Colombia's female human rights defenders need Ireland's support

Colombia's female human rights defenders need Ireland's support

Colombia's historic peace process is close to failing, with a right-wing President determined to roll-back key commitments leading to some rebel dissidents taking up arms again. As crucial elections approach, women in Colombia fighting for peace, need Ireland's support now more than ever.

Ireland knows only too well that peace is fragile and precarious. The signing of a peace deal, whether in Colombia or Northern Ireland, signals the beginning rather than an end of the hard work on building lasting peace. 

Nearly three years ago, in November 2016, the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signed a historic peace agreement. This signalled an end to over 50 years of brutal and violent conflict in Colombia, which saw 250,000 people killed, more than 80,000 forced disappearances and more than 7 million forced to flee their homes. Peace has been hard fought for and a long time coming.

Women in Colombia played a critical role in this fight for peace. They also suffered greatly from widespread sexual and gender-based violence during the decades of fighting. Around 20,000 cases of sexual violence were recorded during the conflict, though this thought by some to be the tip of the iceberg. One study in over 140 areas of Colombia estimated an average of 400 women victims per day, over 16 per hour. Colombia’s own Constitutional Court found that sexual violence was used systematically by the army, paramilitaries and rebel groups.

It was against this backdrop, and thanks to the tireless work of women’s organisations, Colombia’s peace agreements was one of the first countries to extensively address both women’s and LGBTI rights. Inspired by a UN Security Council Resolution on Women, Peace and Security designed to make women central to all planning after war, feminist organisations, such as Christian Aid’s local partner Sisma Mujer, ensured that the final peace agreement excluded amnesties for sexual violence during the conflict, recognising these as a war crime. Critically significant was the inclusion of a specialist investigation team to investigate sexual violence crimes.

And yet this work by women in Colombia and others working on peace is under threat from a right-wing government elected on a mandate of challenging the peace process and whose actions have stalled implementation of the really crucial elements of the peace agreement. This includes elements focused on ensuring truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of none-repetition to female survivors of sexual violence. The situation could reach boiling point during this month’s local and regional elections at the very moment the peace process faces serious political pressure, delayed implementation and a frustrated dream of an end to violence.

While violence in Colombia has reduced to levels not seen for several decades, more than 500 social activists, human rights defenders, and indigenous leaders have been killed since the peace agreement was signed. Many targeted for attempting to put the peace agreement into practice.

Women are particularly at risk. On September 1st this year, mayoral candidate Karina García was murdered in southern Colombia, following threats whilst campaigning. Since the political race officially began, seven candidates have been murdered around the country. Our partner, Sisma Mujer, has highlighted that while violence affects both men and women, women are also targeted specifically because they are women. They are intimidated and threatened and are slandered for being bad mothers or daughters. Deep-rooted gender inequality and hatred against women is driving this violence.

Ireland has been a strong supporter of the peace process in Colombia, support which was strengthened in January by the opening of the first Irish embassy in Bogota. Ireland is also an active champion of global efforts to address gender inequality and a new National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security was launched by Minister Coveney early this year with significant ambitions for pursuing this agenda.

Women in Colombia need this support now more than ever. The Irish government is well placed to actively partner with Colombian women community leaders and human rights defenders. Ireland can also use its diplomatic channels to ensure there is international pressure on the Colombian government to enact the elements of the peace agreement focused on championing justice for women. As Ireland bids for a seat on the Security Council, Colombia is a ready test case to prove our credentials as a peace-broker on the international stage.

Christian Aid Ireland’s Colombian partner, Sisma Mujer, are visiting Ireland to raise awareness of issues facing female human rights defenders and a continuing lack of justice for female survivors of violence. They will be panelists at a public seminar at Trinity College Dublin at 2pm on Wed 16 October.

Author: Karol Balfe, Christian Aid Ireland's Head of from Violence to Peace