Approximately 27 per cent of Colombia's nearly 45 million inhabitants self-identifies as Afro-Colombian, although NGOs put the number much higher. Indigenous peoples comprise 3.5 per cent of the population.

According to the Colombian relief agency, Acción Social, the long-running internal armed conflict has produced more than 4 million internally displaced people (IDPs), one of the largest populations of IDPs in the world. Many of those displaced are from indigenous or African descendant communities.

In February 2010, following her first official visit to the country, the UN Independent Expert on Minority Issues, Gay McDougall, called on the Colombian government to do more to improve the situation of Afro-Colombians. This was with special reference to key issues such as internal displacement, territorial dispossession, poverty, and violence against individuals and communities in both rural and urban areas. Colombia's legislative framework recognizes many Afro-Colombian rights. However, the UN Independent Expert pointed out that consultations with Afro-Colombian communities and organizations had revealed a pattern of sporadic implementation and limited observance of legal provisions, and a lack of follow-up and enforcement.

The top priority issue for many Afro-Colombians continued to be displacement from their lands despite – and sometimes because of – the prior granting of collective titles for some 90 per cent of Afro-Colombian ancestral territory. Prior to the visit of the Independent Expert, a UN Human Rights Council envoy had pointed out that large-scale economic operations, often involving national and multinational companies, had contributed significantly to the dispossession and displacement that deprives the Afro-Colombian population of access to their lands. In 2009, Colombia's Constitutional Court ordered the national government to implement a range of measures to protect Afro-Colombian communities from forced displacement; however, thus far there has been no observable compliance.

Afro-Colombian women and violence

Among the key issues highlighted by the report of the UN Independent Expert was the situation of Afro-Colombian women. An NGO survey of displaced women found that the majority of displaced Afro-Colombians are women and many are heads of households with children. Such women continued to face multiple forms of discrimination in 2010, placing them at a distinct disadvantage. Indeed, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), only 5.3 per cent of displaced Afro-Colombian women earn a minimum salary.

Rights activists point out that all parties in the conflict zones, that is, the two guerrilla groups – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) – as well as government forces are involved in human rights abuses, including violence against women. During their displacement, Afro-Colombian women have frequently reported traumatic acts of physical aggression and sexual violence. This has included economic exploitation, violence and rape. Few victims register complaints due to fear or ignorance of complaint channels.

In the case of African descendant women, rape – especially of young women – continued to result in many unwanted pregnancies and the birth of children of mixed ethnicity. Such children, as well as their mothers, are frequently ostracized within their communities, and therefore doubly victimized. Women also complained to the Independent Expert about Afro-Colombian children being coerced into joining armed groups, and about threats made to Afro-Colombian women leaders and members of women's organizations.

Afro-Colombian women reported a pattern of unequal treatment from government officials charged with their protection. They complained that threats against female leaders are not regarded with the same gravity as those against male leaders. They view this as an indication of the disrespect and lack of recognition of their leadership roles, and another example of ethnicity- and gender-linked discrimination by government agencies.

It should be noted that in 2008 the Colombian Congress adopted Law 1257 on 'Measures to raise awareness, prevent and punish all forms of violence and discrimination against women'. This law recognizes a wide range of public and private acts of violence and according to the government, the Presidential Office on Equality for Women, the Independent Ombudsman and the Office of the Attorney-General have set up a Monitoring Committee to promote its implementation. However, Afro-Colombian women's groups reported that during 2010 they saw no evidence of any implementation.

Aerial fumigation of coca crops

Minority women are also primarily affected by the aerial fumigation used to eradicate illicit coca plantations as part of the US-sponsored Plan Colombia programme. Spraying of the chemical Glysophate not only destroys illegal coca cultivations, but also kills food crops. Since Afro-descendant women are principally involved in growing staple food crops such as rice and bananas, not only do they lose their harvests but also suffer the side-effects of the chemical spray. These reportedly include skin irritations as well as an increased risk of damage to internal organs as well as miscarriages.

Indigenous women

Along with Afro-Colombians, hundreds of thousands of indigenous peoples have also been forced off their resource-rich lands as a result of intense military conflict. According to a 2008 report by UNHCR, almost the entirety of the indigenous population in Colombia has been a victim of forced displacement, meaning that indigenous women have also been disproportionately affected by physical and sexual violence as a result of the conflict and of displacement.

In light of this reality, Colombia's indigenous women are now seeking to participate more directly in decision-making processes, by becoming involved in local and national politics. They face considerable obstacles, including low levels of education in their communities and limited participation among the predominantly rural indigenous electorate. Reflecting this, it was only in 2007 that two indigenous women candidates were elected to local government office for the first time, one to Colombia's Cauca Regional Indigenous Council, and the other to the Bogotá Municipal Council. But despite the challenges, obtaining positions of political leadership and supporting other women candidates has become an important priority for indigenous women leaders.

However, with just two seats in the 102-person Senate and one in the 166-person Representative Chamber reserved for indigenous candidates, efforts to change policy on key issues that affect indigenous people face considerable challenges, particularly as these issues include ending the armed conflict, legalization of indigenous lands, environmental protection, and an end to discrimination against minority women. In addition, among the 3.5 per cent of Colombia's 40 million inhabitants who are indigenous, there are some 84 different indigenous peoples who speak 75 languages, and who extend from the Andean highlands to the lowland rainforests. This complexity – and the fact that many indigenous people are more concerned with indigenous territorial governance than national-level issues – has caused some indigenous activists to query whether Congress is the best place to resolve the acute issues confronting the country's indigenous communities at the local level.

Reflecting this, during 2010 female indigenous activists from the Huitoto community in Amazonas developed a training plan to enable young women to learn about governance and land issues, and increase their participation in decision-making at the local level. With national laws already in place that allow Colombia's indigenous people to run their own communities, the move towards greater indigenous female political participation and empowerment at this level is likely to gather momentum.

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