About Me

Valledupar, Cesar, Colombia
This blog will document some of my experiences of living and working in Valledupar, Colombia. I'm here working as a Junior Professional Consultant (JPC) for the UNDP through the United Nations Association of Canada's UN Professional Placement Programme. The posts for this blog will share my experiences of work, travel and culture in the Cesar region of Colombia's Caribbean coast and the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Three Workshops- A World Tour of Women in Action

Three more of our workshops on women´s social and political participation have taken place over the course of the last three weeks.  The clock is really ticking now, with only two workshops remaining before this project comes to a close.  On November 20th the 35 participants will be getting certified in gender education and women´s political participation by UNDP/PNUD Colombia! It has been an honor to have such a key role in this project and get to plan and facilitate these workshops week after week.  It really has felt like an exchange of knowledge and experiences, as every week I am learning so much from the participants about their experiences in Colombia´s armed conflict, and the ways in which they are beginning to get engaged politically and contribute to change in their homes and communities.
 The fourth workshop was held on October 23rd and focused on motherhood as a powerful political identity.  We looked at how motherhood has been used as a political tool, spreading international awareness of political injustices.  The social and political movement of The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, Argentina is a powerful example of hundreds of mothers and grandmothers that came together in protest of their sons and daughters who went missing during the years of Argentina´s "Dirty War" (between 1976 and 1983).

In this workshop, for the first time the participants were learning about women - mothers and grandmothers - who were confronting and demanding justice from their countries' military dictatorship.  It was an inspiring session, but one also filled with heart ache, as some of the women participating in these workshops have lost their husbands and/or sons to violence during Colombia´s long history of armed conflict.  The day ended on a motivated note however, with a number of women taking inspiration from the workshop, exploring the idea of starting up a newsletter or radio show on issues of motherhood and social/political justice in Colombia, as did the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.

For the following workshop, on October 30th, we explored my own research, work and study experiences in India.  Before moving to Colombia in early June, I had been living in India for ten months.  I was completing my Master´s at the University of Pune and, with the guidance of my late professor Sharmila Rege, conducted research on violence against women throughout South Asia.

Even though India has made international headlines regarding violence against women in recent years, very few of the participants in this workshop series knew about India, and even fewer knew about the issues of violence against women in that part of the world.  Some thought of India as a solely muslim country, while others thought India was perhaps a continent, not a country.  To try and summarize the complexities and contradictions that exist within one of the most diverse countries in the world, especially, in a three hour workshop is near impossible - let alone trying to sum up my own experiences with gender and development study and research.  As such, this workshop acted as more of an introduction to some of the factors that make India such a diverse place, and in particular what makes issues of violence against women so complex and systemic.  I also conducted a Skype interview with my colleague Viviana Jaramillo the previous weekend, which we watched at this workshop.  She and I lived together in Pune and were both studying with the Women's Centre at the University of Pune.  She is Colombian but has been living for the past year and a half in India, studying and conducting gender research for her thesis.  This was a special and unique opportunity for the participants to listen to a Colombian woman's personal and professional experiences of gender issues in India and explore connections between in Colombia and India.
Viviana and I in Pune, India.  February, 2013

Throughout the workshop we touched on issues such as India´s population of 1.2 billion and the overwhelming poverty and health challenges this country is faced with. We looked at the diversity of religious and ethnic groups and the internal conflicts that have risen in parts of the country.  I spoke about my research on the deeply ingrained caste-system and the gendered dimensions to this power hierarchy. We even looked a little at the country´s history of partition from the British Crown and its ensuing border conflicts in northern India, long-standing state impunity and the sexual violence against women that has taken place at these border regions.  Each of these issues has strong impacts on both men and women, but the prevalence of gender discrimination and violence against women, especially sexualized violence, dominates in all these areas.  It was an eye-opener of a workshop for so many of the participants who were learning about India and its gender issues for the first time.

A critical part of these workshops is linking global gender issues with the local context in Cesar and other regions in Colombia.  Although my presentations on gender issues and women's political participation outside of Colombia is a central part of the workshops, so too is the group work where we look at how different gendered issues and forms of political engagement play out in the Colombian context.  Each week we address a different topic and one or two groups make a presentation on the topic.  Some groups choose to speak about their personal or work experiences, others have done research and prepared presentations to the class, and others have chosen to get creative, performing a skit or mock interview to address the issue of the week.

The most recent workshop, which was held November 6th, brought the focus back to Latin America as we explored the histories of African Descendants (afrodecendientes).  Afrodecendientes make up 20-30% of the population of Latin America, and, like African Americans, are subjected to forms of racial descrimination and experience disproportionate levels of poverty and social exclusion. Many of the women who attend these workshops are of mixed african decent, with some associating with a "black" Colombian identity, while others do not.

This workshop provided an introduction to the inequalities and forms of discrimination that this population has faced. We begun right at the beginning, with discussing the capturing, ensalvement, and transatlantic move of subsaharan African´s to the Americas by European colonizers.  Just as with so many other religious and/or ethnic groups the world over, the generational impacts of colonization, cultural genocides and forced displacements can be seen for centuries.  African Colombian´s in particular have been subject to Colombia´s armed conflict on bother sides, as victims of internal displacement as well as becoming members of armed guerrilla groups.  This being said, Afro Latina women have played a key role in organizing and working for racial and gender equity across Latin America.  An emphasis of this workshop was to highlight Afro Latin American movements and organizations, especially Afro-women´s networks across the continent.  Next week we will be having two groups present on their experiences as afrodecendientes women and their knowledge of local and national organizations here in Colombia.

After having spent over six weeks together discussing issues that have really struck an emotional cord in each of us, a number of close friendships and connections have been made.  Some of the women I knew before the workshop series began through other gender related events in Cesar, however most of us met for the first time at the first workshop back in September.  I've learn't so much throughout the past few months, and these workshops have become the most profound and important part of my work here. Every week I feel so honoured and grateful to get to share my experiences and learn about those of my participants.  Two weeks left to soak it all in! 

1 comment:

  1. Kathleen- this project continues to amaze!!!
    I learn so much every time I read your blog - so cool to hear about the Afro Latin American movement! That must have been fantastic to be able to share your experiences with gender issues in India with your group in Columbia! That is itself is so amazing! And I can't believe there are only two weeks left for you to go. Time must be flying by so quickly.
    I'm so amazed by everything you do Kath.
    Un abrazo y besito,