It has been a year since Ruth Alicia Lopez Guisao, a rights activist in Colombia, was assassinated by unidentified gunmen. She was an outspoken community leader that worked with Afro-Colombian and indigenous groups on land reform in the western department of Chocó.
Her family had lived for years in fear of paramilitaries, mafia-like armed groups that portrayed themselves as “self-defense” forces fighting left-wing guerrillas, but who were among the country’s biggest drug traffickers. This terror continued after her death as, according to press reports, her mother and sister received death threats warning not to attend her funeral.
Many people have not heard of Guisao, as her death was not widely reported in international news. Guisao was just one of 16 female activists killed in Colombia last year, according to Somos Defensores, one of Colombia’s leading groups reporting abuses against activists.
On International Women's Day, Colombian authorities should spotlight female activists like Guisao, who are being threatened and killed, and honor their contributions to human rights.
Despite Colombia’s programs to protect activists, the number of murdered human rights activists has increased after the signing of the 2016 peace accord with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). Dozens of local activists have been killed by armed groups, including paramilitary successors and guerrillas. Many of these cases seem to indicate that other armed groups are rushing to gain control of areas previously held by FARC.
According to Somos Defensores, out of the 560 defenders attacked in Colombia in 2017, more than 25 percent were women. Somos Defensores reported four cases of “extreme violence” against women—including torture, brutality, and sexual violence.Women human rights defenders face the same risks as their male counterparts, but are particularly vulnerable to gender-based threats and violence. In armed conflicts, threats of rape and threats against their families create an acute sense of terror for women activists.
In the face of increasing violence against activists, Colombia’s government should redouble its efforts to protect them—including in areas formerly controlled by the FARC—and prioritize investigations into their deaths. Women activists play a vital role. By protecting them, the government can do more to create lasting peace in the country.