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Women in Colombia Endured Horrific Abuses During Decades of Conflict. Now the Female Candidates Who Won in Elections Will Reshape the Country

7 minute read

Sporting a short haircut and stylish square-rimmed glasses, Claudia López, 49, shared a jubilant kiss with her partner after winning the mayorship of Bogotá on Sunday. It was a historic moment for Colombia, marking the first time a woman and openly gay candidate was elected as mayor of the capital city. It was also the country’s first local and regional elections since the 2016 signing of a controversial peace deal between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which ended a gruesome half century of civil war.

The journalist-turned-politician, who won with over 35 percent of the vote, is a member of the centrist Alianza Verde, or Green Alliance party, and served as a senator of Colombia. She stood as a vice presidential candidate for Green Alliance in the nation’s 2018 presidential elections. This year, López ran for mayor on an anti-corruption platform and challenged the positions of right-wing politicians, promising to advance equal rights for minority communities and women. Her victory marks the country’s shift away from the political elite, and indicates a desire in the residents of Bogotá for a transition to more liberal policies. On January 1, 2020, she will be sworn in as Mayor of Bogotá, a position widely considered the most important political office in the nation after the Presidency.

López’s election to office marks a significant moment for the women and girls of Colombia. Decades of conflict have subjected Colombian women and girls to gross human rights abuses, including murder, displacement, physical, emotional and sexual harassment and rape.

Groups of armed actors and gang members have used, and continue to use, women’s bodies as weapons of war, says Sara Fernández, a professor at the University of Antioquia in Medellín. “They appoint little girls as girlfriends to gang chiefs. There are forced pregnancies, forced maternities, forced abortions as well.”

Sitting in a brighly-painted office adorned with edgy feminist art, women’s rights activist Sandra Isaza of the Feminist Antimilitarist Network in Medellín discusses the lack of protection provided by the government and the measures Colombian women are forced to take to protect themselves from femicide (when men kill women or girls based on their gender). Civil society organizations are establishing accountability networks, buddy systems and check-in plans to ensure the safety of vulnerable women, she said. But still, it is not enough. “We reported cases of seven women who filed a lawsuit [in 2018]…and the State didn’t do absolutely anything, and they were killed,” Isaza says.

Most women in the country have experienced, or know someone who has experienced, violence, harassment, rape or even murder. While the full extent of the magnitiude of sexual violence is still being determined, data show that Colombia has the 10th highest femicide rate in the world.

“There’s very little credibility, very little legitimacy, and very little trust [in government institutions],” adds Fernández. “And that has a lot to do with sexism, and the misogyny this culture has.”

Colombian women have long been engaged in social activism through grassroots organizations and civil society. The Feminist Antimilitarist Network held several large protests in 2018 and 2019, gathering nearly 1,000 women and marching against femicide, gender-based-violence, discrimination and other challenges they face in society. But for the first time, many women are beginning to recognize the power of working from within the political system to create change.

“I believe that the possibility of saving the lives of women when we’re in power is fundamental. In this moment, feminist organizations are doing the job of the state. We, as a social movement of women, have…put pressure with marches, actions,” says Isaza. “Women have seen the mobilization as a way to influence and denounce the violence against women.”

By joining the political machine, activists believe that women will be able to take their agenda to the next level with the full resources of the state behind them.

“The idea is to create a movement that gets to have representatives, that gets a political base and that lays the foundation for a trustworthy, honest movement that really pushes for women’s policies,” says Fernández.

But it can be dangerous for women running for office, many of whom had to contend with very real threats in the run up to the vote. According to a report published by the Electoral Oversight Mission of the Organization of American States, Colombia’s Ministry of Interior received more than 300 complaints of political violence against women based on gender in 2019. All the complaints were made anonymously, “a fact that reflects the cost it has for women to make this violence visible,” the report states. Seven candidates, including Karina Garcia, a liberal party candidate running for mayor in Cauca, were killed. According to local media, Garcia, a wife and mother, was campaigning when she was attacked by gunmen who then set her car on fire. She had been receiving threats for weeks. One of Garcia’s last acts was to post a video in which she said that armed men had targeted her volunteers and issued threats against them advertising for her campaign.

Despite the violence, this election became a defining moment for women to raise their voices through the power of their votes. In addition to López, female candidate Virna Johnson was elected as mayor of Santa Marta. Another eight women were elected to mayoral positions in the region of Cauca. For the first time in Colombia’s history, an indigenous woman—Mercedes Tunabala Velasco—is one of them.

In the city of Medellín, Estamos Listas (We’re Ready), a gender-focused political movement spearheaded by women, also succeeded in placing a candidate on the city council. Estamos Listas’ platform centers around issues of violence, femicide, poverty and other hardships facing women and girls.

The numbers still do not reflect widespread change. There were 6.2 men for every 3.7 women candidates. A survey analyzing the results of the mayoral races in different municipalities found 121 women elected out of 1,101 total candidates, representing only 11 percent of the population. The 130 women elected as mayors in the 2019 elections actually represented a three percent decrease from the 134 women elected as mayor in the 2015 elections. And in the city council race in Medellín, two women left and two new women joined, keeping the total number at five women on a council of 21 representatives.

Women’s participation in Colombia has been edging upwards since the year 2000, when the country passed its law of quotas, which mandates that at least 30% of public offices are held by women. But now, experts say, simply having female representation is not enough to help address the many problems facing women and girls.

“Being a woman is not enough. We need feminists,” said Rocio Pineda, one of the godmothers of feminism in Colombia, who believes the moment requires liberal female candidates who are unafraid of standing up to men and promoting agendas that prioritize the needs of women and girls.

October’s electoral races held a broader symbolic significance because many of the elected women come from alternative, progressive or liberal sectors, and from feminist social movements. This, and the success of Claudia López’s election, means women in Colombia remain optimistic.

“I’m thrilled with the results in Bogotá,” says Fernández. “A good mayorship by Claudia is a great presentation card for her to run for President later. It’s a big bet, and I think she has the bravery and the brains to aim for that.”

This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation as part of its Adelante Latin American Reporting Initiative.

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