In August 2007 she was released but is unable to live in Arauca. “They [the state] wouldn’t let me return. They would get rid of me again if I dared” she tells me. Yet last Tuesday we are on a bus together travelling to Saravena for the First Assembly of AMAR (Organisation ‘Awakening of Women in Arauca’) As the event unfolds I see what drives Raquel to return .
Raquel was an outspoken and active member of the Teachers Union of Arauca for the twenty years before her arrest. It is as a passionate educator that her contribution to this assembly is really important to the growth of this young organisation (just 2 years old – very young in Colombian terms).
She tells me that in the assembly there is a session for exchange of experiences and wants me to speak. I ask S~ what she sees as the difficulties to participation in AMAR. Answer: choices controlled by jealous (or insecure?) husbands; societal pressure to be a ‘good’ wife and ‘good’ mother (so stay at home to cook, clean and bring up the kids), a cycle of women being told they have nothing to contribute outside of the kitchen, never learning new skills and thus reinforcing the myth that they are of no use; those who do break the cycle have their contributions criticised and undervalued. Constant battles with self-esteem
For many women just getting permission to attend the assembly is a big deal. A tactic used is to be very attentive to their husbands in the run up so they can get a pass out. Tellingly, the women who live this reality do not tell me this. A two-day event, with underconfident women is very little (compared to two-days with confident trade unionists) for building trust across differences.
I decide to share with them my community’s response to me being sexually harassed in Bristol. I had worries about doing this but decided to continue, and to also share the worries. I hoped they would contribute to building a space of truth and respect.
“I worry that what happened to me is so small that you will think why all the fuss. It is certain that far worse things happen to women in England and Colombia. But this does not cancel out the reaction that I had nor how it affected my daily life.”
I shared with them details of the harassment, how low level fear affected my and how it affected my confidence. I spoke about how if it wasn’t for the words and love of both informal and formal groups around me it would have been much harder; how my community took responsibility to hold him accountable for his behaviour.
This echoes the delicate path that AMAR are walking – holding men accountable for the violence within families yet clear that they are not the enemy. The women of AMAR wish to walk side by side with other social organisations, united against the violent policies of the government. It is already a hard task. They desire to build trust with men in the social organisations, showing them that that they are on the same side, build unity but just not ignore the shit the women have to put up with in their homes. Dignity for all, women and men.
“Alone, we are weak, our fears, insecurities overwhelm us. But together I had the strength and support to manage this situation. I see that AMAR can play a similar role for the women of Arauca. Creating a space where we can support each other, grow together, encourage each other, be gently critical without damaging our self-esteem. We must laugh together”
These were my honest words to these women. Speaking honestly with these women when I live such different experiences and priviliges is tough, it challenges me. I do not live surrounded by police, army, paramilitaries (who work alongside the army), and guerillas. When I share my perspective, shaped to encourage and support them, what accountability do I have to the suggestions I make? When I am told that to take action about an abusive neighbour is dangerous because you don’t know who they might be it reminds me how little I understand how this two decade long war over a land rich in oil weaves in to daily life. When I do not have to live with the daily consequences of my perspective what is my responsibility to the influence I may or may not have?
But as I spoke, nods, laughter and smiles held my hand and gave me a squeeze of reassurance. And it is these nods and smiles, not just to me, but to every woman who shared a part of herself, that makes AMAR such a powerful, exciting and necessary organisation. It is this womens’ space, where quiet women come alive with hidden energy and enthusiasm when we started talking about ideas for projects, where Sa~ shares an inspiring story of how she managed to help another women find her dignity and leave her violent husband, where we can dance together to end the meeting, that draws Raquel back in to the fabric of an Araucan social organisation. ”Having to live in Bogota and work on a computer all day as a continued prison, a form of pyschological torture.” Here she feels and acts with vibrancy I had not seen before. So despite the police monitoring of the house where we were sleeping, despite the nervous hands which shows what her face has the strength to hide, I imagine we will be back.