When a seat on the city council can cost your life

Photo of Tania Hernandez Téllez

Tania Hernandez Téllez, local leader of the Rural Women’s Association of Peacebuilders. Photo: Andrés Cardona

Blog by Rikke Hovn Poulsen
Published: 8th March 2021
Posted in: Gender justice

In Colombia, local politics is about more than planning decisions and wastewater – it is literally a matter of life or death. Tania Hernandez Téllez, 41, is willing to sacrifice everything to play her part.

COLOMBIA: For 16 years, there had not been a woman on the San Miguel City Council. No one had dared to run, after the latest female elected official was brutally forced to her knees and shot in the head.

But in the autumn of 2019, something changed. A collective of local women from different political factions decided they were fed up with the violence, misogyny and oppressive inequality that ravaged their homeland. They felt like it was their time.

“The murder was like an alarm sounding in the heads of all the women in this area, which kept us from entering politics for many years. This meant that our voice was not heard in the system. We were not represented when decisions were made on the peace process or other important issues. But it got to a point where we did not want to put up with it any longer,” says Tania Hernandez Téllez, the local leader of the Rural Women’s Association of Peacebuilders.

There is no doubt that the 41-year-old woman with the sharp voice means what she is saying. Willpower radiates from under her broad-brimmed hat, as she talks about all the things she wants to change in her home region, Putumayo in Southern Colombia.

Tania is one of the women who ran in the local elections last year. She did not end up being elected, but somehow it does not matter. For her, it is all about the cause – not the person or the party.

“We were a broad alliance of women who made a pact: if one of us was elected, no matter who, we would all support and back her. It would be a huge victory for all of us,” Tania explains.

In her opinion, it is crucial that women are represented in all political assemblies.

“In this area, women are traditionally the ones who are connected to the land, family and nature. That is why, for example, it is important for us to take care of the Amazon and protect it from the mining industry. We have a completely different perspective on the world than men,” she says.

“Sometimes I hear people say that women need to get to the same level as men,” she adds. “But no, I really do not want that. Their level is bad! I want a peaceful and just life. I want our lives to be respected.”

At the national level, the proportion of women among the elected representatives went up by 11 percent in the local elections. There is still a long way to go for political equality. But it is going in the right direction.

A bloody election campaign

The Putumayo region was hit hard by Colombia’s civil war between the government, the FARC guerrilla group and various paramilitary groups and drug gangs, which lasted for over 40 years. Entire villages were slaughtered solely on the suspicion that the inhabitants supported the opposite side. Fear lurked everywhere.

Four years ago, FARC and the government signed a peace agreement. But violence still affects everyday life in many places – and those who work for peace are particularly vulnerable. More than 900 social leaders have been killed since the peace agreement was signed.

The year leading up to the local elections was extremely bloody in Putumayo, and many spoke of an actual femicide in the region. At least 18 female leaders were killed within a few months. Several female candidates were threatened, and some were even forced to flee the territory.

Tania experienced it for herself. After an assembly, she received an anonymous message saying: “It will be over my dead body that you will be elected”.

“I received death threats several times during the election campaign – sometimes they called me, other times they sent text messages. The message was that they would kill me and my fellow candidates one by one. Everyone in the community knew that I was next on the list,” she says.

Through simple research, she found out that the threats were connected to a man high up in the system. She did not report this knowledge, as it would practically be signing her own death warrant. But still, she went to the police with the threats.

“They offered me a small sum of money to go away. But where in the world would I go? And what about my family? It was the state’s way of washing their hands of it, not taking any responsibility. Their solutions have always been violent,” she sighs indignantly. “Either they send us away, or they send soldiers to take care of us. But that doesn’t solve anything!”

And Tania knows what she’s talking about. She has lived under police protection for long periods of time in the past. But in her view, it is not a solution – quite the contrary:

“It was awful,” she says. “I just wanted to be free from the cops who followed me everywhere.”

In Tania’s opinion, the only way Colombia’s social leaders will ever achieve real security is if the people have their basic rights fulfilled, such as access to education, work and healthcare, and if women become financially independent.

“A community that has its rights fulfilled will not allow itself to be dominated by armed actors from the outside. They will stand up for their rights and reject the violence,” she states.

Child of the uprising

Tania’s rebellious disposition continues a family tradition. Her father was a communist and trade unionist. He brought the family to the troubled Putumayo region in the late 1970s to support the rural population to organize themselves. But when Tania was three years old, he disappeared without a trace, like many other Colombians at the time.

“We never found his body. But I know that it was the state that killed him, because he fought for the rights of the poor rural population,” she says.

For the rest of Tania’s childhood, the family was internally displaced. She grew up to the sound of bullets – even as a little girl she learned to tell where the bullets were coming from by their sound. And she instinctively knew what to do to avoid them.

The family regularly moved from city to city in search of a safer life – but again and again they had to flee in the middle of the night.

As a teenager, she returned to Putumayo. With the fury she felt inside her, she could not help but get involved in politics, and she was elected as the student representative in high school.

It was in this role that she first learned how it felt to have a rifle against her head.

“I was angry that the militia wanted to use the school’s sports ground for soldiers’ barracks,” she says. “So I went from class to class with a megaphone to convince the students to protest with me.”

Tania managed to gather a large group for a demonstration on the sports field. They even started tearing down the barracks. But suddenly two armed militiamen appeared.

“My friends ran off in all directions, but I could not run – I think I was too proud. So I was left alone,” she says. “They held a gun to my head. And I felt sure that now they would shoot me.”

But, out of the blue, one young woman suddenly returned to the sports field. And then another. They stood close to Tania, making clear that they would not let the guerrillas kill her without witnesses. Soon, all the protesters were back.

“The soldiers gave up and returned to the jungle. And we were allowed to keep our sports field. Over time, that place has become my hometown park. For me, it contains an infinite amount of history,” she says.

Freed from being a princess

As a young woman, Tania trained as a nurse and married a doctor. In many ways it was a comfortable and privileged life. But the rebellion lived inside her, and she found she was never comfortable in a traditional, bourgeois environment.

“My husband thought I was wasting my time on politics,” she explains. “He wanted me to be a princess who looked pretty and wore nice clothes. He wanted to give me money so I could stay home and take care of him – I did not even have to clean or cook. Many of my friends were jealous. But I did not want to be financially dependent on him. It was not a life for me.”

In the end, this cost her her marriage. But she has never looked back. Because she feels that her political commitment is making a difference – and that the world is finally beginning to wake up:

“Brave women have always been part of the uprising here in Colombia,” she states. “It’s just that for a long time, no one has been listening to them. But now it finally feels like people around the world are starting to listen to us. And when others see what is happening, the state will have to respect our human rights. Together we are strong.”

Oxfam’s involvement

Tania's organization, the Rural Women's Association of Peacebuilders, is part of a national platform for women in Colombia, Asodemuc, which works closely with Oxfam. In this space, local organizations and leaders exchange experiences and build alliances to stand stronger in their common fight for getting more women involved in Colombia's fragile peace process.