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Bodily Harmonies: The Memories and Resistance of Women Human Rights Defenders

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What is the consequence for standing up for your rights and the rights of all women around you? Our partners in Colombia, LIMPAL, have recently released a report entitled Sintonias Corporales, or Bodily Harmonies, which found that women human rights defenders in Colombia battle with adverse mental health and psychosocial consequences after taking on such leadership roles in female activism.

“I’m scared to say I’m a human rights defender in public because I don’t know who might be against it, and the same thing is happening with the stigmatization that we’ve been feeling even from institutions” - Human rights defender, Meta.

Liga Internacional de Mujeres por la Paz y la Libertad (LIMPAL), is a feminist, pacifist and antimilitarist organisation that has been working on peacebuilding and the defence of women’s rights in Colombia for over 21 years. LIMPAL are our partners in Colombia, where we collaborate to support survivors of sexual and gender-based violence. Together, we empower and build resilience in women and girls through psychosocial support, counselling and building strong community support networks, so women feel better protected and enabled to become active in their community’s efforts for peacebuilding.

We work as part of the Dutch Consortium, alongside ICCO Cooperation and Mensen met een Missie, working towards UN Resolution 1325: Women, Peace and Security. The resolution calls on UN member states, particularly those states in conflict, to protect women's rights and ensure their participation, integration and contribution toward peace building and conflict resolution.

"We are human rights defenders"

Women human rights defenders continue to be targeted and murdered in Colombia. This places a huge burden on their mental health and psychosocial wellbeing. The Bodily Harmonies report was written through interviews with social leaders and human rights defenders from Meta and Bolivar. It aimed to understand the extent to which they have faith in the UN resolution 1325, and to expose the little explored issues of mental health and psychosocial consequences that these women experience as a result of their work.

Human rights advocacy work requires the taxing mental, emotional and economic efforts of the defenders, it effects their relationships, family and social life. Many of the defenders leave behind their own emotional needs to put themselves on a collective level and at the service of other women. They are often stigmatised from their communities, and many are targeted to violence and even murder. They experience extreme levels of stress, anxiety, physical exhaustion and fear over their physical protection.

“For these women, their leadership roles become a 24-7 job, with no rest. Leading also becomes an experience of fear, pain, indignation, and anger. We must not focus only on the threats and physical aggressions that these leaders experience while defending their territories, but also the serious psychosocial affectations that they suffer from.” Says Diana Salcedo Lopez, Director of LIMPAL Colombia.

A womens human rights defender holds a sign saying "They wanted to bury us but they didn't know we were seeds" in Bogota, 2019.

To cope with the added stress, many defenders need to take time off, to distance themselves from their defence work and take part in psychosocial services that are provided by LIMPAL and supported by HealthNet TPO. Counselling sessions and community support groups are vital for the recovery process of many of these women so they may continue with their important work.

A woman takes part in mural painting, one of the psychosocial support activities carried out by LIMPAL for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence in Bolivar, 2019.

According to the report, Colombia has no clear policy that responds to the physical and mental health needs, nor provides adequate psychosocial attention to women human rights defenders. The country has no clear action plan for Resolution 1325, which recognises the need for participation, protection and prevention guarantees for women and girls in post-conflict contexts. This limits the implementation of the UN resolution, and highlights the need to address this subject as part of sustainable and long-lasting peacebuilding efforts.

Samantha Moreno, one of the project’s researchers expressed

“we must refocus on the humanity of the defenders, instead of idealising them as “super heroines” who take on too much and forget to look after themselves. A true response to the psychosocial effects on women defenders is: sorority, working together, the need to protect, accompany, and look out for each other, and recognising that we feel and are stronger when we work together”.

LIMPAL are insisting that urgent measures be taken by the state institutions at a local and national level to address the needs of women defenders and to create a structural response to the investigation into the threats and risks faced by them.

They recommend creating spaces where psychosocial concerns can be adequately addressed and where women may reflect amongst a diverse group of female leaders and defenders to strengthen their psychosocial care and recovery processes.

Read the full report (in Spanish) here:

https://limpalcolombia.org/images/documentos/SINTONIAS_CORPORALES_DIC_19_1.pdf

An English version will be available soon.