When I first met Tereza (not her real name), what immediately struck me about her was her vibrancy. She was wearing a beautiful long green dress, which was not only part of her own Afro-Colombian heritage but also, for her, a way of remembering and paying homage to Afro-Colombian and indigenous ancestors who fought against colonialism. Some of the braids in her hair were red, blue and yellow – the colours of the Colombian flag – and her striped bag was bright red. Her colourfulness was similarly expressed through her jovial demeanour, warmth and broad smile.
Like so many women in Colombia, however, Tereza has experienced significant adversity and pain in her life. Aged just 11, she was raped by FARC guerrillas. When her mother went to confront them, she was shot dead. Now internally displaced, Tereza is a women’s leader and activist – a position that has exposed her to repeated threats of violence. Consequently, she is under 24-hour police protection (and has been for the last three years). Yet, the provision by the State of a bodyguard and vehicle does not address the reality that she has no economic security and struggles to pay her rent. Although she has received economic reparations for the sexual violence that she suffered, she has spent most of the money on legal fees relating to her brother. Injured by the FARC, he was also found with a weapon. Tereza therefore engaged the services of a lawyer in order to prove that her brother was not a member of an illegal armed group. She is nevertheless happy that she was able to help him and knows that this is what her late mother would have wanted her to do. Her smile faded at this point and for the first time she looked emotional.
Tereza took part in the piloting of the CSRS questionnaire. At the end of the process, she praised the research team for designing a questionnaire that does not re-victimize those who have suffered sexual violence. She also explained that she liked the questions because they made her think about herself – something that she is not used to doing. She is focused on her two children, but also on other women who have been displaced and have experienced sexual violence. In order to be able to help others, however, Tereza first had to heal herself. For her, the first step in the process was realizing and understanding that she herself is not to blame for what happened to her. The second step was reconciling herself with her body and learning to love it again. When a person is raped, her/his body becomes the crime scene. This same body can thus engender feelings of self-loathing and revulsion, of disgust and abhorrence. For a long time, Tereza felt ashamed of her body and could only have sex with the light turned off. She felt that her body was marked, stained.
Today, she has reconnected with her body and learned to value and respect it again. For her, her female form is beautiful and something that she is proud of. Through the clothes that she wears and the colours in her hair, she uses her body, in turn, to express her pride in being a citizen of Colombia. This pride means that she wants to make a difference, and part of this is about making herself visible. Hence, Tereza’s body is no longer about pain and trauma but about resistance. As a community leader, she is not only resisting ongoing violence against women in the context of the armed conflict. For her, she is also redressing, in her own way, the historical marginalization and invisibility of Afro-Colombian women.