2007: Yolanda Becerra
- The conflict in Colombia has changed and is being solved in different ways, says Yolanda Becerra, chairman of the women’s rights group Organización Femenina Popular. But the situation in Colombia is still difficult, socially, politically and economically. And since weapons are being laid down in many places, other types of violence emerge, both in society and in homes.
Colombia has been marked by a lengthy armed conflict that during the last six decades has taken tens of thousands of lives. In the autumn of 2012, formal peace negotiations were initiated between the government and the FARC guerrilla, which gave rise to a tentative optimism. But the conflict, originally about the unequal distribution of land, is far from over.
What is the security situation like for you today?
- Even if some changes have been made, it is still dangerous to defend human rights in Colombia. Especially for our organisation, which defends women‘s rights. But we keep doing our work.
I read a newspaper item recently where it said that you had received a death threat in the street?
- Yes, our organisation has received many threats this last year. They threaten us and they threaten the children of our colleagues. We have received phone calls where they have threatened us, they say that if we keep working the way we do we are putting ourselves in danger. We hear comments that spread terror and fear among our women. It is not easy.
Are you afraid?
- I think all of us are afraid all the time – and always have been. It is not an easy situation. But with support from international organisations, from countries such as Sweden, with the support from social movements, from women’s movements, we have learned to shut that fear out.
Do you have a bodyguard?
- I have three bodyguards and a bulletproof car. It’s part of the security that we have built up. The car is from our government, which has promised us the security we need. This is helpful to poor organisations, since we don’t have the financial resources to pay for one of these.
Do you have moments of doubt?
- There are times when you want to pause for a while, but I have no doubts. We have a clear task, a set goal and we see results every day. Every time we save a life, every time we see that a woman can liberate herself, every time we see that a woman realises her capacity and can stand up for her rights, every time we have saved young people from armed conflict – then we become stronger and even more convinced that what we are doing is right. Sometimes we might want to quit, when we are physically exhausted because the situation wears us down, since we constantly expose ourselves to danger, fear and anxiety. But we never lose hope.
How have the threats affected and changed your life?
- I have stopped feeling like a normal woman, normal in the sense that there are many everyday things I cannot do. During many years I couldn’t go to a school meeting with my children, for my own safety and that of everyone else. I lost a lot of time with my children, we could never be together in public spaces, we could never sit down on a street corner and eat ice cream, for example. During long periods I could never go shopping, I was not allowed to go to markets or to shops, in places with lots of people, since there was a risk of a deadly attack.
I am a woman who is very fond of motorcycles, it is such a good mode of transport, but I had to stop using mine. I was not allowed to expose myself to that kind of risk. I have been forced to change flats, my neighborhood and even the city where i live. It is a price, a high price, to pay. Many times, I have been forced to sleep and live with members of the international peace brigades [peace activists from other countries who periodically do voluntary work in Colombia]. They followed me around the clock, at work, during nights, they slept in my home to protect my life so that I could go on with my work. Yes, it changes one’s life, it is not what you would call normal.
All women who are in the public eye, who fight for human rights, live with this. It also limits your opportunities for love and the possiblity to love, because it makes you so unusual and it is very hard to find a partner. You become a woman who is admired, but nobody wants you in their house because it’s too dangerous.
Has the Per Anger Prize meant anything for you and your work?
- To receive a prize like this is an acknowledgement of a type of work that is stigmatised and persecuted in many contexts in this country. But it is also a protection, so that we can carry on our engaging work for women’s lives. The prize received attention in local media, and even nationally, and we were recognised. An award like this strengthens us as an institution and in relation to the government.
The Living History Forum wishes to note that these interviews are based on the personal testimonies of the prize winners. It is not an objective, factual account by the authorities.
Organización Femenina Popular has worked for human rights, equality, women’s liberation and social justice for more than 40 years. They organise women in villages and cities all across Colombia, give them legal aid and guide them through everyday problems. They offer education for women regarding their political and economic rights, and show them which social and cultural rights they have. They organise demonstrations and meetings to influence opinion and improve women’s situation in society.
Yolanda Becerra was awarded the Per Anger Prize in 2007 after being nominated by Amnesty International.
The citation of the jury for the Per Anger Prize
“For tirelessly defying armed force in an intimidating environment, in order to strengthen the voices that risk being silenced, the Organización Femenina Popular is awarded the 2007 Per Anger Prize for humanitarian and democracy-promoting work.”
The Living History Forum works with schools to engage students in issues of human rights.