There are few Colombians whose lives have not been directly or indirectly unaffected by the armed conflict between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). However, throughout more than 50 years of conflict, the damages have disproportionately affected a particular segment of the Colombian population, as national and international human rights organizations frequently indicate in reports. These reports unanimously agree that it is Afro-Colombians who have borne the greatest cost of Colombia’s bloodiest war. To illustrate, two million out of the six million people who are currently internally displaced by the conflict are Afro-Colombian. This statistic is especially troubling considering that Afro-Colombians compose only 10 percent of Colombia’s total population. Given the magnitude of this disproportion, it is vital that the concerns and interests of this historically marginalized people are taken into consideration at the peace negotiations that are currently occurring between the government of President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC in Havana, Cuba if lasting peace is to be achieved.
For this reason, WOLA interviewed Danny Maria Torres Ramirez, Coordinator of Women and Gender component of the National Conference of Afro-Colombian Organizations (Conferencia Nacional de Organizaciones Afrocolombianas, CNOA), a social organization working to protect human rights and to further the collective interests of Afro-Colombians. We had the opportunity to talk with Ramirez after her presentation, “Women and the Peace Process in Colombia”, at the United States Institute of Peace on 25 June 2014 in which she discussed the importance of addressing gender issues during the peace process. As a person with extensive knowledge of the problems affecting Afro-Colombian people, we interviewed Ramirez to learn more about the interests of Afro-Colombian communities in the peace process, the strategies that the CNOA is using to prepare communities to face the challenges of post-conflict, and the organization’s recommendations to President Santos’s administration to successfully overcome the major challenges facing Afro-Colombians.
Could you tell us about CNOA’s mission, and of the women’s component in particular?
The CNOA is the coming together of 246 organizations, which form a series of national support networks. Its members include organizations of women, youth, displaced persons, community councils, and urban organizations. Our mission is to protect the human rights of the Afro-Colombian people and to further their collective interests. We articulate these organizations’ proposals into political and legislative advocacy, organizational strengthening, advising on strategic communications, and territorial strengthening. All of these efforts are done with particular attention to gender issues (women’s rights) and generational issues (children and youth). In that sense, the women’s component focuses on constructing public policies that attempt to transform the adverse reality of Afro-Colombian women. Afro-Colombian women are a population that has been historically impoverished and marginalized; even by the armed conflict. CNOA’s work strategies vary widely, but its advocacy role in the executive and legislative levels of government is of high importance. Through advocacy, we seek to promote positive policies that help us solve structural problems such as political exclusion, lack of education and discrimination. We also work closely with our Afro-Colombian population base to help them develop their own proposals for local government and thereby bring about positive change.
As an organization that works with some one of the most vulnerable people to the conflict’s violence, what is the role of CNOA in building a sustainable peace process?
One of the most important roles of CNOA is to act as a bridge between Afro-Colombians and the state in order to establish a positive and constructive dialogue aimed at overcoming inequality gaps. We must continue to inform the government about many of the issues that affect our communities. A signed agreement will resolve a major social problem that has disproportionately affected our communities; we understand that a ceasefire between the government and the FARC will not end all problems, but it will lift a large burden of oppression and subjugation from our communities’ shoulders. CNOA continues to work to prepare communities to face some of the challenges what will arise in the post-conflict. If these challenges are not addressed adequately, their damage can be as bad as the war itself. In order to achieve this goal, we must conduct the relevant contextual and territorial assessments. For example, we have to be able to handle the reintegration of former combatants into civilian life. Similarly, we must prepare for the countersignature of the negotiation points because it is important to know, in the territories is where the war has been fought, how the final agreements have been established established. These are some of the challenges on which we must focus if the agreement is to be an actually framework for a sustainable and lasting peace, from this point onwards other challenges will unfold with time. Of course we must also continue to educate the general public on issues affecting Afro-Colombian communities and address the lack of economic and social opportunities that strip away our livelihoods and that continue to push us into the systematic violence that we have faced for many years.
In the event “Women and the Peace Process in Colombia,” you spoke about the need to build a culture of peace. What does a culture of peace mean and what concrete steps can be taken to build this type of culture?
When we speak of a culture of peace, we refer to a set of values and ways in which we relate to the people around us. With these values and ways of relating, we fully reject all violence, regardless of how harmless it might seem at first glance. Our everyday language is a clear example that we lack a culture of peace. For example, if you’re late for work, it is common to say ‘My boss will kill me’. This type of sentence reflects that violence has been normalized in our society and it leaves us without a way to communicate peacefully. To improve the situation, we need a conscious shift in the way we relate to each other in society; it will be necessary to alter the symbolism of our daily lives. We can achieve this change in two ways: a concrete way and a slightly more abstract way. The concrete way involves performing specific and visible actions of peacebuilding. For example, we can print brochures or letters where violence is denounced and then these pieces can be distributed in churches, schools and other meeting places. The abstract way has to do with issues such as the gender acceptance, diversity and promotion of sustainable equitable development. In other words, this second way involves constantly working to eliminate all forms of oppression or discrimination based on personal characteristics.
If the government of President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC sign a peace agreement, how would the role and function of your organization change?
If the agreement is signed our role will not change. The signing of an agreement achieved between two specific groups that have violated our rights ends a conflict between them, but our problems and how we relate these two groups will not change much with the signing of the agreement. For this reason, our role would remain the same. We will continue to promote a State that provide for all people. Unfortunately, Colombia is still 20 or 30 years away from achieving true peace for all citizens.
In what ways will the second term of President Juan Manuel Santos differ from the first term for Afro-Colombian communities? What recommendations would you give to the government?
In my personal opinion, I do not know if there will be major changes between the first and the second mandate of President Santos. President Santos has made many commitments to various social and political groups, which make it difficult to work, but luckily we are all striving for peace together.
If I could give a recommendation to the administration of President Santos, it would be to implement a programmatic agreement with Afro-Colombian communities. The agreement could address many of our issues and it is an agreement that can be achieved realistically. Another recommendation would be to change the way society views the involvement of Afro-Colombians in the conflict. Afro-Colombians are often seen as victims of the conflict, but it is more accurate to speak of our people as subjects of the conflict. Additionally, to combat problems such as racism, the government could implement various international conventions to which Colombia is a signatory. The truth is not all problems affecting Afro-Colombians can be resolved in four years but the government could lay a good foundation upon which future Presidents can continue to work towards a better life.
What recommendations would you give to the United States and other international donors to support Afro-Colombians in the transition from living in conflict to post-conflict?
It is important that the United States and other international donors continue to actively and enthusiastically support the initiatives of Afro-Colombian organizations in order to help Afro-Colombians as the country makes its transition from conflict to post-conflict. The agreement will establish a framework on which to build peace, but the agreement alone will not achieve peace. Although it is extremely important that the United States and international donors support the negotiations and contribute their resources and expertise to them, the agreement achieves a ceasefire between two groups that are removed from the daily struggles of communities. We, civil society organizations, play an important role in working to ensure that peace is built locally. Donors can help civil organizations with financial and technical resources to effectively address the challenges of post-conflict reality. We have to build peace together; everyone can be a “peace builder”. I always thought that if there are countries willing to bet on war, it would be easier and cheaper to bet on peace.
Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
I would just like to highlight the fact that Colombia and the Afro-Colombian people need the support of the international community to end the conflict and to begin to build peace. It is sad that there are generations of Colombians who were born and raised in war. This will be a long process, but we want to change the situation. We want Colombians to be born and grow up in peace.
This interview was conducted by Andres Cambronero, an intern with WOLA’s Colombia program in summer 2014.