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Interview with Elena Rey Maquieira Palmer - Fondo Lunaria - Colombia

Updated: Jul 4, 2023

About Ms. Elena Maquieria Palmer:

Ms. Elena Maquieria Palmer has been the Executive Director of Fondo Lunaria for the past 11 years. She has many more years of previous experience advocating for human rights including working at the Norwegian Refugee Council, Peace Brigades International, and conducting research on the implementation of UN Security Council resolution 1325 for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

About Fondo Lunaria:

Fondo Lunaria is a feminist organization based in Colombia. Part of what their organization does is provides funds to various women organizations to help strengthen the voices and autonomy of women in attempt to make Colombia an equitable society.

Gender Equality Statistics:

Gender Development Index: 0.989

Gender Inequality Index: 0.428

Classification: 1; high equality in human development amongst genders


Interview with Ms. Elena Maquieira Palmer (Shortened Transcript)

Conducted by Brooke Johnson and Emma Grace ReVille

Transcript Edited by Brooke Johnson and Emma Grace Reville

Sterling Soto:

What are some of the struggles you’ve personally encountered as a woman in Colombia?

Ms. Maquieira Palmer:

Quite often, because you are a woman, your voice is not heard, you are not taken into account. You can be in a human rights meeting, and you can explain things but be dismissed. Often you can say something, and suddenly a man beside you says the same, and he’s really taken into consideration, and you are not. Women don’t only speak about the issues of women. We can talk about the world or what is affecting the world right now. Our agenda is not only an agenda based on women’s rights but also, we fight for a better world. The representation used to be really low and people would say “there is no women who can talk about this…”, and personally, I don’t think that is true. The question is, we don’t think about that there are other women because the usual suspects invited to meetings are men. Another issue is that when we talk about the violence against women or the women’s agenda, you can feel like it’s not an important issue because we live in Colombia. There are systematic violations of human rights, people die, and it is a very difficult country to live in. The reality is then that if it’s a women’s issue, it is not important. I definitely believe that we will not get peace in this country if we do not fight inequality and violence against women. We need to talk about these issues because these issues will strengthen our community if we deal with them now. So yes, this is the kind of issue you must deal with.

Sterling Soto:

Have you seen changes in Colombia regarding women’s rights since you first began working for human rights?

Ms. Maquieira Palmer: A lot has changed. I’ve been working for more than 20 years, and I have to say, I feel it has changed positively. There are things that are not positive, but still the agenda of women’s rights is there, and everyone knows that. The presence of women has increased. There are still certain issues that are very difficult to deal with. For example, the rights of lesbian, bisexual, and trans women are still issues that the human rights movement or this country don’t want to face, and the issue that women have the right to control our own body, the right to abortion, which are almost taboos. In reality, the situation is better. There are some men who don’t like it, they will have to deal with it. Colombia is famous for having a very good legal framework, and we do have a very good legal framework. We have a lot of laws to prevent gender violence, but another thing is what happens every day in Colombia.

Lainie Parker:

What do you think is the most important issue women in Colombia face?

Ms. Maquieira Palmer:

This is a very unjust society. Poverty, no doubt, is one of the most important, even more after the pandemic. We have a very high percentage of the population living in poverty, and we have to deal with that. At the same time we have other important issues such as violence against women, race discrimination, an increasing social inequality as a consequence of the pandemic. Increasing inequality to access to the healthcare system, education. Numerous informal jobs, which disappeared with the pandemic. Dealing with the lockdown was very difficult for many.

Violence against women, as we know, around the world has increased dramatically in Colombia and everywhere. The last two weeks for example here in Colombia, we have experienced increasing gender-based violence in schools, just after classes began again. Definitely, race is still a problem too, as well as sexual and gender orientation, maybe because Colombia is still a religious country, with the Catholic Church still influential, although other conservatives churches are beginning to consolidate their position in the country.

Stu Lunn:

Can you describe the concept of machismo and how it affects women in Colombia?

Ms. Maquieira Palmer:

Machismo is everywhere here in Colombia, it is very embedded. Sometimes, I have to question myself about certain cultural issues that we accept and suddenly we realized that they are part of this machismo. We can find regional differences, for example Caribbean Colombia has its own machismo, as well as the rest of the regions. In general, a society is machista if it does not grant women the same rights as men have. Inequality is an essential element of this kind of society. There are well-defined gender roles: women must be in the kitchen, at home taking care of the children. Women must be mothers. The new Colombian generations are rejecting these ideas, but still, you can feel it every day when, for example, you take public transportation in Bogota. Sexual harassment is common, still women suffer it every day, and it seems that there is no social rejection. This machismo is embedded in our society, and it is very difficult to change it as fast as we want. It will be future generations that will put an end to machismo. That is my hope.

Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho:

Is the Colombian government using education to undermine gender inequality in Colombia? In your opinion, is education the right tool to achieve that goal?

Ms. Maquieira Palmer: I personally believe that education is the tool to change a lot of things in our society, a lot of unjust things in Colombia. The Colombian government is not promoting sexual/gender education in schools. They do not know how to do this. For example, weeks ago we read in the newspapers a terrible case. A young gay man who was attending a private school committed suicide because he could not deal with the situation created by other students. His parents went to the Colombian tribunals looking for justice. They won. Eventually the Constitutional Court to prevent other cases similar to this ruled that it was necessary to print and distribute leaflets in schools with

information about gender and sexual diversity. The anti-gay movement opposed that decision and the leaflets were removed from all the schools. There is not a clear policy.

Another important problem is adolescent pregnancy. And this is happening because they do not have sexual education, young women do not know how to take care of themselves, and the reality is they have to face unwanted pregnancies and unwanted families. So, yes, education should be the way to change many things in Colombia, and specially gender inequality. Unfortunately, the Colombian government is not implementing a clear and good strategy in this case.

Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho:

I have heard different opinions about when exactly we should begin with that education. What is your opinion about this? What is the role parents should play?

Ms. Maquieira Palmer:

I believe we have to start as soon as possible. Parents should create a good relationship to talk openly about any issue with their children. In my case, I have a son, and we have friends that are lesbian or gay or trans, and we have not hidden that: that is life. If we do not do that, our children will be living in a bubble with no contact with reality. In my opinion, this is the beginning of the end all kind of discrimination in our Colombian society. We have to instill those values since the beginning: everybody has the same rights, we all are equal, regardless our race, gender orientation or socioeconomic position. These are the values and the role of parents reinforcing those values is essential.

Lanie Parker:

How do you think political participation impacts women?

Ms. Maquieira Palmer:

This is an important issue not only in Colombia, but in the whole world. Women have less opportunities to assume political responsibilities, and experience in this case is also very important. And I definitely believe we women have to participate. Even when that participation doesn’t guarantee changes in the situation of women.

In Colombia, by law, political parties must include a fix number of candidates. This is what we call quotas. According to the law, political parties cannot reserved the less important positions for women. It is a question of equal numbers and equal responsibilities. Unfortunately, I do believe that some positive discrimination is necessary at least at the beginning. Sometimes it is necessary to force the situation.

We have just had an election in Colombia (last Sunday), and fortunately we have seen an increasing number of women who gained a seat in the Colombian Parliament. We have to make the Colombian society see this as “normal situation.” But, to vote for women because they are women does not guarantee that they are going to defend the rights of women. Now, we have a Vice President, who is a woman. Previously, she was a defense minister. Nevertheless, from those positions, she has not done anything to improve the situation of women. I think it’s also important for the youngest generation to see that women have the skills to do anything that men do.

Francia Marquez was among those who were trying to be elected to become a candidate to run for President of Colombia. She is an Afro-Colombian, human-rights and environmental activist, and member of the Estamos Listas movement. She is the first Afro-Colombian candidate to run for president ever. As I told you, the election was last Sunday. She didn’t win, although she obtained a very good number of votes. During her campaign she was talking about women issues and advocating women’s rights. This is no doubt good news because finally we are seeing a not-white, not-middle-class women playing a relevant role in a Presidential campaign. That is important for other black women, for other indigenous women, for women who don’t find opportunities, for Colombia...

Dr. Juan Carlos Sola Corbacho:

How long will it take to have the first woman as president in Colombia?

Ms. Maquieira Palmer:

It’s not easy. I think it will take time. Today, even with the existing legislation regulating quotes, it is not difficult to see the lack of political participation, with real responsibility even among the conservative parties. On Sunday, I was watching TV, looking for information and comments, and I found a channel with an only-men panel: six men and no women. It was shocking. Men’s control over the political system is still tight. It will take time. Going back to Francia Marquez, what she did was historical, very important for Colombia and even Latin America, but it is only the first step…

Lanie Parker:

What is the most important project that your organization is developing these days?

Ms. Maquieira Palmer:

Fondo Lunaria is a feminist fund. We give resources to several young women’s organizations in Colombia. It’s a way to fulfill their dreams. These organizations are working on different issues: promoting peace or preventing gender-based violence, advocating gender diversity or women’s rights. But although we are providing them with economic resources, we do not tell them what to do, and we do not impose how to do it either. They are free to decide, we believe in a very broad feminist approach.

Stu Lunn:

What was the research process when working on the implementation of the UN resolution 1325?

Ms. Maquieira Palmer:

We started the peace process six years ago in Havana, Cuba. UN resolution 1325 was a very important tool to demand the presence of women in that peace process and also to talk about the sexual violence against women in the country. Our problem currently is that the government doesn’t respect the peace agreement. Furthermore, at this point, young women, for example, do not believe in justice. They believe that justice only works with rich people. So, even now that we have implemented the peace process, we have a huge fracture. A commission was created

to unveil the truth hidden behind the political conflict during the last fifty years. The Colombian administration is also trying to find those who disappeared during the conflict. It is important to keep working in that direction not to repeat our mistakes. In these circumstances UN resolution 1325 does not seem to be essential to the development of this process. Hopefully in the future… I think the most useful thing about 1325 is the participation of women in all the steps of the peace process. The presence of women in all the steps of the peace process guarantees that it will be more sustainable.

Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho:

What is the first thing you would do if you were named President of Colombia?

Ms. Maquieira Palmer:

I think one of the historically unsolved issues in Colombia is the distribution of land. I would redistribute land. Land not only for men, but land for women too.

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