I recently attended an event at the 57th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women, on “Women, Peace, and Security: Elusive Opportunity for Afro-Colombian Women in Conflict Zones.” It focused on violence against women and security in times of so-called peace and in times of war. The panel featured four women from four different organizations: Black Communities Process: PCN, Global Rights, The Center for Women’s Global Leadership, and AFAB (Association of Haitian of Women in Boston).
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.