Historical Invisibility: A peace that does not include Afro-Colombian women

For more than 50 years, constant armed conflict has been the reality for Colombians. Caught in the crossfire between the Colombian government, leftist guerrilla forces (predominantly the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and right-wing paramilitary groups, hundreds of thousands of Colombians have been killed and millions more forcibly displaced.

However, this violence has not been evenly distributed within Colombian society. Rather, as one might expect given the devaluing of Black and Brown bodies, particularly Black and Brown women, inherent to colonial conquest and its legacy, the violence has fallen heavily upon the Afro-Colombian population. Afro-Colombian women, in particular, have faced extreme, and specific, violence, especially in areas controlled by conservative paramilitaries, whose ideologies clashed sharply with Afro-Colombian conceptions of gender and social hierarchy.

On November 24, 2016, with the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC, the conflict has officially ended. But while an important and welcome development, the peace accord is far from the inclusive document needed. Missing are the voices of many victims, especially the Afro-Colombian women, and the violence they were forced to endure.

After months of letters, requests, and meetings with high profile political figures -including US congressmen-, Afro-Colombian and indigenous leaders managed, on the last day of the first agreement negotiation cycle, to ensure that an "ethnic chapter" would be included. The chapter, initially 300 pages, was reduced to 4 pages in the first agreement, which were reproduced almost identically in the second, final accord.

However, beyond brief lines on the protection of ethnic groups’ rights, no set of norms, guidelines or principles aimed at protecting the rights of those women who belong to ethnic or racialized groups were introduced. This intersectional view was also omitted in the sections on the protection of women affected by the conflict, which do not address the harms and needs of Afro-Colombian and indigenous women. Such obliteration is extremely disquieting given the specificity and gravity of many of the damages caused by the war to Afro-Colombian women –and indigenous women- damages which are not equivalent to those faced by their racial or gender peers.

The Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies (CISPS) at Columbia University, an interdisciplinary think tank aimed at engaging with intersectionality to analyze a range of social problems and developing inclusive policy that takes into account the specific burdens of those at the intersections of identity, commissioned a 90-page report delving into the particular vulnerabilities faced by Afro-Colombian women and the need for a markedly different approach to remediating past violence against them.

Through this research it became clear that central to the harms committed against Afro-Colombian women was a divergence between their community’s conceptions of womanhood and the way invading armed forces in the region view women and value their bodies. In many cases, the armed forces, many of whom were racially, geographically and culturally alien to the spaces they were invading, attempted to impose their “vision of womanhood” by force.

For example, along the coast of the state of Cordoba, a primarily Afro-descendant region, women have traditionally held a great deal of autonomy and are often outspoken. The invading paramilitaries who believed women were best consigned to traditionally conservative roles within the domestic sphere, viewed these outspoken Afro-Colombians as a threat and labeled them rebels and liberals.

In an effort to demonstrate the “proper” role for women and impose a racialized and gender hierarchy upon the local community, paramilitary leaders would frequently subject the Afro-Colombian women to harsh punishments. These punishments were aimed at demonstrating that the bodies of these women belong to men, particularly the white men who made up the paramilitaries and, thus, stood at the top of the social hierarchy. Women who contradicted their husbands in public, for example, were forced to perform traditional domestic work in the paramilitary camps, such as washing the entire troop’s clothes and collecting harvests.. Other women, who were believed to be having relationships with men other than their partners, were forced to wear signs or had their bodies physically marked to read messages such as “I am unfaithful” or “I am a gossip.”  

Moreover, the paramilitary commitment to a racialized hierarchy was predicated upon an, often publicly expressed, conception of Afro-Colombians as animals. This two-fold dehumanization of Afro-Colombian women enabled the paramilitaries to perpetrate extreme forms of violence, including routinely locking women for days in empty rooms (no bed, no floor tiles, no toilet or fixtures of any kind) to be repeatedly raped by commanders.   

Afro-Colombian women and girls were subjected to multiple “regulations” with regards to their external expressions, their social relationships and other aspects of their social presentation, often enforced by rape or other forms of sexual violence. In the port city of Buenaventura, where about 90% of the population is Afro-descendant, one of the regional newspapers reported armed groups distributing threatening pamphlets calling women “whores” and “sluts,” as well as more overt threats like “keep wearing those revealing skirts and blouses and you will end up raped or killed.” It is no surprise that there has been a proliferation of reports of forced and teenage pregnancies involving armed actors, coercively imposing the colonial vision of Afro-descendant women as sexual objects.

For many women the violence proved fatal. In many of the  historically Afro-Colombian cities, authorities have noticed an increase in femicide. While the overall homicide rate has dropped in these regions, the murder rate for women has actually increased.The percentage of women murdered increased from 6% to 9% between 2008 and 2009, only to rise to 11% in 2010.

Often, the killings were presented as punishment for affiliations with the “wrong” side, real or perceived, and meant to send a signal to guerrilla sympathizers. The 2007 murder of a 16-year-old girl in Buenaventura, who was hung from an electrical tower and displayed for her community to see is just one horrific example. It is clear that violence, both sexual and physical, was not only deemed acceptable because these women were considered less than human, but was viewed as an active tool to enforce a racialized and gendered hierarchy with Afro-Colombian women securely at the bottom.

There is a clear discriminatory logic here that has relapsed violently onto the bodies and identities of Afro-Colombian women. When we think about the new Colombian peace, we cannot ignore this history. We must  acknowledge the specificity of the violence against Afro-Colombian women, who are endangered in ways that neither Afro-Colombian men nor white Colombian women are.

Without an intersectional frame, provisions such as the general guidelines in the peace agreement may seem sufficient. There is, after all, some language that deals with ethnic/racial minorities and some language that deals with violence against women. But many of the forms of violence faced by Afro-Colombian women do not fit exclusively under the categories of racism or sexism, and tools designed to attack racism and sexism exclusively will not be sufficient to address them.

A genuine effort at building peace in Colombia must recognize and adequately address the harm Afro-Colombian women have faced, and the structural causes of violence they have historically faced, so they are not denied, once again, the enjoyment of the peace promised.