The Experience of Women Human Rights Defenders in Latin America

Madres de Plaza de Mayo - Buenos Aries
Madres de Plaza de Mayo - Buenos Aries

During my visit with the Passionist Sisters in Argentina in 2002, they took me to the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aries to see the Madres take their symbolic Thursday walk around the plaza. This organization of mothers and grandmothers has fought for over three decades to find their missing sons and daughters, who were abducted by agents of the Argentine government during the years known as the Dirty War (1976–1983). The Madres de Plaza de Mayo have inspired women throughout Latin America to become human rights defenders in their own countries.

Today, many human rights defenders in Latin America, like the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, are survivors of the “disappeared.” In Mexico the practice of forced disappearances was commonplace in the 1970s. It is estimated that 1200 people were disappeared nationally.  Relatives of the disappeared, who are mostly women, have gotten together to find out what happened to their loved ones. The Mexican government has made it difficult for them to find out the truth by leading them on a legal goose chase. In 2000 the Fox administration set up a special prosecutor to look into the disappearances. 19 individuals were arrested in connection with 13 cases. No one was found guilty. Before this office was terminated it issued a detailed report regarding the disappearances, blaming them mostly on the army, even though it continued to investigate only civilian involvement.  After the special prosecutor was terminated, the cases were handed back to a non-specialist court, which is under-staffed and under-resourced and therefore unable to follow up.

Sadly, forced disappearances continue in Mexico. The army and para-military groups are taking on tasks usually undertaken by police, resulting in rape, murders, massacres and forced disappearances. The victims of forced disappearances are usually social and community activists that seek to change living conditions for the peasant population. Mexico has signed on to international human rights instruments, but always with reservations that reduce their effectiveness.

In Colombia, where 3-4 people continue to be disappeared every day, the mothers, daughters, sisters and wives of the disappeared have organized to support one another and to demand the return of their relatives alive. Gloria Gomez, a member of one of these groups says, ” Forced absences made us human rights defenders. Made us brave. Made us stand up for the rights of the disappeared. Made us demand that the truth be heard in Colombia.”

Ironically, Colombia has laws on the books that are a model for combating the practice of forced disappearance and for recovering victims alive, but they are hardly ever enforced. No one is ever punished. Instead prosecutors in Colombia pursue human rights defenders for imaginary crimes. Those who peacefully promote human rights are singled out for intimidation through baseless investigations and prosecutions. Unfounded charges are often widely publicized, stigmatizing the accused and marking them as targets for physical attack by paramilitary groups. The false charges often allege that the defendants are members of FARC.  Alvaro URIBE Velez the President of Colombia has accused human rights defenders of being terrorists.  Often, human rights defenders accused in this way and eventually acquitted by the courts have been murdered or disappeared.

Gloria Gomez – “It’s not easy to be a woman human rights defender. You have to leave behind your privacy, your family and your safety. We didn’t want to be human rights defenders, but like the mothers of Plaza de Mayo in Argentina we have to find out what happened to our loved ones.”

Visit these sites to learn more and find out what you can do to support these brave women.

http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/index2.aspx

http://www.madres.org/

http://hub.witness.org/en/DualInjusticeExcerpts

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