by Gerry Emmett
In the remarkable documentary film, La Toma (2012), Afro-Colombian woman activist Francia Marquez Mina is threatened by government forces and forced to spend each night sleeping in a different place for her safety. (See “Afro-Colombians Throw Off Shackles,” Nov.-Dec. 2012 N&L.) She has described the experience of people in her community this way: “We’ve been able to take measures for self-protection. Information isn’t shared with strangers when they come asking.”
Silence may be the oldest recourse of oppressed communities. A new study of Afro-Colombian women called “Defeating Invisibility” represents a bridge out of silence.
It is compiled as part of the Afro-Colombian Women Human Rights Defenders Project being developed by the Black Communities’ Process. Described as an “exercise in hope,” the study was based upon “women’s testimonies collected in workshops and activities intended to reconstruct memory and stimulate thinking” in order to “shed light on the structural violations of human rights faced by Afro-descendant women.”
The reality of racism, and the rhetoric that covers it, have contributed to the invisibility of Afro- Colombians. Politicians have held that the lands where Black people lived could produce nothing of value. This has continued right through to discussions of the Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. To the contrary, for Afro-Colombians the land has been where they escaped enslavement, mined gold from the streams, and grew crops—the means to freedom and self-determination.
In the racist context of capitalist development, Black women have been hard hit. In the context of ongoing civil war, they have been attacked by both sides.
As the study reports, “Women have been squashed and assaulted in our own territory, and everywhere, by different armed groups legal and illegal, who kidnap us, kill us, rape us and humiliate us.” When women make efforts to hold their communities together, they become targets for attack as human rights defenders. “The precariousness of Afro-descendant women is reflected in their life expectancy, which is 11 years less than that of the mestizo or white woman and 2.1 years less compared to men of African descent. Mortality rates of Afro-descendant children are another tragedy….
“In the public sphere, the manifestations of violence against women are expressed through oppressive forms such as poverty, lack of access to education, health and sexual safety…internal displacement, and sexual violence perpetrated by armed actors to exert control and political persecution. The violence in the private sphere manifests mostly through physical and sexual violence perpetrated by emotional partners, members of the family or those close to it, or by armed actors. Sexual violence as an instrument of war has created patterns of ‘naturalization’ of violence against Afro-descendant women….”
A VOICE AT THE TABLE?
In articulating the problem, the women of the Black Communities’ Process are also critiquing the dehumanization now common to both the multinational corporations and the lost revolution of the FARC guerrilleros. Colombia’s capitalist exploitation and distorted development can’t be separated from the racist prison-industrial complex in the U.S.
One might speculate that Colombia’s recent history could have been very different if would-be revolutionaries had started from the consciousness of the most oppressed, the Afro-Colombians and Indigenous peoples—not only because they would have learned the jungles and mountains are more than the terrain of guerrilla war, but because the narrative of these communities’ histories is the story of resistance to the growth of capitalism in the Western hemisphere, and in the world. The current struggle against international mining companies, agribusiness, and other exploiters is the latest chapter of this history.
As peace talks proceed between the FARC and Colombian government, it is important to make sure that—this time—the voices of the most oppressed people are heard.
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for a digital copy of “Defeating Invisibility.”