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When death threats are real: 'They are not playing... but I'm not going to shut up'

Meet the women who stood up to the paramilitaries – and will continue to fight.

This article is the first installment of a series from Fergal Browne on displacement, sexual violence and other issues facing women in today’s Colombia. The entire series has been reposted here this morning. 

PastedImage-28884 Source: Fergal Browne

“WE ARMED OURSELVES. We just grabbed everything there was – sticks, machetes, anything,” says Adriana Porras about the day Libertad’s residents rose up against paramilitaries.

For eight years her town had been terrorised by paramilitaries. 40 villagers were murdered between 2000 and 2004. No one was allowed leave the town without permission.

For breaking rules women were punished by forcing them to wear signs saying ‘I am a gossip’ while cleaning the town square. Rape was common.

“A lot of women in Libertad are victims of sexual violence,” says Porras of the town near Colombia’s Caribbean coast.

In May 2004, the town’s residents said “No More”. They rose up, forced the paramilitary leaders out and sealed off the town. Eventually the military came and arrested the leaders.

Educating women

Porras was a nurse at the time, but decided to dedicate herself to helping the people of the town realise their rights and recover from the horrors of what happened. She began to coordinate state support for the community who were victims of paramilitary violence.

She also worked hard to make visible the sexual violence that occurred. At first, the town’s women refused to report anything that happened. They feared reprisals, had no trust in the law and just wished to pretend it never happened. Many state institutions, after years of control by paramilitaries, had been infiltrated by these groups.

She, along with a national organisation called Colombian Women for Peace Initiative (IMP as per the Spanish acronym), began to educate the women on their legal rights, psychologically heal them and eventually persuaded ten women to report the crimes committed against them.

She accompanied the women on every step of a trial process that took eight years. After 2005 many paramilitaries were given amnesties in exchange for demobilisation, but those implicated in the sexual violence against the ten women Porras led were made serve jail sentences they wouldn’t otherwise have.

“I believe, on a national level, the case that I led is the flagship one in Colombia that signifies what the whole process contains [in reporting sexual violence against women in the conflict].

The threats, the fear which is a lot when there are paramilitaries involved.

About 51% of Colombia’s displaced are women, 20% are men with the rest children. This has led to a situation where “in Colombia, it is often women who take the lead in demanding truth, justice and reparations for victims of the armed conflict”, says feminist group Sisma Mujer’s Claudia María Mejía Duque and Juanita Candamil.

Rape victims

An Afro-Colombian women’s group called Las Mariposas (The Butterflies) recently won the internationally prestigious Nansen award for outstanding contribution to refugees from the UNHCR.

Led by three women, they help victims of Colombia’s internal conflict in the Pacific coast city, Buenaventura, one of Colombia’s most dangerous cities. Its leaders have helped over 1,000 women and families in realising their rights and psychologically helping those who have suffered from displacement and sexual violence.

“I suffered rape since I was a child. Of course this creates a lot of pain and trauma and this has made me want to change that for other people who suffer through the same situation,” says Gloria Amparo, a leader of the group.

GLORIA Source:

We cannot bring back the dead, but we do want a future for our young people. We also must teach them about our culture which has been damaged so much.

Like Las Mariposas, the majority of the residence of Buenaventura are Afro-Colombian.

Under the Victim’s Law, a legal framework was created for many displaced to be restored to the land they were displaced from.

“What’s a really nice thing is that women want to leave something for their children. They work really hard in the process [for restitution of land], in order to leave their children the land,” says Natalia Fernández from lawyer’s group, Yiro Castro, which specialises in land restitution.

“We have cases here to restore 70 families, where 80% of the women are head of the application. They’ve been through every procedure, every route, to the Ombudsman, everything. The capacity to move themselves, keep going, is just sensational,” she adds.

Power games

Only 19% of Colombia’s elected representatives in Congress are female and only two women are represented on the Government’s side at peace negotiations in Havana, Cuba. Despite this, feminist groups like Sisma Mujer and La Ruta Pacífica, have been drivers in major public policy legislation, as shown with the 2011 Victim’s Law, which contained a specific section on female victims, and Law 1257 on gender violence.

Nevertheless, it’s a work rife with danger. In 2012, 78 human rights defenders, male and female, were murdered in Colombia, the highest in a decade.

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The use of death threats to silence human rights defenders is widespread. Members of Yiro Castro, La Ruta Pacifica and Sisma Mujer have all received death threats.

Porras’ work, meanwhile, in the area of sexual violence against the paramilitaries has put her in danger. An attempt on her life two years ago forced her to move to Bogotá, where she continues working for her community.

When near her home on the outskirts of the capital Porras needs three armed guards to protect her. She’s received death threats by mail, telephone, text message and in pamphlets.

“They are not playing,” says Porras. “I can’t afford to give them the opportunity. I have to be careful.”

Recently, her sons started to receive threats as well.

I’m not going to shut up. They started to believe I’m not going to. I think that’s why they are trying with my sons. But I’ll continue with the process.

She currently leads another woman from her hometown in a sexual violence case.

‘Sons of bitches’

Another woman, Melissa Martines, who is a victim of rape and displacement, became a leader in district and national boards for peace set up under the 2011 Victim’s Law.

Since joining the boards she has received four death threats by mail as have her colleagues. In one, sent by the paramilitary group ‘Black Eagles’ (Spanish: ‘Aguilas Negras’), they listed the names, Martines’ included, of those who had 30 days to leave or be murdered.

“These are the sons of bitches, displaced, pieces of shit parasites that do nothing but antagonise our society….it’s not important you have bastards for protection, they won’t serve you. We give you 30 days to abandon this city,” says the letter.

The threats force Martines to change location constantly but she will not stop her work.

“Although we keep receiving threats, we keep dreaming of peace and we’ll keep fighting’, she says quoting a piece of Colombian poetry.

This article was supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund.

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About the author:

Fergal Browne

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