“I believe in faith in action,” says Lucy Talgieh, one of two international delegates who came to Canada as a part of Kairos Canada’s Women of Courage tour this month.
Talgieh, the women’s project co-ordinator of the Wi’am Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center in Bethlehem, and Claudia Lilliana Castellanos Roncancio, a lawyer with the Popular Feminist Organization (OFP), which operates nationally in Colombia, have both put themselves on the line in order to make a positive difference in the lives of women and their home countries.
For Roncancio, the line is quite literally the line of fire. Since 2001, the OFP has been threatened hundreds of times. Some of its members have been kidnapped, and three of its leaders have been assassinated, she says. In October 2011, members of the paramilitary broke into one of her colleague’s homes and tortured her.
Talgieh faces different pressures. She advocates for women’s rights within a patriarchal culture that pushes back against such work. “There are [very] conservative people that think you are talking against their religion,” she says. One imam, for example, began calling the women who work for the organization prostitutes. New threats arose after they started working with a women’s shelter. The shelter has to have high security. “If a girl runs away from [her] house, she is like a refugee in these shelters, she needs someone to protect her,” Talgieh says.
This is the second such tour Kairos, the Canadian ecumenical social justice organization has hosted. Rachel Warden, Kairos’ Toronto-based Latin America partnerships program co-ordinator, says the tours aim to help connect women in the global South with women in Canada and to highlight the work of women in human rights and peace building.
Travelling on this tour to communities in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Ontario, Roncancio and Talgieh spoke of violence against women being covered up in Palestine and Colombia.
According to Talgieh, it is still difficult to protect women who have escaped domestic violence in shelters and more difficult to find places willing to accept them and help them rebuild their lives in Palestinian society. But, she says, “You can feel the change that is happening in the culture.” People are starting to speak out about domestic violence.
In Colombia, The OFP provides legal assistance to women who have been the victims of violence. Not only is there a significant problem with domestic violence, but there is also widespread use of rape and sexual violence as weapons of war. According to Roncancio, the government now promotes the idea that the paramilitaries have been demobilized, but the armed conflict continues with the same actors using different names. Women suffer violence from all sides, and much of it is perpetrated by government forces and police. They fear reprisals for reporting the crimes.
Both organizations go beyond providing immediate help to victims. The OFP partners with educational institutions to help women complete their education and build income-generating skills. Wi’am helps educate women about their rights and encourages them to take an active role in the political process.
Throughout the tour, Roncancio and Talgieh have listened to the challenges faced by women, particularly aboriginal women, in Canada. The last stop on the women’s tour was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) event in Saskatoon, held June 21 to 24.
Roncancio said she hoped to learn strategies for a process of public witness because in 2013 the OFP will work with indigenous peoples in Colombia to hold tribunals where women can testify about the impact the armed conflict and violence has had on them. “We haven’t talked so much around reconciliation yet. What these tribunals are is alternatives to what exists now, which is impunity,” she says. “…They are an opportunity and a space for people to tell the truth.”
Talgieh, a Roman Catholic Palestinian, encouraged Canadians to translate their faith into action, too. “The history of our region is a history of killing, expulsion, division and suffering,” she said. “I am here, taking this chance to call on our collective humanity and to remind you that God would not be pleased with people fighting in his name for the sake of territorial or political benefits. The world needs to take collective responsibility to give Palestinians and Israelis equal rights.”
Canadians who want to help can support non-violent actions such as the “boycott, divestment and sanctions” policy to pressure Israel to comply with international law and Palestinian rights, Talgieh said.
Roncancio added that when Canadians elect governments, they need to be conscious of the impact of those governments’ policies not only in Canada but internationally. Canada recently signed a free trade agreement with Colombia, in spite of activists’ warnings that human rights violations continue in the country. The Colombian government must be urged to comply with the human rights agreements of the UN, Roncancio said. “We are going backwards in terms of labour rights…security for marginalized rural populations, campesinos, indigenous people. They’re facing not only the loss of their land but also loss of lives.”