Group photo of Professor Janine Natalya Clark with Jineth Bedoya Lima (and others) in Colombia

Despite the signing in late 2016 of a historic peace agreement between the government and the FARC guerrillas, Colombia remains a ‘live’ conflict zone. Peace talks with the ELN (National Liberation Army) have faltered, many former demobilized paramilitaries have returned to violence and in 2017, 165 social leaders were killed – a factor which, in turn, is contributing to the radicalization of the ELN. In many ways, the conflict feels remote from the frenetic streets of Bogotá. Yet, there are constant reminders that Colombia, after more than 50 years of armed conflict, is still not a post-conflict society. The police who patrol the streets, the level of security in public buildings, the fact that many human rights defenders and women’s leaders receive regular death threats and require 24-hour police protection; these are everyday realities in a society that remains deeply militarized. Colombian citizens have thus become highly resilient, living with the uncertainty and insecurity on a daily basis.

Despite this, within the context of Colombian society, there is very little discussion about resilience. This ‘resilience gap’ extends to the discourse surrounding survivors of sexual violence. However, many of these survivors can be described as resilient; they have become leaders of women’s organizations, human rights activists and so on. One such example is Jineth Bedoya Lima. An inspiring woman and journalist who was abducted, tortured and raped by paramilitaries over a decade ago, Jineth has committed herself to helping fellow survivors and to writing about ongoing human rights abuses in Colombia. She has received many accolades for her work, including the International Woman of Courage Award in 2012.

In many ways, Jineth’s story and bravery sowed the seeds for the CSRS project, and this week the research team had the honour of meeting her. She shared her own thoughts and insights regarding the concept of resilience, highlighting in particular the following three key points. Firstly, she stressed that resilience is a transformative process. Resilience, for her, is fundamentally about transforming one’s pain and tragedy into something useful and positive that can help other people. Secondly, she underlined the important relationship between resilience and having a purpose. In coping with her own trauma, she needed to have something to grasp and this ‘something’ was her work as a journalist. Becoming emotional, she explained that despite everything that she has been through, her abusers did not succeed in taking away her voice. Thirdly, she made it clear that any transitional justice process that re-victimizes those who have suffered heinous human rights violations can critically impede resilience. Jineth has been required to testify in court a total of 12 times, and last year she decided that ‘enough is enough’. In order to help both herself and other women, she realized that she needs the space to ‘breathe and take some air’.

Colombia is about to enter a new transitional justice phase. In the coming months, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace and the Truth Commission will commence their work. In this climate, there are unique opportunities for the CSRS team to influence transitional justice work in Colombia and to develop a new transitional model which, at its core, has an innovative resilience agenda. Part of this agenda is precisely about enabling survivors of sexual violence to ‘breathe’ and to transform their pain into something positive.