercialization. However, they receive little state support for their attempts to build their businesses and many women do not have title to their land so they cannot participate in state programs. One woman complained, “They tell us that we should be engaged in projects, women should have their own businesses, but we get no support from the state to do this. If women as heads of households don’t have title to the land, to a farm, they have no way to participate in these strategies. It should be made easier for women to access these programs.

Simply belonging to FENSUAGRO has been a problem for many of the families. One woman recounted the experience of the community of Viota when paramilitaries arrived in March 2003 to spread terror because of the community’s historical links with FENSUAGRO and the Communist Party :

They came to assassinate entire families. They preferred this to displacement. From that moment there were death threats, detentions of many farmers, and many women were left alone because their husbands were detained. Children were suffering from hunger. … Many have only reluctantly began to organize again, for fear of the politicking of the traditional parties. I would say they are the creators of this war. …little by little people in Viota are organizing again but not without fear.

The head of the International Commission of FENSUAGRO explained that the union’s members have been the targets of ongoing attacks by paramilitaries and the state. More than 400 affiliates have been assassinated, many have been forced into exile, hundreds live in conditions of forced displacement, and more than 45 are imprisoned in various regions of the country. Harassment, threats and surveillance of FENSUAGRO’s headquarters, its leaders and members from the base communities are constant, day-to-day realities.

While rural union activists may be a particularly endangered species in Colombia, unionists from all sectors are under threat. Of the 2,000 unionists killed globally over the last decade, over 75 percent were Colombian. Since the formation of the Central Trade Union Federation (CUT) some 20 years ago it is estimated that up to 4,000 union members have been killed in the country. The personal narrative of union leaders such as Julia Gonzalez reveals an all too common story. In 1989, Gonzalez began to work in human rights and was involved in the creation of the CUT on the Atlantic Coast. Out of the 20 leaders, she was the only woman elected. And because she was the only woman she was given the role of Secretary of Women. Later her work brought her to Bogotá.

According to Gonzalez, she endured persecution, raids of her offices and assassination attempts because of the high profile of her union work. She explained :
People don’t really want to work in human rights in the union movement because of what that means in this country. To be a unionist is dangerous, but to work in human rights is even more dangerous. I took on both of those roles. It’s not easy to work under constant threat, harassment, to be displaced and to be required to walk around with bodyguards …you lose yourself. Your personal life becomes public ; it’s very difficult. That’s the context we work in because we have no choice.

In addition to these outside threats, being the only woman in the union’s national leadership during the 1990s proved to be a difficult task. The former Secretary of Women had been a man and he limited his work to organizing cooking classes, first aid and issues related to the reproductive role of women. Gonzalez was part of a regional effort in the mid-1990s to push for better representation and leadership for women within the union movement. Three hundred women organized and placed pressure on the executive. Although they initially met with great resistance, they eventually managed to get three more women elected to the executive, increasing their number to four out of 21.

Despite the advances, Gonzalez explained that many women have left their positions in their unions because of the problems they have faced :

In some of our unions when there was talk of democracy, we would talk of gender democracy and that would shock people. Some women went with this idea to the leadership. There they faced resistance. Whenever they tried to bring this theme into the discussion, men would quit the union. Obstacles would constantly be put in front of these women ; obstacles that would tire them out and eventually many would quit.

Some women in Colombia have, for various reasons, decided that the only way to overcome state repression and the structural problems of poverty and inequality is through armed struggle. Women make up more than thirty percent of the fighters in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Colombia’s largest guerrilla group. Furthermore, they now constitute approximately forty percent of mid-level commanders in the rebel army. While these women are succeeding in shifting the gender dynamic within the structures of the traditionally male-dominated FARC, they are also fighting to dramatically change the country’s political, economic and social structures.

While the FARC has been criticized for its violations of human rights, particularly kidnapping, targeted assassinations, and the use of home-made mortars and landmines, some analysts have suggested that it is a mistake to simply dismiss the group as a criminal or terrorist organization as both the Colombian and US governments have done. Gladys Marin, who has been a FARC guerrilla for more than 30 years, explains that she became involved in the guerrilla group because “I liked the sound of the objectives it was fighting for : defending the interests of the people, the struggle against imperialism, against discrimination, for a radical change in the structure of the government.

According to Marin, there were only two women involved in the FARC when it was founded in the 1960s. Initially, they performed the traditional work of women such as washing clothes and cooking, but things have changed over the years. “I’m not saying there’s no machismo now, because we came from a macho state and society,” she explains. “Machismo is everywhere, in Colombia, in Europe, in the United States, but here our norms, our documents tell us that we are equal, that we must be treated equally.

Most of the women interviewed noted the culture shock of joining the FARC, not only because of the difficult conditions in which guerrillas live, moving constantly in jungle terrain and living in fear of attack, but because of the extreme contrast between the role of women back in their communities as compared to that in the rebel camps. Many female FARC members come from traditional peasant communities where the hierarchy of the family and the subordination of women in the household are deeply entrenched. So for most of them, the FARC provided a liberation of sorts from traditional obligations and a recognition of their broader capacities as women.

FARC women and men share equally in cooking, cleaning, guard duty and combat. Many guerrillas, both male and female, point out that discrimination of any sort is met with sanctions. As one guerrilla notes, “Here, we women say that a woman is not just for sexual exploitation, having kids, washing, cleaning and sweeping. We have to strengthen our own goals, to be someone in this life.” Another female guerrilla states, “Here we have rights and responsibilities to live up to. A woman can find herself leading 50 to 60 men, just as a man can. She can give classes in politics and military strategy, and she can lead a team into combat. It’s great to see women commanders exercising their authority.

The principal issues related to gender that FARC women identified do not differ significantly from those highlighted by Colombian women engaged in non-violent political activities, although their language reflects a Marxist orientation. Many political women who have not taken up arms identify poverty, inequality, displacement and political corruption as important issues. FARC women, however, speak of imperialism and capitalist exploitation. And while many other women, particularly peasants and residents of Bogotá’s poor barrios, tend to frame their politics in the very immediate struggles for rights, food, water and land, FARC women are clearly working towards a socialist society, an overthrow of the current capitalist order.

Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.