With an ongoing armed conflict now lasting more fifty years, an alarming increase of its internally displaced population, and its social inequalities, Colombia still has a long way to go in bringing women’s issues to the forefront of its national priorities. However, Colombian women are strongly committed and persistently striving for their voices to be heard. When Charo – a vibrant Afro-Colombian woman activist- contacted us announcing that she was going to be a speaker at the 26th meeting of CEDAW, we were very excited.
Andrea Parra, Director of PAIIS Clinic, speaks at CEDAW.
Charo is part of the Proceso de Comunidades Negras (PCN), one of MADRE’s partner organizations in Colombia. She devotes her efforts to the advocacy of the human rights of Afro-descendent women and girls who face constant violence and discrimination because of the intersection of their condition as women and as part of an ethnic minority. According to Charo the Colombian State is “far from bringing tranformation of de facto racism and patriarchy that continues to treat Afro-descendant women as second-class citizens.”
Charo, as well as other women from MADRE’s partner organizations in Colombia who participated in MADRE’s recently released report, From Forced Sterilization to Forced Psychiatry: Report on the Violations of Human Rights of Women with Disabilities and Transgender Women, spoke before CEDAW regarding their experiences and the needs of the marginalized populations they represented. This time, the voices of representatives from some of the most silenced populations in Colombia, such as Afro-Colombian women, child soldiers, women and girls with disabilities and transgender women, resonated at a global level. As a Colombian woman, I feel enormously thankful and honored for being part of MADRE, this truly admirable team, as well as its beautiful process of building such powerful transnational alliances, bridging advocacy efforts from both organizations within Colombia and at an international level, and nurturing the worldwide fight against all discrimination against women.
When I began my internship this summer, I was eager to apply what I learned in the classroom to the office, but as a student of Mount Holyoke College, I felt even more compelled to combine the skills I had learned at a women’s institution to the MADRE cause: using human rights to advance social justice for women worldwide.
MADRE, a well-respected women’s organization, introduced me to the world of human rights advocacy. As an intern for the Human Rights Legal Advocacy team, I learned how to coordinate tasks in response to humanitarian crises, how to use grassroots campaigning to advocate for women, and how issue-based advocacy can be used as a mode of social reform. MADRE staff work around the clock to meet urgent needs. On my first day, I was encouraged to directly jump into the work of MADRE, reporting on protests in Turkey and analyzing reviews of violence against women in Guatemala. From there, my learning experience continued: reviewing legislation to advance women’s rights in Haiti, drafting work for a documentation training manual in Iraq, and researching transitional justice in Colombia. I became inspired by the work I was doing and as time went on, I began to understand what makes MADRE an exceptional institution.
Much like my academic environment, MADRE is an all-female staff in which women work tirelessly for their partners. This is an environment where women seek challenges and assume leadership roles, where women are not afraid to speak their minds and argue, where women are committed to working in partnership. As a previous intern had said, MADRE demonstrates the true meaning of a working family. In crisis at home or abroad, these women support one another and do not let difficulty define them. They move forward, using the present to build the future.
My internship this summer has been an incredibly formative experience. From the advocacy team, I learn that law, research and active reporting are key aspects in identifying what needs to be done to alleviate human rights abuses. On a professional level, I am on my way to making a career in global advocacy for marginalized communities. I want to thank the MADRE staff for teaching me the value of working towards a cause and for renewing my belief that women really do have the power to demand rights, resources and results not just for women, but for all people worldwide.
On August 22, “A Question of How Women’s Issues Will Fare, in Washington and Overseas” was published in The New York Times. The article framed “women’s issues” as separate from the challenges facing the world as a whole, including the problems we face now in Syria:
Others see women’s issues as a marginal focus when there are so many violent conflicts around the world.
“Certainly the problems specifically affecting women in Syria are not unimportant,” said Kenneth M. Pollack, a former staff member of the National Security Council who is now a scholar at the Brookings Institution. But in such a humanitarian catastrophe, he said, “until you have an answer to the military problem in Syria, you can’t solve any other problem.”
This framework diminishes the human rights of women and the essential solutions they bring to bear on every issue and conflict we face around the globe. MADRE submitted this response to the editors:
To the Editor:
Re: “A Question of How Women’s Issues Will Fare, in Washington and Overseas” (Aug. 22):
One of the biggest challenges facing Catherine M. Russell as the new ambassador at large for global women’s issues will be people’s failure to understand her job title.
Women’s issues are not a niche. These are the issues that confront half of the world’s population, and they are integral to every single one of the State Department’s agenda items.
For instance, it is nonsensical for anyone to assert that women’s issues should be “a marginal focus when there are so many violent conflicts around the world,” while violence against women is rampantly used as a weapon of war. This is a wrongheaded and harmful perspective that Ms. Russell must confront head on.
As we seek to address climate change, solve poverty, forge peace, promote democracy and more, there are no solutions without women.
Today, on the anniversary of the Stonewall riot that lit the spark of the gay and transgender civil rights movement here in the United States, MADRE takes a moment to pause and reflect on the momentous Supreme Court decision that struck down the legally enshrined inequality of the Defense of Marriage Act, and the change we see sweeping across not just one nation, but the entire world.
MADRE is based in New York City, just a few miles from the Stonewall Bar. We were founded by a courageous group of women who recognized that the oppression and inequality they faced was a mirror image of the oppression and inequality so many others faced worldwide. Today we stand on the shoulders of those women, and the view is very different.
Today, we and our family members, friends and colleagues have rights we did not have only a few days ago, and beyond the respect and dignity of being equal under the law, the security those rights afford to all of us, and our families, is tangible and real.
As we celebrate these victories with all our hearts, we see the work still to be done. In May, our New York City community was shaken when two gay men were attacked in Midtown, then another was murdered in the West Village, only to be followed by another assault in the same neighborhood.
In Haiti, we are supporting our partners as they cautiously, and at great risk to their own safety, begin to build a movement for equality in the face of brutal violence against those whose sexual orientations or gender identities do not conform to a narrow standard.
When President Obama spoke hopefully of the future of equality while visiting Senegal this week and of the inspiration he draws from the example set by former South African President Nelson Mandela, Senegal President Macky Sall stated publicly that he has no intention of de-criminalizing homosexuality in his own country, where being gay can result in imprisonment and torture.
As our thoughts are with Mandela now, whose country legalized equal marriage in 2006, we draw strength and hope from his words:
I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.
This week, we have seen some of our humanity restored. To ensure that our humanity, equality and rights are kept safe across the globe, the struggle continues.
To find out more about MADRE’s work on LGBT rights in Haiti, click here.
Our partner Otilia Lux de Coti spoke out at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues about Guatemala’s prosecution of Efraín Ríos Montt, the former dictator who carried out a brutal genocide against Indigenous Peoples (you can find out more here and see a collection of resources here). Below is her statement in Spanish and a complete translation.
It must be acknowledged that the trials against the generals, beginning with General Ríos Montt’s trial, have demonstrate Guatemala and the whole world that justice is possible when there is the will to enforce it.
This is not the case when there are, let’s say, economic forces and political forces which unite in order to go on encouraging impunity in Guatemala and other countries. These forces are dark and factual that prevent the enforcement of laws because they know this would go against their interests; this is so because they hold responsibility for many negative events that have happened in our country.
It is regrettable the revocation of the trial by the Constitutionality Court three days ago. To annul a trial that has obeyed all the procedural steps… The fact that an attorney was not allowed at the courtroom because he declared he was an enemy of the jury does not mean that the whole trial was a mistrial. In fact, this was a strategy aimed at undermining the whole process.
They did not succeed on the first phase because the Judge was scrupulously respectful of the Law. If she had stopped the trial, this one would have been declared illegal. But she did not do so; she continued the lawsuit.
This is why the Judge gave a sentence of 80 years in prison to the icon of the military regime and genocide in Guatemala.
However, they know that if this case goes on, there will follow other people, automatically, to be prosecuted.
So what they are doing now is to undermine this legal process so that nobody can be sued for justice, no businessman, no politician, no more military men or maybe no civil person.
Now, with this sentence, I think that the lawyers, the attorneys of the victims’ families should present other appeals.
Anyway, the battle has been won. Because there are legal battles in which applications for amparo can be filed, which should be the right submission here, or petitions in error, as it is also known, as another legal resource.
So we consider that the victims’ families must be safeguarded. On the other hand, the attorneys must have already submitted appeals, I guess since I still have to confirm this information today.
However, the revocation of this trial represents an outrage for the Mayan People and for all the Indigenous Peoples in the world. It constitutes an outrage for the victims’ families.
Because they sued someone who officially ordered, signed the decrees with different plans, like Plan Sofía as the military plan conceived in 82 and 83; there, you can read a lot about the orders to massacre villages, families, entire towns.
This genocide has been studied by the Commission of Historical Clarification; this study includes all the events. A suitable methodology was applied to carry out the study, with four groups.
It was determined a genocide had been committed in the light of multiple events, like the massacres, the compulsive displacement of many peoples, burning everything and leaving just scorched earth behind; they burned houses, they burned animals. So the people had to flee in order to survive.
All these elements demonstrated that there was genocide. However, there were other elements, for instance, the sexual assault of little girls, adult as well as old women, the devastating murder of pregnant women.
According to what the Ichile women testified, the military men opened the pregnant women’s wombs in order to extract the seed and “eliminate that seed”, as they said, “which was the internal enemy of the Guatemalan army”…
So all those elements made the law experts determine that there really was a genocide in Guatemala. There really was! We saw it, we can confirm it.
As I say, this is a trick, the bad habits of some lawyers, to set legal traps so that their defendants can be acquitted.
In this case, what is rightful now is the appeals.
But this is regrettable for the Guatemalan justice, the Mayan Peoples and for all Indigenous Peoples because this sets a negative precedent in Guatemala. Anyone can commit a genocide and he will be set free? Won’t they find him guilty of anything?
Sometimes, the massacres are ordered; the person who does it does not do it willingly but because he received orders.
The real origin of those orders have also been determined.
The very military men said that the orders come from their hierarchy. What does that mean? If there’s a Defense Minister, who is his superior? They said this themselves in the trial.
We consider that having their testimony, it should be necessarily understood that the order came from the highest rank.
Furthermore, Colonel Ayuso testified: “We have a hierarchy; orders come in a hierarchical order and the Chief of State in those times was General Efraín Ríos Montt”.
This has been registered, recorded; he said it now at the court room. What does this mean? That there was a mandate.
We now question, if there has been a legal process, why didn’t the generals come to present their deposition? They never came to say “this is false”, never. This means that what was said was the truth.
With this shameful Constitutional Court sentence, we can say that they are extremely compliant of the Guatemalan corporations, compliant to the military men, compliant to some intellectuals who said that there was no genocide in Guatemala, compliant to military retirees, who are associated to Avenir Foundation, they are compliant to the Association Against Terrorism, compliant to the terrible lawyers that exist in Guatemala, because they are really a mafia.
Therefore, I think the Mayan People feels thorougly insulted; we call this an outrage, because this constitutes the utmost insult against the dignity and the spirit of our people.
Because it is not a question of only accepting that there were massacres. What does it mean five hundred corpses found just one and a half year ago in a place called Alta Verapaz, en Cobán? Five hundred corpses…
What does it mean the existing police files where all the information can be found? There is the information. What does the research and studies carried out by various academics? The academic is scientifical, he sticks to reality. An academic cannot lie in a scientific work, he has to stick to the scientifical methodology.
In this sense, there are proofs and bases upon which it can be said that there was a genocide in Guatemala.
Unfortunately, the trial has been suspended right now. A resolution has been issued to continue this trial.
I think the organizations will go on with it.
But I would really like to ask from the international communiy; in fact, I asked for it at the International Forum of Indigenous Peoples that United Nations could have a say in this. We have the Security Council, the Human Rights Council, the Rapporteurs should also say something about this.
They have to say something about this because this will bring justice in the world so that peace can be achieved, to achieve reconciliation and harmony. It is United Nations’ main aim to keep peace so they must say something; they cannot keep silent.
In this way, they would help strengthen the justice systems in any country, not only in Guatemala, in any country.
Because, today a blow has been given to justice in Guatemala, a terrible blow to peace and to the state of law. We cannot go on like this.
Then, what are laws for? What are laws passed for?
In Guatemala, there are laws that should be enforced. Besides, we have signed Conventions that are binding. These Conventions should be honored because they are international legal instruments that inspire national laws.
Also, we have the Constitutions, which are crystal clear in this sense and where it is clearly stated that these crimes against humanity must be punished.
In my opinion, all human beings must unite for justice because justice is universal.
In September Illygrl, an interventionist collective, touched down in Guatemala City, inspired by the need to connect– to render the invisible and hear their stories, their voices that had been filtered out of our culture of consumption. We came with questions that could only be answered by women maquila workers. With the help of MADRE we made contact with Sandra, head of the Women Workers Committee. For the next ten days Illygrl ventured to Barcenas, a community found between the town of Antigua and some 25 textile factories, between ruins and reality.
Something is wrong with our society when over one thousand people die in a sweatshop collapse in Bangladesh the same week thousands of people buy from the very companies that neglected those workers. The New York Times reports the engineer of the building was recently arrested, and the factory managers will also be prosecuted. But we seem to be missing that puzzle piece, the link to understanding that our daily lives and daily buys are intrinsically connected with the millions of working women and men that sweat, slave, and sometimes die while making our stuff. The threads we wear pass through many hands and cross many borders. These are the ties that bind us.
While corporations wish to make these ties seamless Illygrl is dedicated to tracing their threads; we are speaking to those that have been rendered silent and bringing their voice to the masses who have been misinformed.
“Uno se pone un pantalón, una camisa pero no se pone a pensar cuantos han sufrido para hacer un pantalón o una camisa. Cuantas lágrimas han llorado, muchos…cuantos gritos a recibido uno, cuántas humillaciones por un pantalón”
“Someone puts on a pair of pants or a shirt but they don’t stop to think how many have suffered to make a pair of pants or a shirt…how many tears they’ve cried…how many times they’ve been yelled at, how many humiliations for a pair of pants.”
~Rita: Mother, fighter, sweatshop worker
Sandra guided our search and made it possible for IllyGrl to interview nine women who have previously worked in maquilas, making clothing for large corporations like GAP, Walmart, POLO and American Eagle.
“Yo practicamente pedí favor al jefe que me despidiera porque estaba demasiado enferma de los nervios porque había mucha presión del trabajo. Porque como ellos va ellos nos ponían a nosotros una cierta cantidad, entonces ellos hacen un contrato verda con el cliente de que mes a que mes van a entregar el producto. Entonces nosotros tenemos que sacar una cierta cantidad al dia para la hora de que la fecha de exportación se llegara, sacar un dia antes o unas horas antes el producto verda pa que se fuera la exportación…a mi me pedian 1,800 piezas diarias si yo no sacaba esa cantidad…pero fue por eso que yo estaba demasiado, estaba demasiado alterada de los nervios.”
I practically asked as a favor that the boss fire me because I was so sick with anxiety because there was so much pressure from work. Because they, lets say they gave us a certain quantity, then they make a contract right with the client from what month till what month they will need the product to be turned in. So then we have to make a certain quantity per day for the time of whatever day the date of exportation was set, to get it out one day before or a few hours before, right, so that it would be exported…they had me make 1,800 pieces a day if I didn’t meet that quantity…but it was because of that that I was so, I was so sick with anxiety.
Carmen was the first woman we spoke to. A cousin of Sandra’s, she had left the factory three months prior to meeting us. What was clear from Carmen’s story was that the daily dehumanization of being constantly rushed to produce takes its toll, to the point she asked to be let go. Carmen worked thirteen years in garment factories, making fast fashion clothes for companies like GAP, Polo, Kohl’s and Walmart. While here in the U.S. people relish in the newest $10.00 trends we are ignorant to the 25-hour shifts- blood, sweat and tears imposed to produce – like machines – for the clothing companies’ bottom line.
The regular anxiety workers face carry a deep, psychological and physical trauma akin to war conditions. Most of the women we spoke to described regular nightmares about the factory, one even suffered insomnia for 15 days straight. They all describe an inability to relax even on their single day off, being ON became part of the job.
When we asked the women if they felt like people or machines, nine voices echoed maquila.
When she started the Comité de Mujeres Trabajadoras in Guatemala, Sandra committed to educating women in her community: to make them literate and better understand their labor and human rights. With the help of MADRE, her Comité has provided sex health information and contraceptives to working women. Fearlessly fighting against a broken system, we followed Sandra as she distributed condoms outside a sweatshop one afternoon, as the workers streamed out of the factories. Sandra and the Comité are an active part of the Barcenas community, which they live in.
Recognizing the systematically abusive conditions of the factories, Sandra serves as a resource when women are facing abusive bosses. She has archived each of the many cases women have filed against maquilas, seeking justice for her community. Sandra would love to build a library for the women to read more, to expand her classes and always keep the women empowered. She is a fearless leader.
Our final day in Guatemala we drove past many maquilas. Most looked like prisons, with seven foot walls laced with barbed wire. We filmed the factories, but what remained elusive was the history of how they got there. As Americans, we learn that some countries are underdeveloped “third world” nations, and what is left untold is how many countries were sabotaged by the U.S. for capital interests.
“Yo creo que Estados Unidos es el principal responsable de la guerra en Guatemala. No se permitió que Guatemala lograra una reforma agraria que estaba indicada para mejorar la situación económica de toda la nación. Estados Unidos derrocó al presidente Jacobo Arbenz porque él había iniciado una expropiación de fincas de la United Fruit Company. Pues entonces, tocó intereses norteamericanos que no le convenía a los Estados Unidos. A través de la participación de la CIA se derroca al presidente y se le roba a Guatemala la oportunidad de desarrollarse… Guatemala se convierte en escenario de la guerra fría.”
I believe that the United States is the main one responsible for the war in Guatemala. Guatemala was not permitted to achieve the agrarian reform that was proven would improve the economic situation of the whole nation. The United States overthrew president Jacobo Arbenz because he had initiated the expropriation of the factories of the United Fruit Company. It affected North American interests and was not convenient for the United States. Due to the participation of the CIA the president was overthrown and Guatemala was robbed of its opportunity to develop… Guatemala became a stage for the Cold War.
~Representante del Ministerio de Educación
Through Sandra, we met with a representative from the Ministry of Education in Guatemala, who did not wish to be identified. The representative and her/his family lived through the violent repression of Rios Montt. S/he recognized how different Guatemala could have been without the interference of the CIA’s support of Efrain Rios Montt. Underlying the unjust conditions women endure daily at the maquilas is the truth that Guatemala still writhes from the pains of dictatorships.
Montt was recently tried for Genocide and convicted, though the conviction has been overturned. We hope the pueblo of Guatemala stands firm on seeking justice but we in the states shouldn’t forget our government is also guilty. Montt was backed by the Reagan administration, supplied with close to $10 million in military hardware. The genocide of thousands would not have been possible without it. We will likely never see the C.I.A stand trial for crimes against humanity.
In trying to become “objective,” western culture made “objects” of things and people when it distanced itself from them, thereby losing “touch” with them. This dichotomy is the root of all violence.
Bangladesh and Guatemala seem worlds apart, but they are not. They are in your closet if you look. We are connected: Our dollars, Their blood, sweat and ashes. In light of the lives lost in Rana Plaza many companies are finally agreeing to support the Bangladesh Safety Pact. Companies will be legally bound to financially support unions to do regular inspections. This is largely because activists on the ground have not rested since Rana Plaza. Still, several U.S. companies like Walmart and GAP have refused.
We must remember Rana and also beyond it. Everything has its source, everything has its history. For those that live in the underbelly of globalization, democracy is a myth and their reality relics of war. We must extend ourselves beyond this notion of “American exceptionalism” and attempt to understand- to imagine- who it is at the nadir of this system, who bears its immense weight everyday.
We must see ourselves as citizens of this world. Bangladesh is a beacon, a possible beginning, beyond its borders reaching Barcenas; but we must do our part. Illygrl is an interventionist collective and we believe consciousness begins with sight, touch, memory. We believe now is the time to push back on these companies who seemingly have no heart. It is time to boycott.
The small town of Haweeja, where we work with our partners at the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), has become one of the sites of increased violence across the northern part of the country as largely Shiite government militias engage with Sunni gunmen in a sectarian conflict.
The deadliest battles occurred near Hawija and Sulaiman Pek, northern towns near Kirkuk, and battles were still raging in the early evening. In Hawija, the army shut off electricity, and troops shouted through loudspeakers, urging civilians to evacuate, witnesses said. Government helicopters also fired at Sunni gunmen on the ground in Sulaiman Pek.
This is not the first time this small town has felt the impact of the legacy of violence left by the US invasion and ten year occupation. In 2011, OWFI discovered that children in Haweeja were suffering from unprecedented rates of birth defects, and disproportionately high rates of cancer were impacting the entire population. These health problems are potentially linked to a US base one mile away, where chemical munitions were regularly detonated and dumped. Since then, OWFI and MADRE have been working to bring adequate medical care to those in need and draw international attention to hold those who are responsible accountable for their actions. We have reached out to our partners there and will provide updates as the situation evolves.
The trial of former Guatemalan General Rios Montt, accused of human rights abuses and genocide against Indigenous Peoples, displacing nearly 30,000 Guatemalans and overseeing thousands of acts of sexual violence, is underway. Today, the defense asked that the trial be suspended. Follow the trial:
In a refugee camp in Afghanistan, a six-year-old girl named Naghma has had her future traded away.
As the New York Times reported yesterday, her father wasn’t able to pay back a $2,500 loan. Now, as payment, he feels forced to give Naghma up to be a child bride to the lender’s son.
Child marriage and selling girls are against the law in Afghanistan. Yet, that’s not enough to protect Naghma.
This is such a stark reminder of a core lesson of our work. It’s not enough to have laws on paper to protect women’s rights. We need action to make sure the laws are implemented.
I’ve seen the power of that lesson firsthand in Haiti, where MADRE partners are organizing to pressure their government to take a stand against violence and discrimination.
This month, I’ll be traveling to a refugee camp where Syrian women and families are also struggling to survive. Some have made the same desperate decision as Naghma’s parents — to trade their young daughters away in marriage. I’ll be meeting with local activists who are speaking out against child marriages and organizing to create alternatives. I look forward to reporting back to you about what I hear from our partners there.
Update: An anonymous donor has reportedly paid the family’s debt, allowing Naghma to stay with her family. Across Afghanistan, countless other girls will not be so lucky.