Carmenza Alvarez is a human rights defender in Colombia and works for an organisation supported by CAFOD and Caritas, Women’s Initiative for Peace. The role is a dangerous one, in 2014 alone 614 human rights defenders were attacked and 55 killed.
For International Women’s Day on Sunday 8 March, Carmenza discusses inequality and being trapped in the middle of a fifty-year conflict. She recently spent time in Europe as part of a joint CAFOD, Caritas Colombia, ABColombia and EC project, which sought to help protect human rights defenders in Colombia, with a particular focus on land restitution claimants, women and minority groups.
“In 1991 I was working in a restaurant. It was in an area frequented by the left-wing revolutionary group, FARC. My son was at school and studying. When he finished for the day, a group would come for him and supposedly take him to play football.
“One of the visitors to the restaurant, after about two months of this, came up to me and said, ‘Sister, I’m going to tell you something. They’re preparing your son for war. Save him.’
Rescuing my son
“I felt powerless after being told this. Powerless and afraid. I knew I had to do something, but I knew it was important not to rush in. So I waited for a week and thought about what to do. I was sure I would have to leave my job and to take my children with me so that they were safe. But I knew I would lose everything.
“After a week, I went to the FARC military base. It was 10 in the morning. I walked in and took him from them and put him on a bus. In the early hours of the next morning, I left, giving up everything – my job, my house all of my possessions. I didn’t see my son again.
“What gave me courage to do this? I don’t give birth to children for the war.
“I was displaced like this – having to abandon everything, to lose everything – two more times.
I have changed now
“I am so different from that young woman in the 90s. That person no longer exists. I feel 100 per cent different. I have trained since then. I work with other women who have been displaced. I’m more mature. More positive. More understanding. I’m finishing my studies.
“But I would not choose to have been displaced because the displacement has left scars. There is the scar of losing everything. The scar of being separated from my children. The scar of having to give them up for their own safety.
“It is difficult talking about this, but I want to. Every time I talk about these things – my displacements – it hurts a little less.
“I’m speaking out not for me, Carmenza, or my organisation, I’m speaking out for my country because of the inequality I can see.
Inequality in Colombia
“This is an inequality between men and women. Colombia receives a lot of support from international organisations, but there is a lot of inequality in communities.
“And the inequality is a structural one throughout the Colombian system.
“For example: a Colombian congressman earns 27 million Pesos a month while a worker earns 625,000.*
“Those at the bottom earn nothing compared to those at the top.
“The protection of the former president costs a lot and it’s paid for by the national budget. Human rights defenders have no protection. No guarantees.
“Women in Colombia – we want peace. But we want peace with equality, peace with equity and peace with social inclusion.
“There won’t be a peace without inclusion or equality.”
*27 million Colombian Pesos is £6,982, while 625,000 is £162, making a congressman’s salary roughly 43 times greater than that of a worker. In the UK, the basic annual wage for an MP from 1 April 2014 is £67,060; while a worker on the minimum wage of £6.50 would make £13,124 gross. This makes an MP’s salary approximately five times that of someone on the minimum wage.