Colombia’s peace deal, two years on: ‘We can’t stop now’

Since FARC fighters laid down arms, rightwing paramilitary groups have filled the vacuum. Photo: Mads Nissen / Panos

When they called on me to testify at the peace talks in Havana I had to keep it from my family. It was a ‘state secret’, because Colombia is so polarized; there are many who want the war to continue and so speaking out as a victim is risky.

But I was very excited, I accepted. I felt such emotion at being recognized, because as women leaders we have fought so hard and lived through so much to get here. Now here we were in this important space – where the war was ending – invited to speak.

‘Sometimes I don’t dare to look at WhatsApp for fear of death threats. But we have to carry on, despite the killings’

I was in the first delegation that travelled to Havana. I told a little of my story, about how the war had affected my life: I was displaced twice and, when I was 17, I was raped by paramilitary soldiers and members of the Colombian army.

I had never told my story in public before. It was a solemn occasion behind closed doors, told to an audience of government representatives, the FARC and the UN. I was profoundly moved by the experience, partly because I felt a powerful sense of responsibility. This was new. As victims of violence, we didn’t know how it would play out.

We spoke freely and they listened. We let them know what we had lived through as women, victims of both armed actors and the state. We testified to how sexual violence had affected girls, boys, indigenous and afro-communities differently and how each case required a distinct remedy.

Both parties approved our proposals. They agreed not only to stop firing bullets but also to introduce measures to bring an end to this type of violence, compensate victims, do justice and guarantee women’s participation in future. The ‘gender perspective’ that we brought to the peace agreement was a beautiful piece of work, so complete. Nothing was left out.

Now we are working to get the agreement adopted. In the organization where I work – which brings collective cases of sexual violence – we are tracking its implementation. Our next challenge is to have the sexual violence cases considered by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) [a transitional justice tribunal set up to try cases considered most representative of the war’s violence] and by the Truth Commission. This is the Colombian government’s chance to guarantee justice, but above all to guarantee that these events never happen again.

We know that under Ivan Duque’s [rightwing] government we risk losing many things that we have fought for. They [the far right] are vengeful: if there’s resistance in communities they will kill again. They do it to frighten us, to stop our work.

But we have to carry on, despite the killings, however harsh that sounds. If we gave in now, it would be as if our community leaders had died in vain. So I am determined to push for change, with all my worries and fears. It’s right to be afraid because these people are powerful and they have guns. But we are also powerful – because we have a proposal for a different kind of country, for peace. We have good things to offer society, and that means our communities will protect us somehow.

The hard times we’ve survived have made us stronger. Civil-society organizations have a great capacity to act, to make our voices heard. This is a critical time – sometimes I don’t dare to look at my WhatsApp for fear of reading death threats or whatever else might have come in. We do know it’s not easy to achieve peace, but we also know that living in a state of war is much harder.’

To read Christian Aid's report about progress made since the signing of the peace accord, click here.

Maria Eugenia Cruz Alarcón is the founder of Woman Follow in My Footsteps and the national co-ordinator of the Network of Women’s Rights Defenders, an initiative supported by Christian Aid. She spoke to Monica del Pilar Uribe Marín.