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.
For 30 years, MADRE has supported Indigenous women from different regions at the forefront of wars, discrimination, and extreme poverty, working hand-in-hand with women and families to bring solutions to their communities. MADRE provides strategic support for Indigenous women activists to be present and visible to international governing bodies, helping to bring their demands to the international arena.
For this year’s 12th session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, MADRE, in partnership with Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung – NYC Office had the privilege of facilitating the participation of our sisters from Latin America and Africa.
I wanted to take this opportunity to share a statement of courage and resilience that I heard from Silvia Perez Yescas, an Indigenous leader and a woman human rights defender from Oaxaca, Mexico, a place where the lives of women human rights defenders are at a high risk. She was in New York to deliver this statement at the official session of the Forum and had the chance to meet with the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, James Anaya.
Silvia Perez Yescas and Dali Angel from Oaxaca Mexico with James Anaya, special rapporteur on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples.
We at MADRE are proud of this continuing work to bring the voices of Indigenous women forward to influence key decision-making bodies.
Our partners Rose Cunningham and Liduvina Gill of Wangki Tangni and Mirna Cunningham of CADPI discuss living well, women’s political participation, violence against women, and intercultural exchange in this video produced in partnership with UNDP:
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.
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:
Carline Desire, the executive direction of AFAB, is dedicated to promoting Haitian women’s rights. She reminded us how instrumental the role of women was in the revolution that led to the independence of Haiti in 1804 yet how brutally they were and are treated. A strong wave of women’s rights protests emerged in the 1990s with thousands of women marching through the streets of Port-au-Prince demanding more political representation, only to be violently rebuffed. Rape has been used as a tool of political suppression and a virtual epidemic has emerged since the earthquake in 2010. Economic insecurity has also led to sexual exploitation, as women are forced to exchange sex for food.
Carline added, it is essential to raise awareness and work on providing education for girls, vocational trainings for women and gender education for young boys and girls in the school system.
This was a point of convergence between Carline and another woman on the panel: Charo Mina Roja, the director of PCN. She emphasized the disconnect that exists between different parts of Colombia. Colombia has the fourth largest economy in the Latin American region, yet there are rural areas that are disproportionately poor compared to very rich regions of the country. Colombia has signed all the international agreements on women and children’s rights yet minorities like Afro-Colombians (which she is a part of) are constantly marginalized, Afro-Colombian women are significantly unequal to non-Afro-Colombian women, and Colombian women in general are constantly assaulted. As Charo put it, “women cannot be women” because of the violence imposed by the paramilitaries who constantly use them as targets to prevent any political action.
A woman in the audience posed a thought-provoking and inevitable question: what can we do to change these circumstances? The program director at the CWGL emphasized a principle that MADRE holds dear: she reaffirmed how important it is to partner with local groups and grassroots organizations to help women meet the needs on the ground that they themselves identify. Charo Mina Roja added that raising awareness is essential and international solidarity is very important. Carline ended by reminding us that NGOs cannot intervene in other countries by imposing their own frameworks: women need to be empowered, need to speak for themselves and should not let others speak on their behalf. We need, in other words, to make big international organization shift their paradigm and focus on giving women the help they say they need, not the help outsiders think they need.
The women at this panel were all incredibly inspiring in their commitment to promoting peace and security within their communities. Not only are they dedicated to women’s human rights but they are also proactively fight to give women a voice. As Carline put it, “We do not need charity but solidarity”. At MADRE, we fight every day with our partners around the globe to promote such solidarity.