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.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Final Blog Post! Celebrating AMAZING work in Cesar Colombia

Wednesday, November 20th, UNDP Cesar and I held the final gender workshop and graduation ceremony here in Valledupar Colombia.  It was an especially important day, since 33 of the participants would be receiving their certificates from UNDP for having attended these workshops in women´s social and political participation.  We started off this final gender workshop with a review of the entire 8 week course, including the major themes we´ve discussed throughout the course. Some of these included suffragist movements from around the world, Indigenous and Afro-Latina women´s movements, physical and sexual violence against women, women´s experiences of internal and armed conflicts, mothers and grandmothers as political and social activists, and women´s sexual and reproductive rights.

For this final afternoon together, we celebrated big time.  Delicious food and cake, music and dancing, and many kind words and motivating comments from so many who have attended these workshops over the past two and a half months.  The UNDP Cesar Coordinator came to make a speech and congratulate all of the participants, and my partner Simon and I surprised everyone with a video presentation of the entire workshop series!  It was so much fun to see the excitement and energy when they saw themselves ‘up on the big screen’.  The video presentation was 12 minutes long, but we´ve also created a shorter 5 minute version in both Spanish and English.  Feel free to check out these awesome videos in Spanish here and in English here!


Monday, November 25th, the week following our final gender workshop and graduation ceremony, was the UN sanctioned International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and Girls.  In comemoration of this international day of awareness and action, a local human rights organization, Red de Voceras (the Network of Women´s Voices) organized an event in Valledupar to remember the victims of gender violence in Colombia, and especially those in the Cesar region.  We set up memorial plaques in one of Valledupar´s main plaza´s.  Each plaque bared the name of women and girls in Colombia who were killed due to gender violence over the past two years.  Placed in front of each memorial plaque was a woman or girls´ shoe, symbolizing the life and presence of each missing woman and girl.  Some victims were as young as two years old when they died, whereas others were in their seventies and eighties when they were killed.  This diversity in age also points to how wide spread violence against women and femicide trully is.  It was a powerful display and brought many to reflect upon the importance of bringing attention and action to eliminating this international human rights abuse on women and girls.

 The event also consisted of speeches from two members of Women´s Voices.  They both spoke to the importance of paying tribute to the victims of gender violence, as well as the need to take action- to get involved in our communities and to participate politically in order to erradicate all forms of violence, at both local and global levels.  Two guest performers were also part of Monday evening´s event.  The first was a rapper called Ahiman from Cucuta Colombia who is part of a collective of young performing artists who address issues of violence against women- an absolutely amazing performance that happened to also attract the attention of a number of young boys who were hanging out in the plaza.  It was great to listen to rap lyrics that speak against violence and gender descrimination.  Here´s one of his bands songs you can check out via YouTube here!

We also had the privilege of one of Valledupar´s local artists, Ada Ramos, perform a few songs.  She really brought the audience to life with her powerful voice and energy, singing about womens´strength and resiliance. You can also check out some of her performances here.

The event felt like a perfect and very special way to begin wrapping up my time in Valledupar, especially considering so much of my work here has been on issues of violence against women and working to enhance women´s political participation. It´s hard to beleive it is all coming to a close now, after six intense months in Colombia.  Although it has been a challenging experience at times, many strong relationships have been made, and together we have accomplished so much.  I feel honoured to have had the opportunity to learn so much and contribute what I could to the development of gender equity and peacebuilding in the Cesar region of Colombia.

My partner Simon and I will be embarking on a new adventure in just a few days, and to summarize some of our travel experiences in Colombia we´ve made a short video which you can check out here! To start off the next chapter right, we´ll be meeting up with our parents on the coast of Peru to celebrate Christmas and the New Year, yahoo! It´s time to see what this next chapter has in store...! 

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! 

Friday, 18 October 2013

Getting Engaged Globally- Women's experiences in indigenous social and political movements

This past week I held the third workshop of our series of eight, and what a workshop it was! Participation, motivation and classroom engagement seems to be growing steady with every passing week.  The last two workshops have focused primarily on internal conflict and indigenous communities in Chiapas, Mexico and Guatemala.  Within these two topics we've looked specifically at issues of systemic racialized and gendered forms of violence- violence which escalates both during and after periods of armed conflict. We've also focused a great deal of attention on engaging with unique forms of activism and political participation that indigenous women have been involved in or lead.  Such leadership has brought national and international attention to multiple forms of gender and race based violence.  Their leadership also speaks to the unique ways women have helped expose truth and bring about justice in the years after extremely violence military dictatorships.  All of the men and women who are attending these gender workshops have their own stories  of living through Colombia´s armed conflict.  Discussing armed conflict and gender, race and class based violence beyond Colombian borders has played a key role in exploring solidarity for peace, justice and democracy in a more global context.  These workshops have also begun to inspire female participants to continue sharing their stories of struggle, as well as engage with their local, national and international politics.

Welcoming everyone back to class on week two and introducing them to the upcoming topics and activities for the workshops.  Of these included a strong focus and case study of the Zapatista movement and the Women's Revolutionary Law within this indigenous Mexican political movement. To learn more about indigenous women's social and political roles in Chiapas Mexico click here.

If you'd like to learn more about this history of conflict in southern Mexico, and more specifically the Zapatista movement, there is a Canadian documentary entitled, "A Place Called Chiapas".  I first saw this documentary when I was staying in San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas in 2010.  It was one of my first exposures to indigenous lead movements in southern Mexico. You can access the documentary via YouTube here.

For the majority of the participants in this 8 week course, they are learning about women's social and political participation outside of Colombia for the first time.  Most had never heard of the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico. Even fewer had learn't about the history of Guatemala's 36 year long armed conflict, or the critical role women's testimonies of sexual violence played in breaking the silence and stigma around violence against women. Their social/political will and perserverance also helped delivery truth and justice to the atrocities committed during the armed conflict on both a national legal and political level.  As such, these workshops have become a critical space in linking the local wth the global- women's personal and political experiences of armed conflict in Colombia with the experiences and powerful roles of women beyond Colombian borders.

The level of motivation and participation from the women and men that have been attending these workshops has been truly inspiring.  Folks come to class with such a strong presence and energy to learn, share and engaged with others.  From the presentations I give each workshop, to the group activities, open classroom discussions and group presentations, each individual has come with something very special to offer.  I'm constantly amazed and inspired by the powerful testimonies, opinions and knowledge everyone continues to share, week after week.  The space has also become one of encouraging others to share their stories for the first time, and to work together to share and better understand sensitive thoughts, feelings and histories.  These include histories of those both in the classroom, along with the national and international histories of those we're studying in each workshop.  The following workshop will be looking at maternity and motherhood as a political role and tool to mobilize communities to seek truth and act politically.  We'll be learning about Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo (The Mother's of the Plaza de Mayo), an organization of mother's who's children have been 'disappeared' during the years of Argentina's 'Dirty War'.  We´ll also explore how this movement, along with The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo contributed to the expansion of local and global notions of feminism and feminist movements. 

There are just eight weeks left of my contract but I hope to have them jam-packed with gender workshops, blog posts, weekend trips and cultural events before saying goodbye to the vallanato filled streets of Valledupar. :)

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Let the workshops begin!

Yesterday, September 25th, UNDP Cesar and I held the first of a series of 8 workshops for a new gender project with the aim of enhancing women's political participation in the region.  It is a series of weekly courses/workshops I've been working on which explore the histories of women-led social and political movements, "Participacion politica y movimientos socales de las mujeres: conocimientos de las historias locales y globales". The course will be examining women's political and social movements from a variety of local and global contexts: from the Indigenous women involved in the zapatista movement in Chiapas Mexico, to the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, to women's resistance in the armed conflict in Guatemala. We'll be looking at women's reproductive rights in China, my study experiences and research on sexual violence in India, women's involvement in recent protests in Turkey and Egypt, etc.  My aim is for the workshops to act as a space for sharing knowledge  on national and international women's rights, as well as personal experiences of Colombia's armed conflict, which are inherently linked to the political issues we'll be discussing.  Another aim of the workshops is to address the ways in which women have come together and fought to obtain their rights and make lasting change in their communities. 

Yesterday was the introductory course and was a huge HUGE success.  I was hoping to have at least 20 women attend, but when I arrived there were over 50 women as well as men who showed up! It was an inspiring afternoon so say the least, and very motivating.  To see and listen to so many men, women and children who were all eager to learn more about the project and contribute to the learning space.

This shot was taken at the beginning of the workshop when I was explaining how the 8 week course will be structured.  I've planned for an interactive and participatory learning space, with lots of group activities and presentations, video and documentary clips, articles and newspaper clips, open classroom discussion, etc. The photos below show some of my presentation on the different themes that will be studied/explored each week and the ways in which we'll be looking at similarities and differences amongst women's organizing and activism around the world.

 Hard at work! One of the group activities we held was on sharing your personal defenition of some concepts that will be used throughout the course. These included: feminism, gender, politics, equality, "machismo", and human rights.  I love this shot because each group member was to eager to write down their understanding of gender.  Loved to see people so engaged and excited about discussing these concepts!

Group work and presentations in action!  This is a shot which captures some of the groups hard at work taking notes and reading over a hand out on national and international laws in place for women.  At the end of the workshop a number of women stayed on to write down questions for next weeks discussion on the suffragist movement in Colombia and the right to vote.  I can't write enough how privileged I feel to get to facilitate these workshops with such motivated and engaged participates.  After yesterday my work here with UNDP is certainly feeling like a dream job. :)

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Gender activism continues in the Sierra Nevada

I´m happy and excited to be updating my blog by sharing with you the most recent conferences, gatherings and initiatives on issues of gender, indigenous rights and development I've been attending in Colombia´s Sierra Nevada.  Activism on human rights based projects, with gender and indigenous rights playing key roles, have continued in full swing throughout the months of August and September.

I had the privilege of participating in the first and second of a three part journalism forum which addresses issues of sexist and mysoginistic gender representation in Colombian media. The first forum was lead by Jinet Bedoya Lima, a Colombian journalist who was abducted by paramilitary forces in May 2000 and August 2003. In 2001, she was awarded the Courage In Journalism Award of the International Women's Media Foundation (Here you'll find photos of her with Michelle Obama and Hilary Clinton at the 2012 International Women of Courage Awards!)

Jinet lead the conference in Valledupar by engaging the audience (primarily journalists and journalism students) by asking questions about gendered violence in media and journalism, as well as sharing her own experiences of sexual violence, armed conflict, and challenges in the field of journalism when it comes to these themes.

The guest speaker at the second journalism forum was Juliet Penagos, who runs ´Red Colombiana de Periodista con vision de genero´, a UN partnered campaign which works to promote non-sexist, non-discriminatory journaling and media representation throughout Colombia. Click here to learn more about the campaign.

I also attended Colombia´s first ever conference on the experiences of Colombian indigenous communities and their economies, "El primero Encuentro de Experiencias de Economia propria de Pueblos Indigenas de Colombia", on July 31st. This was held in Kankuama spiritual territory in Rio Seco, Cesar. An amazing day where I met with indigenous farmers, business leaders, teachers and social activists from across the country who were sharing their experiences of new community-based projects that benefit their communities economies and strengthen their unique cultural identities.

I have also been able to help contribute to the development of a series of meetings and workshops with women who live in rural regions of Cesar.  These meetings have become a central site for representatives of rural women´s organizations to learn about Colombian laws that apply directly to rural women, and how to best access these laws.

Among these laws are "la ley 731 of 2002", which outlines rural women´s access to land reclamation processes and access to funds in financing the rural sector.  This law also provides social and educational support for women and their families and outlines rural women´s rights to participate in the decision-making bodies of government.  The problem remains full implementation of these laws.  It has been a unique and important experience for me to see first hand the disconnect between the law and reality.  For many of the representatives of rural women´s organizations, they were learning about these laws for the first time, along with me.  Almost twelve years is certainlty a long time to inform the public of these laws, and to inform those that need to know these laws most. The meetings and workshops have been a moving and thought provoking experience, especially to learn along with women and see how they begin the processes of organizing and accessing their rights.  A number of proposals to the municipality are already in the making to begin gaining access to these rights and improving the living conditions of rural communities in Cesar.

Next week a new project on gender and political participation begins.  It is a project I've started with the support of my supervisor and a few other colleagues.  Basically, with the support of UNDP, I will be running a series of workshops over the course of 8 weeks. During these workshops women of Valledupar, who are interested in learning more about international histories of women's social and political movements, as well as learning more about women's rights in Colombia, can attend and participate.  They will draw from their own experiences and expertise as representatives of different women's organizations in the region.  The workshops are spaces to share experiences from Colombian's armed conflict, as well as a space to learn about how women outside of Colombia have dealt with human rights violations, and what they have done to make change.  We will be drawing from the Zapatista indigenous women's movement of Chiapas Mexico, Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo en Argentina, women's testimonies and experiences of violence in Guatemala, women's political protests in Iran and Egypt, reproductive rights abuses in China, amongst many others.  I will also be sharing my own work, study and travel experiences from my time spent engaging with feminism in Canada, Australia, India, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Colombia.   This project has been a long time in the making but the time has finally arrived. I've learn't so much from the women I've met and been working with over the past three months and can't wait to begin these workshops and broaden the discussions to local and global frameworks of feminism, gender and development.  In addition, upon completing the course, the women will be awarded a certificate in gender and political participation by UNDP!

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Exploring Gender and Development in Cesar, Colombia

It’s been an intense six weeks of conferences, workshops, forums, and meetings on issues of gender and development in the Cesar region of Colombia. As such, it's been an endless learning experience on the UNDP’s role in supporting local efforts in addressing gender issues, including raising awareness on gendered violence and women’s political participation, as well as a number of other pressing human rights concerns.  Along with attending and participating in these events, I've been busy learning more about the different projects run through UNDP Cesar on issues ranging from farmers rights and internal displacement from the armed conflict, to Indigenous and Afro-Colombian's rights.

Among the conferences I have attended was the First Inter-Institutional Conference for Gender Equity in Cesar, held at Valledupar’s City Hall. I have also been able to contribute and participate in organizing a series of municipal conferences on women's organizations in Valledupar, as well as a series of regional conferences for rural women's organizations in Cesar. In addition, PNUD has also participated in hosting a series of journalism forums to discuss issues of representation of gendered violence in the media.  The activities at these events have ranged from interactive and dynamic group activities and workshop based learning, to presentations given by a diverse range of guest speakers - from UNDP agents from across Colombia, to well known journalists and feminist activists, to members of local women's organizations.  The main objectives for the municipal and rural women's conferences have been to raise awareness and education on women's national and international human rights laws, increase women's political participation, build networks amongst women's organizations and the state, and to develop a concrete strategy for implementing these objectives and local human-rights based concerns.

Fostering group activities and interactive workshops at these conferences has been a critical feminist research method used in building networks amongst women's organizations in both Valledupar and rural communities throughout the territory.  These activities have also provided local women's representatives to speak on behalf of their communities, present their ideas to other women's organizations and NGO's, the state government, and to the UNDP.  It has also provided a space to work on building self confidence and enhance public speaking skills.  These workshops have also aided in improving community knowledge on international human rights laws as they relate to rural and urban women, access to work, and to gendered violence. 
What's my Role?
As a Junior Professional Consultant (JPC) for UNDP Cesar I am working on issues specific to gender equity and peace building in Colombia.  The past six weeks have enabled me to learn more about the specific issues communities are dealing with in the Cesar region, as well as meet and begin working with a range of urban and rural partner organizations of the UNDP.  Attending and participating in events specific to the issues of gender and development in the region has been a moving experience, teaching me a great deal about the context-specific issues of the region, as well as the culture and political activism of communities and organizations that have been working to educate and implement lasting change.  My role over the coming months will be to work more specifically on the design and implementation of a new Gender strategy for the UNPD Cesar office, working more specifically with building a base line for women's rights in the territory and to contribute to campaigns on issues of violence against women and children.

If you're interested in learning more about UNAC's Professional Placement Programme, as well as more information regarding my professional background and work placement, please visit: http://unac.org/unac-projects/international-internships/about-the-programme/