“We are women who dare to put a stick in the wheel and obstruct organized crime.”
Patricia Guerrero is a lawyer and human rights defender who helped found the League of Displaced Women in 1999, bringing together women who had been displaced by Colombia’s armed conflict so that they could reclaim their rights. Together they dreamed of a safe place to live. A few years later, under the leadership of Patricia who had tirelessly raised funding, the women themselves started constructing their own homes. And so the City of Women was born—a community of over 100 homes outside of Cartagena. Suitably, Patricia's last name, Guerrero, means fighter in Spanish.
How did your long trajectory of working for women’s rights get its start?
I graduated as a lawyer. During my time as a student, I fought against a system of oppression that was very strong in Colombia. Later, when I was an assistant criminal judge, I started to understand how criminal law was discriminatory against women. It favored men in many aspects, particularly in crimes of sexual violence. It wasn’t just that women carried the burden of having been raped. They were also being abused by criminal law. That was the start of my feminist inquiry.
Later, you founded the City of Women, a place where displaced women could live and run their own neighborhood. How did the idea come to you?
In the 1990's, forced displacement in Colombia was a silent displacement. But from 2000 onward, it was unstoppable—the war was causing mass displacements. This displacement tremendously affected women and families. I started to see this avalanche of women, dressed in rags, in the city. I started to look for them, to get to know them, and that’s how I started my work of documenting crimes of humanity against women in conflict, like sexual violence and forced abortions.
How have you worked with women to start them on their road to justice?
I was organizing against gender-based violence. That was my starting point. From there, we started to think about restoring other rights, like the rights to housing and education. But first, we had to get emergency humanitarian aid because women and families were dying of hunger. Later, as our organization became more educated on human rights, the very experiences of women helped us to understand which rights of women had been violated.
How did you help women start to become agents of change in their own lives?
I showed women how the family was also an agent of repression and violence against women. I could show examples violence happening to women not just in war at the hands of armed men, but at the hands of their own husbands! I was able to ignite a fire among these spirits, showing them the enormous discrimination against women in the conflict. And I would say to them, “Look what we have to do now: we have to organize!”
You, The League of Displaced Women and the City of Women, have received death threats. Why?
A community that demands rights and makes itself visible is more difficult to intimidate and displace. So a threat becomes a tool for whichever armed actor, or politicians even, who start to lose control over their territories. I think that in the case of the League of Displaced Women, it was because we were carrying out this resettlement in an area controlled by paramilitarism. We are women who dare to put a stick in the wheel and obstruct organized crime.
What do you think are the challenges that exist today for women in situations of gender-based violence, especially in the context of armed conflict?
Advances for women have to shift from a place of activism to taking leadership. We can’t stay on this second political level concerning decisions that take place in the world. I see a setback on what we’ve achieved as feminists over time, especially when it comes to the issue of abortion, and the control of our own sexuality and bodies—there’s been a strong regression there. We have to defend what we have achieved, because it is very clear to me that there is a growing consciousness within patriarchal capitalism that women’s ascent to political power must be prevented.
Colombia recently reached a peace accord with the FARC. How does it address gender issues?
Gender is a crosscutting theme in the peace agreement. The serious issue is that of justice. In this new structure of transitional justice, the perpetrators—the military, guerrilla, financiers—have to confess their crimes. When it comes to sexual violence, historically—not just with what happened with paramilitaries here, but in other instances of transitional justice—crimes of gender-based violence aren’t confessed. That’s the point: will they confess to gender-based crimes, to sexual violence crimes, that they committed in the conflict? That’s my big question.
Do you think the transitional justice system is designed in such a way that makes it easy to avoid telling the truth?
There is enormous impunity of sexual violence in the ordinary justice system. So why would one think that in a different system, that this wouldn’t be the case?
The system appears to be designed to incentivize telling the truth—because if one doesn’t, and their crime is discovered, they’ll be subject to heavy sentences. But if no one comes forward about sexual crimes, and they happened in silence...
... Exactly. We talk about guerrilla commanders, but these peace accords include amnesty for the rank-and-file. That’s an important gap, because I don’t think the Colombian state will have the capacity to investigate, or that these transitional justice structures will succeed in revealing an issue that is so sensitive, and over which there aren’t any investigations. For me, the breaking point—the point of rupture—comes when there’s recognition that women have been used as a weapon of war, that sexual violence is a way to control communities. When that is recognized, it will be a big step forward.
Read about the City of Women here.
Visit The League of Displaced Women's website.