Colombia’s kairos moment
We are in Colombia during a kairos moment.
We are here, specifically, to witness firsthand the work of the Organización Femenina Popular (OFP), a KAIROS Women of Courage: Women, Peace and Security (WPS) Program partner. The OFP is a long-standing KAIROS partner, and it inspired the program, which helps women, who are impacted by violence, empower themselves and become peacebuilders. Funded by the Canadian government and Canadian donors, the WPS program is in its sixth and final year.
The OFP invited us to visit the country’s Magdalena Medio region from Nov 20-26 for a reason. While the OFP staff accompanied us to the various towns in the region, and within Barrancabermeja where it is headquartered, they were also actively preparing for the National Women’s Vigil for Peace and Participation, held November 25, the International Day of Non-Violence Against Women.
Witnessing their planning and engagement with women in their communities was akin to taking a masterclass in grassroots mobilization – in this case building political will for the country’s policy of “total peace” with the participation of women.
What exactly is total peace? It’s a vision and now a policy developed by Colombia’s new government, led by Gustavo Petro, to build peace through negotiations with all armed groups.
The OFP is mobilizing women to play a key role in this process. Yolanda Becerra, the OFP’s National Coordinator and one of its founders, emphatically stressed that without women’s active role, this total peace mission will fail.
Women have been on the receiving end of violence for thousands of years – whether during times of war or in their very homes. In empowering themselves – psychologically and spiritually and working together long-term to release violence’s terrible hold – societal transformation is given fertile conditions to take root, grow and – may we dream – flourish.
When total peace was first proposed, many in Colombia questioned it, including the OFP. They wondered, is total peace even possible? It did not take long, however, for the OFP and other Colombian civil society organizations to embrace this bold vision. What else but bold visions will mobilize a people so utterly exhausted by armed conflict, which has raged for decades in the country and continues despite the 2016 peace accords?
In my brief encounters with the women who have benefited from the OFP’s psychosocial, legal, and economic empowerment programs, I noticed that there is not just a deep hunger for this vision but a confidence that they deserve it and are key partners in its realization. I saw it in the way they confidently introduced themselves and their pride in their participation with the OFP.
The women with whom we met at an OFP Assembly in San Pablo were busily preparing for the vigil and determining who would travel to Barrancabermeja to attend the community event and who would light a candle at home.
This is an organization and a country nourished by symbols. The vigil, the lighting of the candle, is a powerful symbolic act. It knits together the women and men committed to peace, giving hope and momentum. Momentum is key here.
Yolanda emphasised that this vigil is part of a process.
“Why are we doing the vigil,” she asked in a meeting leading up to November 25. “Why are we doing all the labour [to make it happen]. Each activity is building a process…. It needs to be built in regions as a pedagogy for peace. Women need to know how peace is built. As long as each woman does not assume responsibility, we will not have peace. It’s a social movement of women…. The OFP is transforming the country and all women. It is now. It is our time.”
The National Women’s Vigil for Peace and Participation is one step in a process leading to March 8, Women’s Day, next year. Just as it served as a motor in the mobilization of the vigils, the OFP is playing a key role in galvanizing what they hope to be a million women marching in Bogotá on that day.
The organization acutely feels the urgency of this kairos moment – when multiple crises have converged and opportunities arise for transformational change. It is deeply concerned that the government’s total peace concept will be undermined or cut – a real concern if the Petro government is voted out of office in the next election.
The fragility of the moment came to the fore upon our return from San Pablo. We learned that the government had replaced the High Commissioner for Peace who is tasked with negotiating with the guerrilla (ELN and FARC dissent groups), as well as organizing dialogue tables with other illegal armed actors. The hope is that the new High Commissioner will be more effective than his predecessor in negotiating with multiple armed groups.
The pressure to get this right is intense. We learned that corporate news media outlets are denouncing the total peace idea, despite it being only about a year old. We are told that corporations are too invested in the illegal economies that are driving the current conflict.
There were also threats and acts of violence leading up to the vigil. In Sur de Bolívar, a conflict area, approximately 1,000 people were forcibly displaced the day before the vigil. Women were tied up and tortured. Close to where we were, paramilitary groups issued veiled threats to instill fear in women planning to travel to the city.
The situation is complicated and messy and seemingly impossible but the OFP, civil society and women are resolute in their support for the government’s total peace despite it all. And on November 25, the people showed up. Women, men and youth in more than 70 territories throughout the country raised their voices and demanded the cessation of all expressions of violence while allowing progress in the construction of total peace.
During the vigil, the OFP presented its Women’s Manifesto for Peace in Colombia. In it they “acclaim the policy of total peace with social transformations and with dignity for women and all people.” They also write: “We will remain standing despite attempts to intimidate and silence our struggles for the reconstruction of the social fabric and the preservation of memories. We reaffirm that we are seeds of life and we did not bring life into the world for war.”
Several hundred people attended the vigil in Barrancabermeja. It wasn’t the numbers the OFP wanted to see, but it brought together churches, civil society and others in an impassioned appeal for peace.
It also included us, KAIROS – one of the few international organizations present to bear witness during this point in the process. The OFP made it very clear on several occasions that our presence and solidarity vigils in Canada were critical.
Yolanda told us: “With all of you by our side, we feel strong.”
KAIROS will continue to walk with the OFP in solidarity in the months and years ahead, to hold a light in the face of violence’s dark pull. We will work with the government of Canada, through its Embassy, to provide critical support, and of course through the KAIROS Network, to help nourish the OFP’s efforts.
The Colombian peace process offers a beacon of light and hope in a world mired in conflict and war. If Colombia gets this right, what an extraordinary blueprint it will provide us all.
By Cheryl McNamara, KAIROS’ Communications and Advocacy Coordinator.