Returning home, but this is a beginning
We are all returning home after the Women of Courage delegation. It has been a rich and deep experience – unforgettable. I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to travel with these amazing women and to get a glimpse of Colombia through their eyes. I also appreciated working with my colleague John, who shares a commitment to Colombia and to women’s rights. It was so powerful to hear women who have experience colonization, discrimination and violence in their own context and who are working for healing and change in their own communities, speak to Colombian women about their shared experience. Some of us have spent over sixty hours on the bus during this trip to Colombia, traveling to Narino and Buenventura and accompanying women from these communities in buses to the international women’s gathering in Barrancabermeja. Although I have been to Colombia several time over the past ten years, I have never had this experience.
It was incredibly moving to hear delegates make connections to their own experiences and contexts. Jill spoke about the similarities in the importance of women and land to Indigenous communities in Canada:
Women are the heart of the land. When women are dispersed the people become poor and scattered. 500 Aboriginal women have gone missing and nothing is being done. The men who committed these crimes are never called to account and the memories of these crimes are being erased. The similarities to the struggles of other women is encouraging us to take action.
At one point in the delegation Yolanda said:
Basically, the reason I decided not to “chicken out” of this delegation, is because we went through some of the same violence in Canada. I am glad to be here.
Vernie reflected the similarities with the Philippines: “ I am a delegate here, but these issues of militarization,development repression, resources extraction are also my issues”. Theresa spoke about the similarities with her work with women who have experienced violence in her communities, denouncing these violations to the police and ensuring justice is served, but also the need for healing. Cora reflected on her experiences with poverty in the Philippines, in Canada and in Colombia. Marie Do spoke from the experience of social movements in Quebec and Colombia and expressed surprise that despite grave concerns about human rights impacts, the Canadian Parliament passed the Free Trade Agreement in June.
I felt very proud of the delegation during our meeting with the Canadian Embassy on our last day. Delegates spoke about their experiences and the testimonies they had heard, relating them to their own experience. They also brought forward concrete recommendations and the messages we had heard from partners including the need for the Embassy to visit the regions and partners, the need for Canada to support international human rights missions to Colombia, the need to ensure that that the voices we heard are reflected in Canadian policy, the need for Canada to support a negotiated solution to the armed conflict in Colombia that includes women’s voices. There was a depth and humanity in this meeting. I think because officials were hearing from women who had themselves experienced violence, displacement and poverty and were working for change in their own communities.
In the last ten years I have learned so much from partners in Colombia, including the Organizacion Femenina Popular (OFP), about human rights violations, abuse and impunity in Colombia, but also about movement building, resistance with a feminine face and about hope. I wanted to be able to share this with other women – human rights defenders in their own communities. In planning the delegation we made a concerted effort to involve women who do not usually get the opportunity to travel and have these experiences outside their communities. I think we created a unique delegation which will have an impact that will go well beyond the women who participated. At one point Yolanda commented, “ A lot of times our reserves hear things last. We don’t get the opportunity for this firsthand experience.” I think if we want to make real change and create genuine solidarity, we need to reverse this trend.
I feel like this is a beginning. We have begun to get to know each others, to understand each other contexts and to understand Colombia. There is a depth of relationship and great potential. In our meeting on the last night we talked about follow up and several concrete actions were proposed including a commitment to do presentations, to meet with MPs, to write a comprehensive report to be launched on November 25- the International Day to End Violence against Women. Vernie proposed a women of courage delegation to the Philippines. We talked about a delegation to Canada.
On the last night Yolanda said, “ I feel like I left a little piece of my heart everywhere I went in Colombia”. This is the beginning of deep solidarity and ongoing commitment. The communities and women we met with asked us not to forget them to bring their testimonies and realities to Canada. I feel like there is a strong commitment within the delegation to do this and to continue to accompany these communities.
This is only a beginning.