Fatima Muriel Florez: “We are always defenders of life because many women have been killed and many girls and boys have been abandoned… completely abandoned.”

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Author: Oliver Smith

By Oliver Smith, LAWG Colombia Intern

“Kill us while we’re talking, because we’re not gonna endure this abuse anymore.”

  Fatima Muriel Florez. Photo: Oliver Smith.

On November 4, 2016, Latin America Working Group had the pleasure of hearing from Fatima Muriel Florez at the Washington Office on Latin America. Fatima is an educator and ardent advocate for both women’s and human rights in the department of Putumayo, Colombia.

Fatima spoke eloquently about the hardships that women in the rural department face as a result of the country’s long and brutal war. Witnessing and living through the adversities of the conflict ultimately spurred her to found the “Association of Women Weavers of Life,” in 2005.

Fatima herself has worked for over 40 years as an education supervisor and has implemented programs aimed at keeping children in school. These programs have targeted middle school-aged youth in Putumayo, who are often forcibly recruited and exploited by guerilla groups. Moreover, she also created a statewide network of youth and women’s houses that aims to forge spaces to shelter and educate women and youth at risk of being abused by the different conflict actors. She has also organized many valuable workshops for women. All of these projects have helped to strengthen these often isolated communities.

“We, the women, have called for a strategy of life and have organized for 15 years because of the war and because they have killed many women, removed many kids, and raped thousands of women. These are the armed actors, the paramilitaries, the FARC, and the oil companies. All have used women. And for this, we have organized to defend ourselves.”

Fatima has also been an important voice for women in the peace process between the FARC and the government. During the negotiations, she traveled to Havana where she was able to speak up for the women of Putumayo, who have been disproportionately affected by the conflict.

“I was invited to Havana by the Commission for Peace, where we can voice the many requests received from the women in the department. The first that came out was, ‘don’t recruit our children for the war.’ The second is that we want access to our land for cultivation and life. And the third is that we needed the participation of more women in the peace process.”

This kind of advocacy makes a big difference for women in the region, especially those who have been victims of violent acts and displacement. Unfortunately, many women are discouraged from organizing due to strict gender roles and the many men who do not wish to see women in positions of power. These social realities make it difficult for women to stand up for themselves, and have ultimately prompted women leaders, like Fatima, to find innovative ways to fight for their rights.

“We are always defenders of life because many women have been killed and many girls and boys have been abandoned… completely abandoned. We have already organized and we have constructed and formed three main pillars in our organization to defend ourselves. First, human rights and peace. Second, political participation. And third, development and environmental protection from organizations such as oil companies. With these pillars, we have emphasized the work that is to be done with women.”

Other issues that Fatima works on include women’s labor and land issues. In Putumayo, it is incredibly difficult for women to find work that pays well. Yet, they are often the only providers of income in their households. For these reasons, many have turned to cultivating illicit crops, such as coca, to sustain their families and put food on the table. Fatima and other community organizers are aware of the dangers of coca production, but also recognize the necessity of job opportunities for women. Thus, they promote substituting cocoa crops for the coca ones.

In terms of land rights, women are more often denied ownership and are the target of forced displacement. Since most land titles are not in women’s names, for years oil companies as well as other multinationals have been successful in pushing women off their lands and destroying their crops. Fatima and her colleagues are vocal critics of these unjust practices, and they work with the women in Putumayo to devise creative ways counteract these practices.

“Sexual violence and human trafficking that occurs within our borders cannot remain with impunity.”

LAWG stands in solidarity with Fatima and her critical work. We pledge to continue working alongside advocates like her, who provide a voice for vulnerable populations across Colombia.