Bristolatino’s politics editor Tilly Compton reports from Truth, Memory and Diaspora: The Seeds of Peace in Colombia, a week of events hosted by the University of Bristol on 16 – 19 October 2019, reflecting upon the innovations and challenges for Colombia’s truth commission. Tilly focuses on the talk, ‘What does it mean to be a feminist and learning truth commission?’
In an environment of increasing hostility and political polarisation, where violence rates continue to rise, with 2018 seeing the assassination of over 120 Colombian human rights activists or members of its vulnerable ethnic communities, it isn’t surprising that the battle for equality in Colombia has not been smooth-sailing. Historically, women’s lives in Colombia have been tainted by recurring patterns of social and political exclusion, and efforts to stand up for their rights have more often than not led to gender-specific threats and forms of sexual, psychological and physical violence.
However, this isn’t to say the issues of gender equality have been sidelined. On 16 October, the University of Bristol heard from Colombia’s own Alejandra Coll, a research analyst from the Gender Working Group of the Colombian Truth Commission, who is working to empower women by uprooting repressed memories and personal experiences of a past drowned in political conflict. In a world where women have been historically absent from peace agreements, Colombia’s stands as one of the first of 40 international commissions that is comprehensively gender-sensitive, taking steps towards investigating the truth behind one of the longest-armed conflicts in history. For Coll, the purpose of listening to these individual testimonies is not only to ensure justice for victims so commonly subjected to sexual violence, displacement or rape, but also to reconstruct inclusive and appropriate post-conflict structures and policies within society to meet the demands and requirements of both men and women. In doing so, one can hope that the margionalisation of women in society will be reduced and that a space will be forged for a diverse, international, peace-building community to ensure that the horrors of Colombia’s past will not be relived.
Coll’s vision to give voice to the silenced does not only extend to women, but also to the LGBT community, who for years have been condemned and abused for existing outside the gender binary. Coll is working with NGOs to locate these victims, to support them in standing up against discrimination and to shed light on the horrors and atrocities that they have suffered over the years, firmly placing the blame in the hands of their perpetrators. In doing so, Coll and the Truth Commission are transforming the position of both women and the LGBT community in Colombian society. From vulnerable victims to agents for change, Coll aims to amplify their voice, encouraging inclusivity and diversity in the attempt to rebuild a broken nation.
Already one year into their three-year mandate, the Truth Commission’s task, however, is far from simple. The challenge to unravel tens of thousands of testimonies across the course of Colombia in just three years has been intensified due to budget cuts of around 50% during the first year of operations, making resources scarce and time as precious as ever. Coupled with this is the daunting task of getting vulnerable individuals to talk about their experiences. Many victims still live in the fear of their perpetrators and are frightened and ashamed to relive the horrors of their past. Overshadowing all of this, however, is the lack of support from the Colombian government surrounding the Truth Commission, with Colombia’s current president Iván Duque openly criticising the Peace Agreement back in 2018.
Approximately 25,000 victims of sexual violence were identified between the years of 1985 and 2016. What makes it worse, is that the horrors that these victims have lived through have been prolonged by society’s ability to silence the past. In creating a safe place for dialogue, the Truth Commission aims to contribute to transitional justice in Colombia, to heal the wounds of society’s most vulnerable, and to reshape a society so lost in conflict.
Photo Credits: Comisión de la Verdad