Polls put left-wing death-threatened candidates leading to win first round of historic Colombia presidential election

In Bogotá, during Colombia’s national strike, two women hold signs that read: ‘We did not give birth to children of war’ and ‘They have guns, we have fire in our souls’ / credit: Antonio Cascio

“Far too many women are fighting, not just for their rights, but for the rights of everyone,” says Yomali Torres, an Afro-Colombian activist. The 26-year-old has joined crowds of women on the streets of Colombia over the past month to demand an end to patriarchal oppression at the hands of a US-backed neoliberal state.

The presence of women in the Colombian national strike, both as activists and as victims, has captured the world’s attention. Many have spoken out against police brutality and sexual abuse during the ongoing protests. This, however, is not a new problem. The police, armed forces and illegal groups have used women’s bodies as weapons of war for decades.

The strike, which today celebrates its first month of existence, continues unabated. It started as a response to a tax reform bill that would have devastated middle and low income households. Yet this is not the heart of Colombians’ social discontent. It’s clear then that the strike continues, even after the president called on Congress to withdraw the tax reform bill.

At the end of 2019, Colombia experienced massive mobilizations from various sectors of society, which expressed their dissatisfaction with the government of President Iván Duque. Among the criticisms were its ineffective economic, social and environmental policies, the failure to implement a peace treaty with the militant group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the numerous assassinations of social leaders, among others. According to the Colombian state agency Investigation and Accusation Unity (Unidad de Investigación y Acusación), 904 leaders were assassinated between December 2016 and April 2021.

Gender Violence

Historically, conflicts and social inequalities have mainly affected women. Violence and sexual abuse are commonly used to take control of the territories that women and their communities inhabit, as well as their natural resources. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights published a document in 2005 indicating that 52% of displaced women said they had suffered some type of physical violence and 36% had been forced by strangers to have sex.

A group of frontline protesters stand behind their homemade shields during a demonstration in Bogotá as Colombia’s national strike continues. Among them, the “First Line Mothers”, a group of mothers who unite against police violence / credit Antonio Cascio

In a context of multiple human rights violations – including extrajudicial executions, missing persons, torture, arbitrary detentions and the use of firearms – gender-based violence continues to be deployed against the population during the national strike. The Colombian Department for the Protection of Citizens’ Rights has reported 106 cases of gender-based violence, of which 23 are acts of sexual violence.

With slogans such as “The revolution would be feminist, or it won’t be”, “Not one less” and “With me, everything you want, but with her, nothing”, the demonstrators rejected the violence against women, while drawing attention to gender inequalities.

One of the cases that has sparked widespread outrage involves a 17-year-old girl from Popayan, who committed suicide after being arrested by the police. Before killing herself, she wrote a statement accusing four members of the riot police of sexual assault. The girl had posted on Facebook that the police only released her after learning that she was the daughter of a police officer.

Feminist groups and their demands

Women took to the streets, demanding equal access to education, health care and employment. They have taken on prominent roles as human rights monitors, frontline advocates and community organizers. As a result, human rights groups, made up mainly of women, have suffered acts of intimidation and violence.

Silhouette of a woman in front of a fire in the streets of Bogotá during the Colombian national strike / credit: Antonio Cascio

“We received death threats from riot police. They told us they didn’t want us alive,” says Isabella Galvis of the Waman Iware Human Rights Collective. “At the moment we have no guarantees. They are using firearms during the protests, which is illegal according to Colombian law.”

Feminist organizations are moving forward despite the challenges, having organized multiple events. On May 10, a coalition of 173 feminist groups presented a list of proposals during the current crisis.

These proposals included:

  • A call for negotiation including all groups involved in the protests,
  • an exercise of justice regarding human rights violations, and
  • a universal basic income that prioritizes women affected by the pandemic, among others.

Women most vulnerable to inequality and violence

Afro-Colombians and indigenous peoples have been affected, directly or indirectly, by racism during the protests. Calí, the city where the police exercised the most repression, suffered the highest number of deaths during the strike. It also has the highest concentration of Afro-Colombian communities, according to the National Administrative Department of Statistics.

An Afro-Colombian woman standing on the front line during a protest in Bogotá during the Colombian National Strike / Credit: Antonio Cascio

The high level of inequality places Calí at the center of these protests. Afro-Colombians face unequal opportunities in education, health and employment. This means that the reforms proposed by the government would strongly affect Afro-Colombians, and women in particular.

“We are here today to commemorate Afro-Colombians. We want to fight for our future and our rights,” says Maria Niza Obregón, a 17-year-old Afro-Colombian girl who supports the protests. “We want to live, not survive.”

A clear example of this is the fate of the government’s health reform, which foundered after the first 20 days of protests. Regions with the highest concentration of Afro-Colombians and Indigenous people also have the poorest health systems in the country, according to a report by the organization Así Vamos en Salud.

Yomali Torres, 26, a member of the Afro-Colombian organization for the defense of human rights and peace Cococauca, denounces the lack of hospitals and specialists in his territory on the Pacific coast of Cauca.

“If someone has chest pains, the patient should be transferred to Calí or Popayan,” says Torres. “If we don’t die, it’s thanks to ancestral medicine.”

Afro-Colombian women have been particularly outspoken during the national strike, especially in Calí.

Torres condemns the violations of the rights of women and of the Colombian population in general.

“One way or another, we are using the strike to demand justice for all the women who have been raped, beaten and disappeared,” says Torres.

The United Nations says indigenous and Afro-Colombian women have been disproportionately affected by violence stemming from the conflict. “Of 3,445 cases of murders of Indigenous and Afro-Colombians, 65.5% were women,” reports the UN.

As a sign of outrage, the community of Guapi organized an event on May 7 called “The Last Night”. With TCEs, they commemorated those who gave their lives fighting for the rights of Afro-Colombians and the country as a whole. This celebration was carried out with artistic representations of graves and songs alabaosor ancestral songs for the dead.

A month after the first call for a national strike, the various sectors of society are far from stopping the demonstrations. It comes even as blockades by protesters have generated a shortage of goods in some communities. As Torres says, “We won’t give up, because the boats don’t come with goods. Historically, we have felt hunger for over 200 years. For us, this is not a real challenge.

Natalia Torres Garzon graduated with an M.Sc. in Globalization and Development from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, UK. She is a freelance journalist who focuses on social and political issues in Latin America, particularly as they relate to indigenous communities, women and the environment. With the photographer Antonio Cascio, she founded the radio-photography program Radio Rodando. His work has been published in the Planeta Futuro section of El País, New Internationalist and Earth Island.

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