By Jessica Garcia
On this March 8th, the Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective honours the women who resist in their territories across Colombia. On this occasion, we recognise the voices of three women, three leaders of grassroots and campesino movements, Black and Indigenous women of Colombia. These women are Briceida Lemus Rivera, Deyanira Peña Carabalí, and María Violet Medina Quiscué.
Briceida Lemus Rivera declares herself a campesina and fensuagrista woman from the north of Cauca, she is a member of the Mesa de Víctimas (Victims’ Rountable) from the municipality of Miranda, Cauca. She is also part of the Municipal Planning Commission of that same municipality
Deyanira Peña Carabalí, another leader, declares herself as a social leader and community activist, a Black Maroon woman, living within the inter-Andean valleys, born and raised in the village of La Balsa, in the municipality of Buenos Aires, a descendant of Africa, with an African surname from her mother's side, Carabalí.
Finally, María Violet Medina Quiscué is a Nasa indigenous leader, a member of the Indigenous Authorities in Bakatá, who have carried out a permanent Minga in the National Park of Bogotá for more than five months.
These powerful leaders tell us how it was that they began their journey as leaders of social and community processes, what it means for them to be leaders in the current context in Colombia and, finally, what remains to be done in the face of this current political moment.
JG: How did your journey as a social leader start?
Briceida: My leadership process began at a very difficult time, after the National Government failed to comply with the Peace Accords with the M-19, because that is when a kind of resistance was born, which at that time was called Jaime Bateman Cayón and it started to get very ugly for the grassroots communities, because there was a lot of death. They killed many people and the people lived with a terrifying uncertainty. Those people did not respect human rights. So we decided to organise ourselves in the community action boards so that we could confront the reality we were facing.
That is when I began to lead social processes - in the midst of death and desolation. I started out in a community action board and we then became a coordinating committee. I was also part of the Indigenous movement, but given the little democracy that existed at that time, I began to believe that this was not my place and I stepped back. Then I joined Fensuagro (Federación Nacional Sindical Unitaria Agropecuaria / National Federation of Agricultural Trade Unions), the campesino organization of which I am a member today.
Deyanira: the leadership that I carry forth was born at a very early age. I was almost 17 when I entered the social, political and cultural world through social processes. First it was as an organiser within the cultural movements, then it was with the political processes, and then it was within the social processes.
In this sense, the first struggle in the fight is to resist and to recognise ourselves as Black women, as Afro-Colombian women. As a Black woman within the framework of a racist country - a country in which women struggle to reach and participate in spaces of power because patriarchy is still very, very, strong - the struggle is great to defend life and our territories, and for that leadership that we build.
Violet: I became involved in the social movements from when I was very young, but here in Bogota, I joined the process in 2015. I have led in the building of the formal recognition of Indigenous Peoples and communities and in making us visible within the framework of the Mesa de Victimas (Victims' Roundtable). Today I am part of the Indigenous Authorities in Bakatá. The process brings together 15 Indigenous Peoples. We claim and we demand the fulfillment of the rights of Indigenous peoples and communities. First, as Indigenous and second, as victims of the armed conflict, because 13 of these 15 Peoples are victims of the armed conflict, directly or indirectly.
JG: What does it mean to be a woman social movement leader in this current moment in Colombia?
Briceida: It has not been very easy to lead social processes, because of patriarchy and because it is simply not easy to organise in this country where human rights are violated and where there is a penalty of death, where anyone who thinks differently becomes a military target of their own government, where economic systems are imposed upon us, where there is a supposed political leadership that has been in power for years and years and has only left our country with destruction. It is very sad to lead movements in such horrifying circumstances as the one our country is going through.
However, in spite of the extremely difficult times we are facing here in Colombia with the violations of our human rights, leading processes creates hope for us women. I always say that we women are the ones who carry the hardest burden, we are responsible for all of the caregiving, home and childrearing work, while men are the ones who dominate the public sphere. But it is essential for us to understand that women play a very important role, and that is that we cannot continue to lend our wombs to the war. This is one of my slogans that I always use when saying that we must continue working. Working in favour of women, in favour of honest thinking, in favour of life, in favour of healing. And we must continue to fight in spite of the circumstances.
The struggle of us women is reflected in life, in the acquisition of our rights, in being able to continue as women to be creators of life, but also as creators of food and creators of power. To continue living as campesina women in our territories, playing that important role of exercising power and making decisions, to be in balance with men is what we women dream will happen someday.
Deyanira: For me, being a leader is fulfilling because not everyone is a leader. There are women who start taking up leadership and then get frustrated because it is difficult, but for me it brings me great satisfaction. I love to help, I love to defend, I love to make struggles visible. Leadership has given me a lot of satisfaction, it has given me the strength to be able to say to the government that I do not like this, because of these reasons; with all of the respect and fight, so that future generations can live well and so that they can continue working for the well-being of boys, girls, women, and for men too. That is why leadership fills me with satisfaction, it fills me with joy. But, it also fills me with sadness, because there are times when one says "no, no more, I'm not going any farther, I'm not doing any more".
And here I am, continuing to fight in defense of our territory, to make women's issues visible, to make our territories visible, and to make visible what women do within the territories to defend this life and to stand up and build strong foundations. However, it is very hard because of what education has taught us that men are in charge, but we the women can and alone we have pushed ahead, alone we have grown, almost alone we have raised our children, because the men are there, but the woman is out doing the whole role of mothering, of working, of helping them in their studies, in any and everything that is necessary.
Today there is great frustration because our leadership as women has been overshadowed. There is so much machismo that in Buenos Aires I have never seen a woman mayor, I have never seen a woman representative of the municipality, which are the two most important political positions. But the joy I do have is because many things have been made visible as the fruit of our efforts. I have shown and done many things that benefit the territories in the north of Cauca and in all of Colombia. Because in this process of building, we have achieved many things even if they are not always made visible today.
Even so, we have experienced many frustrations. We have had to fight against structural racism, against patriarchy. and for social equality. In fact, I was a Councilor, exactly when the paramilitary incursion was carried out against my town. And, it was a hard process, because out of 11 Councilors, I was the only woman who had finally had this position of power. I could never be president of the Council- because, obviously, they were the majority- but I was in the fight and in the struggle. So, leadership as a woman is hard, as a Black woman even harder, and as a rural woman, worse. But here we continue on, and I have many fulfilling moments, because I have achieved many things. For example, I became a professional and studied for a master's degree.
Violet: Well, put simply, it is a very hard challenge, very big, not only because of the patriarchy that still exists in our Colombian context, but also because the struggle and resistance of us women are somewhat invisible. But, the contribution that we women have made has been enormous throughout the history of our country and, above all, also throughout the history of the Indigenous movement, because we have managed to unify with other women in the same cause.
As women, some of the risks we face is that we are not only always being singled out and targeted, but also that when we begin to make a family that making, raising, and caring for a family is relegated as a secondary. In this case, many exercises within the context of the family unit are relegated as background because the practice of leadership is the practice of never stopping. Every day something is done to our struggle, every day some new concern arises, and I believe that this is a great risk, an effort that we women make and that sometimes is not considered or taken into account.
Even so, we have been able to make evident not only the strong resistance that is led by women, but also the context of the abandonment of women, young people, children, Indigenous communities and campesina communities. So, making visible this abandonment has caused us to lose lives not only of men, but also of women and young people, and that the family role is left in the background because one has to be in vocation towards the community, towards the exercise itself.
JG: What remains to be done in this current context?
Briceida: To know that it is we who have to free ourselves from patriarchy, it is one of our best chances. And, the other is to know that we still have the hope of continuing to build a country - and our idea of what kind of country to build is a beautiful one. In this dream our country is one in transformation, with the women of Colombia each adding their grain of sand. To continue working for peace and reconciliation in our country, that is our biggest chance for the future. We will continue to work for this despite the fact that our rights are violated so much, and that women face that we have not yet achieved equality. But the hope of continuing to build a country continues to lay in wait.
Deyanira: There are still deep frustrations from that paramilitary incursion, a lot of fear, a lot of discouragement, a lot of feeling powerless, seeing how people were massacred and thrown into the river. Today I continue to experience this worry because the territory is becoming a territory of conflict. We thought that with the Peace Accords the situation was going to get better, but now it is getting worse. Not only because of the illegal armed groups, but also because of these projects that are destroying life, territory and water, our source of life. So, we can say that we have made progress, but there are also setbacks. However, we continue in the struggle and in the resistance, so that we women can be present, and make more visible our equality.
We can also tell you that we women were able to resist, to survive the armed conflict, with our bodies as an instrument of defense in this war, to defend our children, to defend our husbands, to defend our fathers and our brothers. And today this resistance is visible in the cultural, social and environmental spheres, because we women are the ones who are building and defending our territories and saving these cultural practices through our social actions. It is very important to emphasize that we have faced many dangers, serious dangers because the water is contaminated with mercury. In these rivers and streams, women use the water for their daily chores. We also have faced the danger of bullets, we have faced the danger of illicit crops and mega projects, but we continue resisting and with our actions we teach our sons and daughters how to be, how to take care of the territories. Our bodies have been a shield of war, but they have also been the territories’ protection. So, this resistance becomes more beautiful every day, more bearable, and in this way, the resistance continues and we keep on building.
Violet: Looking at the current context here in the National Park, we, the Indigenous peoples and communities, have been resisting for five months now, we are going on to six months, resisting. What is left for us to do? To continue resisting, putting forth our words as our cry of resistance, for our individual and collective rights, for the vindication of our rights. But, above all, because these are questions of humanity. I believe that, in view of the situation in the National Park, with almost six months here exposed to the sun, to the cold, hunger, disease, death, in these strong changes of the climate and seasons, that we have had to survive, all that is left for us is to resist, to make more visible and clear. We tell the Colombian and international civil society that the Indigenous communities do not have an easy time, we have never had an easy time. However, we continue believing not only in peace, in change, in the care of mother earth, also in being able to maintain a balance among all of us, where we all fit, where we can all create a social, community and environmental life. I believe that this is the most important thing, we must continue to vindicate the right to life, to the land, the right to collectivity, the right to have dignified conditions. This is our cry of resistance from the National Park, today.