Maria Eugenia, or Maru as she is known to those close to her, has been working for peace in Colombia since she was a young teenager. In 1991, after her uncle was killed, she felt angry and hateful about the conflict in Colombia. A friend encouraged her to not let her rage turn into vengeance, but instead use it to help transform communities most affected by the violence into places building sustainable peace. With this encouragement, she began to volunteer with the Interchurch Peace and Justice Commission and create real change for communities across Colombia. She believes that women, “as creators of life,” play an important role in human rights work because, “we can feel a greater responsibility in the defense of life and rights. Not just because we are mothers, but because we generate life.”
In addition to her work with the Interchurch Peace and Justice Commission, Maru now works with Communities Constructing Peace in their Territories, or CONPAZ. She is constantly traveling to some of the most violent regions of Colombia. She works closely with communities to fight for the recognition of their rights and build humanitarian spaces that offer peaceful alternatives to the armed conflict. She highlights the key role women play as leaders, representatives, and pacifists in the 155 communities with which CONPAZ works. As she says, “women are very resilient, are very tough, not just in defending life but in defending their land.” Just one example: in Cacarica, a CONPAZ community in northern Chocó, when paramilitaries threatened the lives of male leaders, it was the women of the community who agreed to be the ones to approach the armed men and ask them to leave their space and respect their pacifist principles. They acted as a human border to prevent armed actors entering their land. For Maru, it was powerful to arrive at the community in Cacarica and see a group of women stand up to armed actors in such a visible way.
Maru emphasizes that in human rights work, men and women need to work closely together. For her personally, she has greatly appreciated the support of her male colleagues at moments when she struggled to continue. She recalls a moment last year, when a community leader and close friend was killed. It really shook her, and for a while she was afraid even to leave the house for her own safety. She is grateful for the support of her male colleagues during that time, who came to visit her and accompany her when she was scared.
As the country moves forward with the implementation of the Peace Accords, Maru stresses the importance of gender. As a woman who was able to travel to Havana and closely follow the peace negotiations, she saw the role that women played in the negotiations and the presence of female leaders in many spaces in Havana. Gender was a theme that was supposed to transcend all the individual points of the peace accords, and she is working to make sure this is brought to fruition out of respect of all the females who advocated tirelessly for women’s rights. Within CONPAZ, where she works, gender will be given greater focus, as they strive to think beyond binary divisions of gender to include the multiplicity of ways people may identify and experience gender.
As Maru says, “women are the sewers of the social fabric.” She thinks it is critical for to follow the example of women pacifist warriors, such as the women in Cacarica, the women who participated in negotiations in Havana, and the countless other women who work tirelessly to defend the rights of their communities.