LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Colombian women peace activists are worried that Sunday’s presidential polls may bring in a new president who has threatened to end the peace talks with rebel groups currently taking place in Havana.
That could plunge the country back into violence, the activists said, speaking at a meeting organised by the British Foreign Office and the NGO Conciliation Resources on the sidelines of the global summit on sexual violence in conflict in London.
They want to see President Juan Manuel Santos re-elected and continue negotiating an end to five decades of war with guerrilla leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
“We can’t live more years with such an incredible environment of sorrow, of pain, of fear. Colombian society is full of fear, and we don’t want to go back to that,” said Rosa Emilia Salamanca, who is a founding member of the Colombian National Women’s Network, coordinator of the Women Peace and Security Collective, and has represented the movement at local, national and international levels.
"We are moving in a very tight line between going back to war or coming back to peace," she said.
She added that many human rights defenders and peacebuilders may have to leave the country if Santos loses the election.
Before the peace process began at the end of 2012, Salamanca and other activists experienced numerous threats. Her 21-year-old daughter was forced to flee to Spain after Salamanca received threats to her safety.
“We don’t know yet who said this - in Colombia you never know who really is behind everything. There were threats from paramilitary people, but there were other kinds of threats ... maybe the armed forces, I don’t know,” she told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
As a result of the peace process and the change in atmosphere it produced, her daughter was able to return last year after six years in exile, Salamanca said.
“That’s why we’re defending the peace process. The threats were during (former President Alvaro) Uribe's government. We were so frightened during that government. But now it’s much better. We can work now, we have a higher profile,” she said.
Salamanca and others successfully campaigned for women to be appointed to the government’s negotiating team, and they are now pushing for women’s concerns and perspectives to be heard at the Havana peace talks.
“Colombia is a very polarised society and a very cruel society towards people who think differently,” she said.
Discrimination against the poor, peasants and indigenous people is rife. “Why does there have to be so much bullying between people in society?”
She worked for many years with indigenous tribes, campaigning for their rights to land, identity and culture, before becoming involved in women’s issues.
“In feminism I have found an answer for non-discrimination. l think a real feminist is the one who behaves as freely as she wants, but accepts that others can move as freely as they want as well,” she said.
It creates a “profound democracy”, she added.
Years of violence can militarise people, Salamanca said.
“Sometimes you have to change your mind and your heart so you can find not the military you have inside, but the other, democratic person that maybe you have inside that will wield another kind of democracy,” she said.