Yolanda Perea Mosquera and other women’s rights advocates in Colombia are sewing a colorful quilt. They plan to spread it out over the central square in the capital Bogotá in late November. Their message: “cover me with your hope.”
On each square, they’ve embroidered words about the armed conflict that engulfed their country for five decades and killed more than 220,000 people. In August 2019, Colombia’s FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—People's Army) rebels threatened to take up arms again in defiance of a three-year-old peace agreement that finally brought an end to the civil war, saying the government is not fulfilling its end of the deal.
For women in Colombia, the conflict is personal with many having experienced atrocities committed by both sides. We recently spoke to Mosquera in Colombia through an interpreter about how she worked through her own anguish to help inspire other women to report crimes committed against them. According to Mosquera, the women have sewn more than 1,000 squares of quilt so far. They plan to sell each quilt square to raise funds to build a house and memorial to the women who have suffered from sexual violence in the country, she says.
As part of the 2016 peace agreement with FARC rebels, the Colombian government set up a transitional court system, called a Special Peace Tribunal (JEP), to try crimes committed by both sides of the decades-long conflict. Mosquera is among the advocates helping survivors of sexual violence tell their stories and seek justice. Here, she shares her experience in peacebuilding with Peace Direct, and her hopes for the future:
Tell us about yourself and the work you do.
I am 35 years old and the mother of three children. I am from Rio Sucio (in the Choco region of northwestern Colombia). My organization, El Puerto de mi Tierra (or “the port of my land”) defends and protects women's rights under Colombian law 1448, the Victims and Land Restitution Law.
I was a victim of sexual violence at 11 years old. My mother was killed by FARC rebels after she confronted them about her daughter’s attack. The rest of my family fled. I got married at age 16 and had two children. I started working for a small NGO that helped victims of the armed conflict find housing. Through the NGO, I met a psychologist. As soon as I began talking to this psychologist, I discovered that what I suffered wasn't my fault, and that was really helpful for me.
What are your biggest challenges as a peacebuilder?
To help women and encourage them to fight against this kind of sexual violence and recover is challenging. The most challenging thing I face is that I'm helping others while I am suffering from poverty. Right now, I don't have a proper place to live with my 3-month-old baby. But I have to be really committed, because I don't have the luxury of leaving all these women behind.
But I have to be really committed, because I don't have the luxury of leaving all these women behind.
The Bogotá quilt initiative is intended to spread hope. What brings you hope when faced with these challenges?
My first inspiration is my mother, who sacrificed her life to protect me. If I don't persist in my work, my mother's death would be in vain. I also don't want other children in Colombia to go through what I did during the conflict. I want to give other children the opportunity to live in better conditions and without sexual violence and armed conflict.
I also don't want other children in Colombia to go through what I did during the conflict.
Do you have any daily practices that give you peace?
It's also important to recognize that all human beings have the opportunity to change and mend their mistakes. Like the perpetrators who are FARC members, I always think that they made mistakes, but they have the opportunity to change their own story. I always think of the victims of sexual violence. I'm working on this issue, because there are a lot of victims and a lot of work to do.
It's also important to recognize that all human beings have the opportunity to change and mend their mistakes.
What's your message for those who want to be peacebuilders in their own community?
Peacebuilders recognize that violence is not the answer to the problem. Those who are working on peacebuilding processes are building confidence and trust among each other. We are committed to the idea that the common will for everyone is peace. That's the only way it is possible for us to change all the narratives that say you can achieve something through violence.
Voices from the Frontlines is a series highlighting the important work of Peace Direct's local peacebuilders around the world told in their own words.