Oxfam demands the Colombian government take urgent action to protect female human rights defenders

•    Attacks against female rights defenders have increased by 97 percent in the first trimester of 2019 compared to the same period in 2018.
•    Women defenders are threatened and murdered to silence their work around land rights, the protection of natural resources and the environment.
•    Oxfam and partner organizations in Colombia are leading the campaign “Defend Her Voice” to raise awareness and urge action to protect female rights defenders.

Colombian women land rights defenders are being threatened and murdered at alarming rates for standing up to those prioritizing economic interests over natural resources, Oxfam said today. Oxfam is demanding the Colombian government enact and enforce immediate protection measures for women’s land right defenders. These protection actions should take into account the complex social context and particular needs of these women defenders, who mostly live in rural settings.

In Colombia, the number of attacks against female human rights defenders, which include other types of defenders such as land and environment defenders, increased by 97 percent in the first trimester of 2019 compared to the same period in 2018. According to the Colombian organization Somos Defensores, 16 women defenders were killed in Colombia in the first trimester of 2018.  

Women leaders and defenders have been specifically targeted due to their participation in Colombia’s peace agreement, which proposed alternative and more sustainable models for economic development. Since the signing of the peace agreement in 2016, the presence of legal and illegal extractive enterprises has risen in Colombia. This economic model based on the exploitation of non-renewable natural resources goes against the interests and livelihoods of Indigenous, Afro-descendent and rural communities. 

In Colombia, women land rights defenders are not only subject to threats, judicial harassment, travel bans and illegal surveillance, but also suffer violent attacks, forced disappearance, sexual harassment, threats to their family, and blackmail. In addition, their peaceful demonstrations are usually repressed by force. The increased harassment toward human rights defenders in Colombia, and especially land rights defenders, has also been recently condemned by the United Nations.

“Although male Colombian rights defenders are the ones who suffer the majority of attacks, the methods of attacks against women rights defenders are particularly cruel”, said Aida Pesquera, Director for Oxfam in Colombia.

“A man is killed, but a woman is tortured and sexually abused before she is assassinated,” said Jacqueline Romero, leader of the Colombian organization Fuerza de Mujeres Wayuu. “Women are more vulnerable, because crimes committed against us are much more severe and cruel. Many of our fellow sisters have been raped and they are told after, ‘this is for you to shut up’.” 

Oxfam demands the Colombian government urgently enforce prevention and protection measures for female rights defenders. These actions should be implemented according to the specific needs of the defenders, taking into account gender, ethnic and territorial considerations. The Colombian government should also ensure participation of women defenders in the enforcement of these measures

“The absence of women in Colombian politics, especially Afro-Colombian, Indigenous and rural women, detracts from the effectiveness of government measures that are supposed to overcome poverty and inequality, and guarantee women’s security. The majority of the government’s policies do not have a gender or ethnic focus – a clear form of institutional discrimination,” said Pesquera. 

Oxfam also demands the Colombian government address the unacceptable impunity levels surrounding the attacks and murders of female defenders. Oxfam is calling on the Colombian government to investigate all crimes against human rights defenders and ensure perpetrators are brought to justice. Official prosecution of these crimes will also help stop the stigma faced by human rights defenders in Colombia, who are often falsely associated with illegal armed groups by the very same authorities and public institutions that are supposed to investigate, as well as by the Colombian media, which sometimes falsely claims that threats or attacks against defenders are caused by personal problems or domestic violence.   

In response to this grave situation, Oxfam and partner organizations in Colombia are leading the campaign “Defend Her Voice” to raise awareness of the situation for female defenders and pressure the Colombian government to take action to guarantee the rights of women defenders. Organizations in the campaign include: Colombian Rural Women Political Influence Platform (Plataforma de Incidencia Política de Mujeres Rurales Colombianas), We Are Defenders (Somos Defensores) and the International Land Coalition. 

“When Colombian officials attend international events they publicly express their concern about the violence faced by human rights defenders, but once they are back in Colombia they minimize the issue. It is urgent to elevate this issue in the national agenda to stop the attacks and homicides of all land and human rights defenders”, said Pesquera.

Notes to editors

Oxfam works with women defenders in Colombia to improve prevention and self-protection measures, support their demands toward different political actors, and raise the visibility of their situation at national and international influencing spaces. 

More information about the "Defend Her Voice" campaign is available here.

Contact information

Sebastián Cifuentes in Bogota, Colombia | juan.cifuentes@oxfam.org | +57 315 8945209 

For updates, please follow @Oxfam and @OxfamenColombia