Ruta Pacifica: Colombian Women Against Violence

Alejandra Miller Restrepo, Cauca regional coordinator of Ruta Pacifica de las Mujeres, talks about this thirteen-year-old movement of Colombian women against violence. The group is famous for groundbreaking direct actions joining campesino, black, indigenous and urban women in massive mobilizations or "rutas," often held in locations controlled by armed groups who target women.

ImageAlejandra Miller Restrepo, Cauca regional coordinator of Ruta Pacifica de las Mujeres, talks about this thirteen-year-old movement of Colombian women against violence. The group is famous for groundbreaking direct actions joining campesino, black, indigenous and urban women in massive mobilizations or "rutas," often held in locations controlled by armed groups who target women.

I spoke with Miller Restrepo in December 2008, a month after Ruta’s most recent mobilization, as the Colombian "false positives" scandal of the army killing civilians and claiming them to be guerrillas continued to generate headlines, along with widespread speculation about changes to come from the new Obama Administration. Her comments on how Ruta has opened space for women in Colombian society reinforced my concern that too many activists in the US and Colombia are setting aside what they know intuitively about the pace of change – that it comes from below, through the steady work of movements like Ruta that can take advantage of moments like this one to push the government leftward only by building on years of grassroots organizing.

Ruta continued that steady work with national demonstrations on February 1st, 2009 in cities across the country, to support the presence of women activists in Colombians for Peace negotiating the release of hostages held by the FARC, and demanding a negotiated end to the armed conflict, which the government opposes, refusing even to recognize the existence of legitimate armed groups.

When and how did you get involved with Ruta?
I heard about Ruta when I arrived in Popayán to attend the University of Cauca in 1999, and got involved then. Since 2002 I’ve been the regional coordinator.

How would you describe la Ruta?
We’re a movement of women against war, founded in 1996. We’re feminist, pacifist and anti-militarist.
We have two fundamental objectives: 1. To make visible the effects of war on the bodies of women. On our bodies because women’s bodies are sites of conflict in war, and it’s historically a particularly grave type of violence. And we must denounce the violence of war.  2. Insist on a negotiated outcome to the war. The militarization of territories creates more war and pain, the only way to end it all is through political negotiation. 
How was the group founded, and how is it structured, as a national coalition?
ImageWe have nine regions as a national movement – Putumayo, Cauca, Valle del Cauca, Chocó, Risaralda, Antioquia, Bolívar, Bogotá, Santander.
Now, today, we have 350 grassroots organizations as members – like neighborhood organizations, groups that deal with productive work for women, all subscribe to our platform. 
Ruta was founded in 1996. During a national meeting of women organizations, some monks visited us to tell us about the condition of women in Mutatá, where paramilitaries had come and occupied the town, and abused 90% of the women and girls. They implemented forced recruitment and made the women domestic servants, and essentially sex slaves. When the women activists present heard about this, they decided to have a national mobilization – a journey, a ruta – to that municipality to tell those men to respect women’s bodies, and let the women know they aren’t alone. Many national organizations signed on. More than 2,000 women traveled there. We chose November 25th, the International Day Against Violence Against Women, for that and all subsequent mobilizations/rutas. We tell all armed actors – paramilitaries, the army, guerrillas – to respect the rights of women. We’ve organized two rutas in Barrancabermerja in partnership with the Organización Feminina Popular (OFP), plus mobilizations in Chocó, Putumayo, Nariño, Cauca and Bogotá. Last year for instance we traveled to Nariño to the border with Ecuador to express solidarity with refugee women there.
Rutas are fundamental to our work. In 2002 for example 2,000 women traveled from across the country to Puerto Asis in Putumayo, when it was completely militarized by paramilitaries and the army. We traveled over mountains, inhospitable terrain. It had great symbolic impact – the paramilitaries had prohibited any travel after 6pm. We said, "well, you have to shoot at 100 buses or stop all of us," we kept going through to stand up for the civility of women.
Ruta and the OFP are part of the international Women in Black network.  Black means we’re in mourning because of the war.

You’ve sent delegations on tours in the US. Are you in contact with any feminist groups there?

Yes, we’ve met with Code Pink.

Political education is obviously a big part of your work – we’re meeting here in your office, the walls are covered with drawings and posters created by workshop participants. Can you describe the education work, and also your other programs?

Yes, we organize political education seminars. Right now we have a political education school, covering themes like feminisms, pacifism, conflict resolution. There are currently 40 women attending the school here in Cauca, they meet every 15 days for 3-4 months.
Political intervention and advocacy is also an important part of our work. By that I mean that we intervene in local/regional political processes, with government authorities, to address the concerns of women in the armed conflict. 
We also conduct research and publish reports. Sexual violence is an important theme for us, which almost no one talks about. We don’t just file denunciations, we conduct research, produce reports and other documents about the reality of sexual violence, through stories and statistics.  For instance we published a book on how aerial fumigations affect women in Putumayo – their skin, their children’s health.  
Our investigations also focus on how women and women’s bodies are used as a war strategy by armed actors. These serve to, first, prove that we are valid interlocutors, because we’re rigorous in our documentation. They also show that women’s bodies are disputed territory in the conflict. 
Ruta is a coalition of organizations, many of which have men and women members. Can you describe the role of men in relationship to Ruta, both in the coalition and human rights movements generally?

ImageIt’s tough with the men because they think this is a theme, not a problem in itself, and it’s subordinate to other issues. The relationship with them is not a struggle in the same sense, but they often do deny and diminish violence against women. It’s hard to get it on the national agenda. For instance, the Organization of American States has a commission following the paramilitary demobilization process. We published a book about the effect of the process on women, how they’re being harmed, and they inserted maybe a few sentences about it in their official report.  
Some men say we’re very exclusive. No, this is just our space. And regardless, very few men have expressed interest in participating and supporting us. That said, the empowerment politics we practice has encouraged women to get their husbands to take more responsibility for childcare and domestic work to make it more possible for them to attend.
From looking at the visual art used in your demonstrations, and the language and photos in your publications, like women painting on their bodies, I see a lot of symbolic use of the body as a metaphor, and of a very explicit kind of political language. Is that accurate?
It’s a politically symbolic language – we think about how symbols of war are constructed, how they’re implemented in society, and how to uninstall them and install symbols of life.
The body, for instance, is fundamental, because we’re feminists. Our bodies are the first territories of autonomy, and they are expropriated, exiled, beaten, violated… it’s been critical to express resistance, such as after the 2004 Massacre of Bojaga, a municipality in Chocó. The only access there is the Atrato River, and at the time the paramilitaries controlled it. During a confrontation there with the FARC, in the middle of town, many fled to the church, where 119 were killed by a bomb lobbed inside. No one could get into town because the paramilitaries controlled the river. So ten to fifteen women from the Ruta committee in Quibdo, nearby, dressed up in colorful clothes, brought their tambores, and headed down the river on a small boat, singing alabados, traditional Afro-Colombian songs. The paramilitaries didn’t know what to do, but they let them through. They were the first people to reach the survivors.
In the United States, a national organization that also has local chapters, INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, has called attention to the particular ways that violence impacts women of color and communities of color in the US. Do you as an organization make distinctions in how violence impacts women differently?
Absolutely, we have participation from indigenous, Afro, campesino women. For instance in Chocó we mostly have Afro members, and here in Cauca indigenous women.

Young women particularly, violence affects them in a distinct way. It’s much more aggressive sexual violence. They’re the preffered victims for forced recruitment, and their bodies are used as arms of war. They are preyed upon emotionally. The police for example get young women to infiltrate the guerrilla, which always ends in them assassinated. In Jambaló here twelve women from ages 12-17 have received death threats from the FARC for allegedly being romantically linked to policemen. Pregnant women linked to members of the armed forces are often reported by the State Family Commission in Putumayo as being malnourished. We’ve held protests against the army checkpoints and camps that they setup even in kids’ parks, big tents where they often lure young girls.

Campesino women that live in trafficking regions also are seriously impacted by incarceration. Over 90% of the prisoners arrested for alleged drug trafficking in Putumayo are women. They are sentenced to nine years for transporting a tiny bag of cocaine, the same sentence paramilitaries get for participating in massacres, meanwhile huge trucks filled with the stuff travel freely.  

Have Ruta members been targeted for political violence?

This year our national coordinator, Marina Gallego, was threatened after a national mobilization we participated in with MOVICE on March 6th against all armed groups, demanding an end to violence. A leader of a Ruta group in Medellin was assassinated in October. Another of our leaders in a LGBT group, the Pola Rosa, was threatened and had to move in December.

The organization is unique among Colombian social movements, because you’ve declared yourselves pacifists. How does that stance play out in relationships with other groups? 

ImageYes, it’s one thing to distance yourself from armed groups, and another entirely to call yourself pacifist. Some people say, "ok, the armed way is one way, it’s not mine, and this is really a problem between the guerrillas and the government," but I think a lot of people disagree with legitimizing some armed groups. As pacifists we think any war is unjust. It was a struggle for the organization to decide that. It’s a debate everywhere. But we don’t share the armed struggle, we won’t legitimize it in any form. We say all armed groups should leave.

And internally it’s a continuing process. Just like it’s a process for each organization, each woman to learn about feminism – many of the organizations you could say haven’t completed their internal struggle with feminism. It’s the same with pacifism. And that’s why we have the political education workshops.

Andrew Willis Garcés is an organizer based in Washington, DC currently engaged in accompaniment work with human rights movements in Colombia, and writes the blog