Two indigenous women displaced by armed conflict in Colombia.
Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

BOGOTA, Colombia (WOMENSENEWS)–Women constitute about 55 percent of Colombia’s 3 to 5 million internally displaced population, and a new land restitution law here specifies that special attention and security be given to them as they try to regain their land.

The personal stories of three displaced women living in the Bogota area, however, demonstrate how difficult it could be for the law to serve this purpose.

They were driven from their homes because of violent threats and none believe it will ever be safe enough to go back to the land they fled. They spoke in interviews conducted in the unmarked office of the Jesuit Refugee Service, which provides humanitarian assistance to displaced communities in the capital’s urban sprawl of nearly 8 million.

One 50-year-old single mother of five, who asked to be known just as Jessica, moved her family from Soacha, a city just south of Bogota that regularly receives the country’s highest numbers of displaced arrivals, back to their native department of Neiva last year. Since 2004, the family has been displaced three times because of violent encounters with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the guerrilla group known as the FARC. They stayed six months in Neiva before Jessica’s 14-year-old daughter experienced what her mother calls a forced child recruitment attempt.

“I can’t go back to where my daughter was threatened. It isn’t safe,” she said.

A 30-year-old mother of three also said her teen daughter’s safety impeded a return to her native Meta, a department known for its waning, though still apparent, guerrilla presence.

The family fled at the end of May one day after the woman, who asked to be known only as Rosio, received a second text message from a number she could not trace. The message said it was known that her 15-year-old daughter was dating a military soldier and that the family would be killed if they did not leave the town.

“We have lost everything and are left with only the clothing on our backs. We have no food, we have no jobs, but we cannot go back there,” said Rosio.

No Government Benefits

She, like the other women Women’s eNews interviewed, is not receiving any benefits from the government, though all the women and their families are officially recognized as displaced.

Colombia’s internal displacement crisis – the largest in the world – flows without limits, unbound by a lack of accurate data collection and reliable government services.

It is caused by a multi-layered, nearly 50-year-old conflict involving drug production and trafficking, communist guerrilla groups, right-wing successor paramilitary militias and the state.

The new land restitution law, called the Victim’s Law, aims to help people reclaim 6.1 million acres of the 16.6 acres of land they fled between 1998 and 2010 because of violence. It would also provide financial compensation to violence victims. The law, the first to offer any kind of compensation to the internal conflict’s victims, was first passed in June 2011.

So far, about 11 percent of displaced people have signaled they intend to access the Victim’s Law, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. But the country’s ongoing instability casts doubt on the probability of carrying out the promises of the Victim’s Law.

The government scored a major breakthrough with the November 2011 killing of FARC leader Alfonso Cano. Still, the Colombian Congress reports a strong ongoing FARC presence in about a third of the municipalities in Colombia. Human rights groups also point out a troubling resurgence of successor paramilitary groups, which the government considers unorganized, criminal gangs. About 30,000 paramilitaries united under the group United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, formally demobilized between 2003 and 2006, but many are thought to have since regrouped.

The United Nations and Colombia pin the number of internally displaced persons at about 3.6 million. Others say it is higher. Bibiana Ortiz, a researcher with the Center for Human Rights and Displacement, the leading Colombian-based nongovernmental research group, says that number tops 5.3 million, due to those who are not registered as displaced.

Patricia Guerrero, president of the League of Displaced Women, based in Cartagena, says the government must first “guarantee other things” before implementing this law.

“They cannot restitute land in a zone where there is only presence of the guerrilla and paramilitaries and there is conflict,” she said in a phone interview.

‘Equally Vulnerable’

Guerrero rejects the widespread view that women have been systematically targeted in the conflict. She says women’s problems have other cultural and economic roots.

“The women are not [especially] vulnerable. This is a patriarchal, machisto position,” she said. “To say that makes you that.”

It is rather the “violations, the violence, the discrimination, the hunger” that make all Colombians equally vulnerable to the conflict’s effects, Guerrero maintains.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office in Colombia says the Victims and Restitution Unit of the Colombian government has already “created internal structures in their institutions to attend to the needs of women.”

One major problem for women is that land titles are typically held in men’s names, said Donny Meertens, a Dutch anthropologist who has researched gender, land rights and conflict in Colombia for more than 20 years.

She said displaced peasant women arrive in major cities such as Bogota with their children, but without their husbands – either dead or long gone. “This means a complete disorientation. It’s a big increase in responsibility and they are not accustomed to talking for themselves, to finding a way to the right institutions,” Meertens said.

Corporacion Humana, a feminist research center based in Bogota, criticizes the law for offering few specifics about how it will help women. Another lapse, according to the group, is the law’s focus on a nuclear family, which has often been destroyed by the conflicts.

Father John Jairo Montoya, director of the Jesuit Refugee Services’ Bogota office, also has his doubts. “Women suffer the most and I do not see that the state really complies with these sentences that order special attention to the needs of women,” he said.

Adrianna Buchelli, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ focal point on the Victim’s Law, said they don’t have gender-specific information yet.

“So far, we don’t have any specific information about new problems that are facing women in particular, both in registering [as displaced] and in trying to have access to the [Victim’s] law,” she told Women’s eNews in an e-mail interview.

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The Victim’s Law, which remains in early phases of implementation, could take years to take full effect.

Amy Lieberman is a freelance reporter based in Bogota, Colombia.