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Interview

Corona in Colombia: peace and women are most affected

Latin America has been hard hit by the corona pandemic. In Colombia the pandemic has come as a double blow: poor and marginalised communities have faced hunger because of quarantine measures, while human rights defenders and community leaders are murdered in their homes. We talk to Alejandra Miller Restrepo, member of Colombia’s Truth Commission and of the International Board of PeaceWomen Across the Globe, about the effect the epidemic has had on communities, women and on the work of the Commission. 

What measures has the Colombian government taken during the coronavirus epidemic to halt the spread of the virus?

The Colombian government decided to place the population under a general quarantine from 24 March to 11 May, now extended to 30 June. Only workers in health, food and medicine production were allowed to go out. Although it was an adequate measure to contain the spread of the virus, the government has not been able to manage the food subsistence of thousands of families, many of them single mothers, who earn their income in the informal economy.

The armed actors that continue to operate in many regions since the 2016 signing of the peace agreement between the guerrilla group FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the Colombian government have taken advantage of the situation. They continue to assassinate social leaders and human rights defenders who are now confined to their homes. The quarantine measures were relaxed from 11 May and some economic sectors, such as construction and manufacturing, have reopened. This opening has coincided with an increase in infections and deaths in the country.

What effect have the corona measures had on communities?

The general quarantine measure helped save lives, but the government has not provided sufficient financial support to guarantee the subsistence of the poorest. As a consequence, many families have suffered from hunger during the quarantine. Measures such as food distribution, loans to microenterprises, etc., have been slow and chaotic. Add to this the high levels of corruption in the country: 10 mayors have been detained for stealing aid and subsidies meant for the poorest and most vulnerable.  

What has been the effect on women specifically?

Women continue to be amongst the poorest of the poor, so too in this situation. In addition to the hardships that I have just mentioned, many women had to spend the quarantine confined with their aggressors, their partners who inflict violence on them. Emergency numbers received many calls reporting cases of domestic violence. According to the Colombian Institute of Family Welfare, intra-family violence against women and children increased by 70% during the quarantine.The government's responses to punish those responsible have been insufficient. In this crisis, violence against women has increased – and it is seen as a lesser evil. In rural areas, it has been women's organisations that have provided essential life-sustaining care. Many women peasant farmers barter their products with women from the cities as a form of solidarity. 

What can you tell us about the murders of human rights defenders, social and community leaders? 

The killings of community and social leaders in Colombia have increased since the signing of the peace agreement four years ago. The coronavirus pandemic has not stopped these killings. Crimes against social leaders increased by 53% in the first four months of this year compared to the same period in the previous year. The government has not taken effective measures to protect human rights defenders, neither before nor during the pandemic. 

Can you put these killings into context for us?

The murders occur mainly in rural areas, where the now defunct FARC were active. Once the peace agreement was signed, these territories were not effectively controlled by the State. In these remote regions, where coca is cultivated, other armed and criminal groups have begun to gain territorial control and are forcing the peasants not to participate in the coca crop substitution programmes that are part of the peace agreement. Many community leaders have been killed for promoting the substitution of coca or for defending their territories from armed groups that are protecting their own interests, such as drug trafficking, illegal gold mining, or from business groups and their megaprojects.

During the pandemic, this situation has worsened, as many of the armed actors now threaten and murder those who do not comply with the quarantine measures. In mid-May, a peasant and his two daughters, aged 5 and 1, were killed by an armed group because they were not complying with the orders to stay home. It is not the State and the government that imposes the laws or sanctions, but the armed groups that take their place in those territories during the pandemic – and they have become stronger.

Tell us about the work of the Truth Commission in this post-conflict situation? 

The context in which we live in Colombia – with post-conflict violence and with the continuation of armed conflict with groups that were not included in the peace agreement–greatly hinders the task of the Truth Commission. Our fundamental contribution to building a comprehensive truth is the testimonies of the victims, of the communities that lived through the terror and the impacts of the conflict on them. Before the corona epidemic people were afraid of talking about what has happened and continues to happen. It is increasingly difficult to hear their voices. Still, the Truth Commission has been able to listen to more than 12,000 people across the country so far. The political context is not very favourable to the peace agreement and the Colombian government does not facilitate the Commission's task either.

What effect have the corona measures had on the Commission’s work?

During the quarantine, the Commission and its teams have dedicated their time to analysing the more than 8000 interviews carried out between last year and March, reading and contrasting them with the reports provided by civil society and the more than 200 bases of data on human rights violations that have been submitted to the Truth Commission. Some in-depth interviews and dialogues on different topics are being conducted virtually. This forced “pause” has allowed us to concentrate on the analytical part of the valuable and abundant information that the Commission has been able to collect in the last year and a half. 

What about the work of the Gender Working Group of the Truth Commission?

During the pandemic and the confinement, the gender working group of the Truth Commission is carrying out the analysis of the 780 testimonies of women who were victims of sexualised violence during the armed conflict that it has collected so far. The team is identifying the patterns and dynamics used by the different groups (guerrillas, paramilitaries, state armed forces) and contrasting the information with secondary sources. The group works virtually with the women's organisations that submit reports to the Commission and has also taken down some testimonies virtually.

What will be the long-term effects of the government’s measures during the corona crisis on human and women's rights and on the peace process? 

The impacts of the coronavirus in countries like Colombia can be devastating, socially, politically and economically. In the short term, poverty will increase and its feminisation will be exacerbated. For now, the government has only taken measures to counter the immediate impacts of the crisis, such as support for the public health system. But there are still no structural measures in place to counter inequality and the exclusion of poor and marginalised population groups once the crisis has passed. The old economic model is still intact. 

In short, the pandemic will profoundly impact the economy, peace will not be the priority of the Colombian government, and women will see their rights deeply violated.

What do you think women’s organisations should do now or after the pandemic has passed? 

At the moment, women's organisations are focused on solidarity with and aid to families who do not have food. They also make visible the increase in domestic violence. Women’s organisations provide information on what is happening in their communities. Once the pandemic is over women’s organisations must work in several ways: 

1. Promote peace and the end of the conflict with the other armed groups, as well as the implementation of the peace agreement between the government and the FARC and the participation of women in that process.

2. Propose measures to transform the current economic model that is feminising poverty.

3. Publicly debate the effects of the government’s cuts to its investments in health and education and why this situation needs to be transformed.

4. Insist on truth, justice and reparation for victims of the armed conflict.