Colombia should celebrate its women activists

It has been a year since Ruth Alicia Lopez Guisao, a human rights activist in Colombia, was murdered by unidentified gunmen. She was an outspoken community leader who worked with Afro-Colombian and indigenous groups on land reform in the western department of Chocó.

His family had lived for years in fear of paramilitaries, mafia-like armed groups that presented themselves as “self-defense” forces fighting left-wing guerrillas, but were among the biggest drug traffickers in the country. This terror continued after his death as, according to press reports, his mother and sister received death threats warning them not to attend his funeral.

Many people have not heard of Guisao, as his death was not widely reported in international news. Guisao was just one of 16 activists killed in Colombia last year, according to Somos Defensores, one of Colombia’s leading groups exposing abuses against activists.

On International Women’s Day, Colombian authorities should shine a light on activists like Guisao, who are threatened and killed, and honor their contributions to human rights.

Despite Colombia’s activist protection programs, the number of murdered human rights activists increased after the signing of the 2016 peace accord with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). Dozens of local activists have been killed by armed groups, including paramilitary successors and guerrillas. Many of these cases seem to indicate that other armed groups are rushing to take control of areas previously held by the FARC.

According to Somos Defensores, of the 560 defenders attacked in Colombia in 2017, more than 25% were women. Somos Defensores reported four cases of “extreme violence” against women, including torture, beatings and sexual violence. Women human rights defenders face the same risks as their male counterparts, but are particularly vulnerable to gender-based threats and violence. In armed conflicts, threats of rape and threats against their families create an acute sense of terror among female activists.

Faced with increasing violence against activists, the Colombian government should redouble its efforts to protect them, including in areas formerly controlled by the FARC, and prioritize investigations into their deaths. Women activists play a vital role. By protecting them, the government can do more to create lasting peace in the country.