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Colombia’s war widows look to Santos to fulfil dreams

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Mon, 16 Jun 2014 15:11 GMT
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Colombian women wait to vote in presidential elections in Corinto May 25, 2014. REUTERS/Jaime Saldarriaga
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Women and children, particularly from Afro-Colombian and indigenous groups, have borne the brunt of Colombia's 50-year war and make up the majority of those displaced by the fighting between warring factions.

There are 6.5 million war victims listed on the government’s official victims' register. Of that number, nearly 85 percent are people who have been forcibly driven from their homes, along with victims of sexual violence and landmines.

It was many of these war victims who voted for President Juan Manuel Santos on Sunday, securing his re-election on a campaign platform of bringing peace to Colombia.

He has vowed to pursue a peace deal with Marxist rebels as 20-month-long talks between the government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) continue in Cuba.

"Thank you victims," said Santos at his campaign headquarters in Bogota following his victory. Supporters waved flags with white doves symbolising peace and chanted: "Colombia wants peace".

"If people mobilised for me it's because they know that history has its moments and this is the time for peace, the time to end this long and cruel conflict," Santos said.

Five decades of war between government troops, leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries, fuelled by the cocaine trade, has killed more than 200,000 Colombians.

REPARATIONS

Santos opened talks with the FARC in late 2012. He has also championed efforts to provide war victims with reparations and give them back their land stolen by armed groups.

In 2011, his government passed the historic Victims and Land Restitution Law that offers up to $12,000 to families of those who have died or gone missing or those displaced by violence.

So far, nearly 400,000 of the 6.5 million Colombians included on the victims' register have received some sort of compensation, and of that number 75 percent are women, latest official figures show.

"We have to believe in peace. We can’t believe in war," said Maria Isabel Ballesteros, who received compensation of $700 to be shared with her siblings after FARC guerrillas murdered her mother. Her husband was also killed by unidentified gunmen, she says.

"At least the government has taken an interest in us victims. This is the only government I've known that has at least tried to do something to help us. We're less invisible now and we have rights," the mother of two said.

She spent her compensation on sewing equipment and cloth to make children’s clothes, which she sells to shops in the city of Bucaramanga where she settled after her mother’s death.

HOUSING TOPS CONCERNS

In Colombia, as in other war-torn countries, it is often women and widows who take the lead in rebuilding families and communities.

Just under half of all war victims who have received government compensation have spent the money on housing and home improvements, followed by education for their children and setting up a small business, government figures show.

Delia Pimenta, whose brother was murdered 20 years ago, pooled her share of compensation with her four siblings to buy a plot of land, on which they hope to eventually build a house.

"We put all our money together and went to the bank that loaned us money because we had some capital to show for it," Pimenta said.

"Of course it's not going to take away the pain and bring back our loved ones but it helps us get up the ladder and allows us a chance to dream and look forward to the future rather than the past."

SLOW PROCESS

But with fewer than 10 percent of claimants compensated in the three years since the law came into effect, a key challenge for Santos, who will start his second term on Aug 7., will be to ensure all victims receive reparation and that it is safe enough for displaced families to return home.

"There are victims who are coming forward after having waited for years to be recognised by the state," Paul Gaviria, who heads the government’s victims' unit, told an audience of female war victims at a recent event in Bogota.

"We know women have confronted barriers in accessing the law because of a lack of information, not knowing the process and distrust of public institutions,"Gaviria said.

"We’re starting to break down the barriers by making female heads of households and victims of sexual violence a priority on the register."

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