Rosa Emilia Salamanca in her garden.

The Humanist

Rosa Emilia Salamanca is weaving together a network of women to make Colombia a safer and more peaceful place. To achieve this, she has learned to deal with paradoxes.

When Rosa Emilia Salamanca says she is a humanist by profession, she doesn't mean it is an academic activity or a pure state of mind. For her, it means being in the midst of violent conflicts and actively working for a humane way for the conflicting parties to deal with each other. 'I am also a pacifist,' the 64-year-old says. 'But not in a naïve way. Peace is a utopia, and we have to keep learning with each conflict.' Salamanca lives and works in Colombia, a country where gun violence continues to be ubiquitous.

She describes her homeland as a country with light and shadow. The shadows are what she calls the brutal conflicts that have never allowed the nation to truly enjoy peace in its two hundred year history. There have been multiple civil wars, uprisings against large landowners, and, finally, the emerald and drug wars in the late 20th century, which led to the formation of cartels and paramilitary units. Salamanca's organisation, CIASE, has set building lasting peace in this environment as its goal – even beyond Colombia to all of Latin America. These peace efforts are a long road, but Salamanca has numerous allies, and they are gaining power: the country's women.

With its Resolution 1325 in the year 2000, the United Nations Security Council recognised that women and girls are particularly vulnerable to armed conflict. 'Even though 70 per cent of all victims in Colombia's conflicts are women, they are so much more than just victims,' Salamanca says. For Salamanca, they are the key to peace. Among other things, her organisation, CIASE, trains young women ages 16 to 21 throughout the country to become peacemakers. 'What rights do they have? How can they use their voices to mediate and resolve conflicts in the community?' These are the focal issues. It's a grassroots movement – Salamanca describes this work as planting seeds that will one day grow into a forest. 'It is incredible to see that these young women, who often live in very insecure areas and have been subjected to violence, want to build a better country.'

'Colombia's women are the key to peace.'

Colombia's women achieved worldwide recognition in 2016 for their success in the peace process between the Colombian government and the FARC-EP guerrilla organisation. When peace negotiations began in Havana a few years earlier, the talks initially involved only men. Salamanca was part of a large movement that demanded – and ultimately got – a place for women at the negotiating table. 'Women went to Havana to show the world the impact the conflict had on them,' Salamanca says. Her group lobbied, spoke with UN ambassadors, and drafted demands and negotiation proposals. At the same time, more than 400 women from highly diverse backgrounds sat together to discuss the proposals and consider a wide range of interests. Together, they achieved the inclusion of women in both negotiating delegations and, with the establishment of a gender commission, shifted the focus of the peace process to the perspective of the victim. 'When the peace agreement was signed, we celebrated so much,' Salamanca recalls. 'We were in Cartagena, all dressed in white, it was so beautiful and joyful.'

But Colombia's peace process is not complete; there have been repeated setbacks. The security situation continues to be very bad in some regions today, with murders of human rights activists, police officers and former guerrillas still commonplace, and other and new guerrilla organisations and drug cartels remain active.

The resolutions of Havana gave rise to the National Commission on Security Guarantees, of which Salamanca is a delegate, and which works on behalf of the government to find ways to make the country safe for all. But Colombia's current government is more critical of the peace treaty, which doesn't make Salamanca's job any easier. 'Sometimes I am so angry about what happens in my country. Then I might not react like it is expected from a pacifist,' Salamanca says. 'It is a paradox, but I accept these emotions.'

'We have to learn to embrace our paradoxes'

Unfortunately, our world is increasingly influenced by binary thinking, Salamanca says. 'More and more people think, good and bad, this or that, that's all there is.' But in conflict mediation, she says, it's important to first accept different perceptions of reality and to engage with the differing points of view.

'I believe we have to break up this binary thinking and learn to embrace our very own paradoxes.' Salamanca starts with herself every morning by thinking about the ways that she, a feminist, has her own patriarchal traits. 'I have a hard time acknowledging, for instance, that others can have interesting perspectives when I'm convinced my own position is correct,' she explains. Only by embracing her patriarchal traits as a feminist and her anger as a pacifist, she says, is she capable of continuing on the path to change.

Salamanca had to learn to deal with paradox and painful emotions from a young age. She was adopted by a family of four when she was only a few months old, and they lovingly raised her and instilled in her a sense of justice and peace. No one ever told her or made her feel that she was not their biological child until she finally found out at age 19 in an argument with her father. 'I felt lost in a black hole, betrayed.' Salamanca says. 'I did not know where I belonged.'

She wouldn't visit her parents again for several months after that incident. 'I was so, so angry. It took years for me to forgive them,' she said. 'Step by step, I learned to understand my feelings and those of my parents. Finally, I also forgave my father.' Today, she sees it as a first, painful lesson. 'When you work as a mediator or peace-builder, you must know what provokes the feelings,' she explains. 'This very own life experience helps me in my work.'

About the project

The zivik Funding Programme supports the work of CIASE. The funded project aims to develop alternative approaches to security policy in Latin America based on the experiences of women. Via workshops, online training and other means, the work of CIASE will directly contribute to building capacities in the areas of violence prevention, mediation and peacebuilding in Colombia and Mexico.

About the author

Martin Petersen, born in 1978, has headed the editorial team of the Robert Bosch Stiftung magazine since 2017. Before that, from 2010 to 2017, he was editor-in-chief and co-founder of the Hamburg print magazine STADTLICHH. As a freelance journalist, he works for various German media.

About zivik

The zivik Funding programme supports civil society actors worldwide in preventing crises, transforming conflicts, and creating as well as stabilising peaceful social and political systems. With their commitment, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) complement state actors by providing significant perspectives and activities. The zivik programme is providing funding for international, national or local NGO projects, which are dealing with civil conflict resolution and peacebuilding efforts.

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