Betty Puerto Barrera is a Colombian peace activist. Her peace work has focused particularly on women and the struggle to end all forms of violence that are suffered by women in Colombia. She currently forms part of one of Colombia’s oldest women’s organisational processes, the People’s Women’s Organisation, and forms part of a nationwide platform promoting a negotiated solution to the armed conflict. In mark of 25th November, International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, we spoke with Betty about her work in Colombia and her experience as a woman activist in the struggle for peace.
What is the People’s Women’s Organisation?
“The People’s Women’s Organisation (OFP) is a social and political organisational process. It promotes the formation of political subjects with both class and gender consciousness.
“We resist armed conflict and all forms of violence, whether they are cultural, social, economic or political, and we work to promote the right to a dignified life and to protect the fundamental human rights of women and local communities. The OFP views the process of community organising, education, and promoting mass mobilisation as means of transforming the Colombian reality and achieving peace with social justice.”
How does the armed conflict affect women in Colombia?
“The causes of the armed conflict are rooted in issues to do with social inequality, land ownership, the historically violent relationship between the government and the people, land evictions, the policy of extermination against anyone who dares to think differently or to think of peace. All these reasons and causes behind the conflict affect women to a greater extent. The realities that have led to an armed conflict are disproportionately exaggerated in the lives and the territory of women.
“Without exception, women in Colombia are attacked on the one hand by the structural conditions of social inequality and on the other hand by the state that gives protection to a sexist, patriarchal system, and by the illegal armed actors, the military and paramilitary forces that convert women into objects of sexual exploitation.”
What has been the role of women in the struggle for peace in Colombia?
“In Colombia it is women who suffer the devastating consequences of the war to a greater extent, and it is they, the women, who with conviction have put forward proposals for the ending of this social, cultural and political evil that plagues their communities. To quote just a few figures, there are around 5 million displaced people, 70% of them are women and girls. There are 4 million forced disappearances, four thousand trade unionists have been killed, it is still not possible to calculate the damage caused to women as a result of sexual violence.
“The research carried out up until now has shown that in the majority of cases of forced displacement sexual violence has been used as a weapon to force evictions. These forced evictions have seen the best land pass from peasant and indigenous communities to paramilitaries and state forces – to such an extent today that 1% of the population owns 80% of the land.
“In Colombia the majority of social movements struggling against war and in favour of peace are made up of or are led by women. Even before the arrival of the Spanish Crown to the American continent, the women in Colombia had made history as a result of the defence of the territory and this in essence was the motivation for the formation of the OFP four decades ago. For the last 40 years, the OFP has worked with women and communities to overcome the fractures left behind by the war. In 2000 it promoted the formation of the Women’s Social Movement against War and for Peace as a political proposal in favour of the negotiated solution to the armed and social conflict in Colombia.”
Can you explain more about the work of the Movement?
“The Women’s Social Movement against War and for Peace is an initiative which was born in the city of Barrancabermeja as a proposal made by women to advance a negotiated solution to the armed conflict in Colombia. Today the movement is a national phenomenon and we are accompanied and allied with organisations across America and in other continents.
“The organisation is made up by women from poor regions, women peasant farmers, politicians, indigenous, students, workers, women working at home, displaced women, women in the cities, academics, women from regional peace organisations, from victim organisations, all of whom have taken on the Movement’s principles of autonomy and civility.
“In 1996 the women started to join together to find solutions to their exasperation with the war. As a result they pushed for the creation of this new movement. First it was about expressing concerns, then it became about proposals, and today it is a process from which we have constructed a platform for struggle on a national level.
“The Movement is ultimately an expression of women calling out to the Government and to the armed actors for the negotiated and political solution to the conflict.”
What have been the principal lessons from these different processes of resistance?
“Without doubt there have been many experiences and many lessons – many are impregnated with pain as a result of the huge costs that inevitably arise when struggling against war. In this long journey we have lost many human lives and we have lost a lot in a material sense too. We are convinced however that it has been worth the effort to unite ourselves in joint struggle, constructing different proposals to support and enhance people’s lives, removing youngsters from the war, and sowing the seeds of life in the cracks of the darkness. We have had many experiences aimed at creating a culture of peace and coexistence.
“Just in the last five years we have recorded 147 cases of death threats. We have had people forcibly disappeared, assassinated, tortured, discredited, we have been forced to live in exile. Thinking now, we have really managed to reinvent ourselves in order to overcome this fear and say to the world and to the armed actors that “it is better have fear and exist, than to cease to exist because of the fear”, and to say to the Colombian state “not another man or woman or Peso for the war”.
“We value extremely positively the construction of a social and political network, we value the work we have carried out in a national network, and we are proud of the internationalization of the Movement’s proposals. We have held five international events in which women from all continents have participated – together we were able to share knowledge, initiatives and dreams.”
What message would you give to other women living in situations of armed conflict?
“The message is one of global resistance. And of hope. That taking care of one another is extremely important, as it is to take care of yourself. To resist war and its devastating consequences, we have to globalise our resistances, we have to join together with people on the other side and with those close by, and with those in other continents, and we have to reaffirm the decision to work together for the right to a life free from all forms of violence: we have to stand up to the inequalities, to sexism, and to war.”
Women’s struggle for peace in Colombia | Insight on Conflict.