In 1991, María Eugenia Mosquera Riascos was the daughter of farmers in one of Colombia’s poorest, most violent regions — and the niece of a beloved uncle who worked with a Catholic justice movement protesting corruption by local officials. When a police squad killed her uncle in a nighttime raid, she says, the family feared even to send someone to identify his body the next day. It was 17-year-old María Eugenia who went to the morgue to claim his body, deformed by gunshots. “When we brought his body home, I promised him that I would follow his path of struggling for justice for all people,” she says. That vow has defined her life.

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Twenty-two years later, Maru, as she is known to her friends and neighbors, helps lead a network of 140 civic and community organizations working to build peace amid the Western Hemisphere’s longest, deadliest civil conflict. These grassroots groups oppose violence by armed factions and criminal and drug-trafficking organizations in their rural territories across 14 of Colombia’s 32 departments. The network, Communities Building Peace in Colombia (known locally as CONPAZCOL), is part of Colombia’s six-year-old struggle to implement the November 2016 peace accord between the government and the country’s largest rebel group, FARC-EP, and to establish security and effective governance across wide swaths of the country. 

The biggest driver of Colombia’s continued violence is the corruption of an economy and political system fueled by the massive illegal drug trade, Colombia’s truth commission declared in June. After mass public protests last year over corruption, poverty and other grievances, the newly elected government of President Gustavo Petro promises to strengthen the national peacebuilding effort. Yet independent civil society researchers this year found that over a third of Colombia’s local government districts have some presence of armed factions and risk violence.

Maru’s native department, Cauca, extends from Colombia’s lush, rugged interior mountains to the Pacific coast, Colombia’s most violent region. Cauca has been a vortex of the decades of war and is a major trafficking route for criminal drug gangs. As of March 2022, gunmen had assassinated 1,327 human rights or social activists and 182 women leaders since the final signing of the FARC peace accord, according to Indepaz, a Colombian research center — and Cauca had suffered the most such killings of any Colombian department. A U.N. human rights envoy warned in August that Cauca is especially dangerous for activists like Maru who expose corruption by elites.

Helping War’s Victims Build Power

For years, Maru’s work has been to gather, train and energize victims of Colombia’s war — notably women, marginalized communities of farmers and laborers, Afro-Colombians and indigenous people — to achieve restitution for losses, defend their human rights and non-violently resist efforts by armed or criminal groups to seize control of their territories. To win such battles unarmed requires a mix of public protests, pressure against authorities and elites, lawsuits and negotiations — and the courage to persist in the face of threat and attack.

For years amid Colombia’s warfare, powerful elites have stolen lands of poor or minority communities to build lucrative plantations or ranches. Maru and her colleagues are part of a broad campaign to reverse those seizures. “I have seen the joy of people who had been forcibly displaced, when they won the right to return home,” she said in an interview. These include “communities whose lands had been stolen by a big company to build a palm oil plantation.” 

One of her most passionate missions, Maru says, is to help children who have been forced to join armed factions to leave them, and return to schools and university studies that can offer the youth hope for more productive lives.

“We do not have to remain victims,” Maru said. “We can build our methods to resist the armed groups and create communities without fear.” Her organization has been such an effective advocate for the rights of war victims that she was invited to help represent victims’ interests in the negotiations in Havana, Cuba that yielded the 2016 peace accord. That same effectiveness has drawn death threats from armed groups, one of which in 2017 killed one of her closest friends and colleagues, a woman who had been godmother to Maru’s daughter. 

A Vital Step: Bolster Women’s Roles

Maru and Colombia’s established community of vigorous women peacebuilders are emblematic of the growing and critical role of women in negotiating, mediating, organizing and implementing peace processes worldwide. In the years leading to Colombia’s 2016 peace deal, networks of women mediators across the country negotiated local ceasefires and hostage releases by armed groups. Women formed a third of negotiators at the talks in Havana.

“Those talks were path-breaking for their inclusion of women,” noted Tonis Montes, a USIP expert on Colombia. “Fully 130 of the accord’s 578 provisions specifically address gender issues in the conflict. Women’s leadership remains vital in the labor of implementing the accord, and María Eugenia is providing that in one of the most violent regions in the country.”

At this century’s start, a U.N. Security Council resolution (UNSCR 1325) enshrined what many governments, researchers and frontline peacebuilders had declared for years — that violent conflicts could not be reduced without the full participation and leadership of women in governments, international institutions and civil society. Yet 20-plus years later, our world lags in implementing that principle, known as the “Women, Peace and Security Agenda.” Women are too often confined to symbolic roles or directly threatened for insisting on being heard. 

“Increasing reprisals, violence, threats and attacks against women and girls, both offline and online” have targeted women human rights defenders, journalists, peacebuilders and other “women and girls in conflict and crisis-affected settings, not least in Afghanistan, Colombia, Ethiopia, Myanmar, Sudan, Syria and Yemen,” the European Union’s policy coordinating council declared this month.

USIP established its Women Building Peace Award to accelerate women’s roles in building peace worldwide, and the Institute’s 18-member advisory council chose Maru as the award’s third recipient, following South Sudan’s Rita Lopidia and Kenya’s Josephine Ekiru. “The extraordinary accomplishments, in the face of violence, of women like Maru and other finalists for the award — from Uganda, Syria and Yemen — illustrates triumphs, but also the unacceptable, continuing obstacles to women as leaders in building peace and justice out of wars,” said Kathleen Kuehnast, who directs USIP’s programs in support of women peacebuilders.

For Maru, 30 years of building on the examples of her uncle and others who inspire her has forged a message she offers to girls and young women. “We should never stop fighting for respect for the rights of women,” she said. “Our daughters should believe in themselves and know that we have a lot of power to change the world so that men don’t manipulate women. We should all know that women can unite, all of us caring for each other, to control our own lives, to sustain the legacies of women who have fought for our rights, and to advance further on that same path. In this way we can achieve our dream of living in justice and peace, free of repressions and violence and patriarchal hegemonies — not only in Colombia but in the whole world.”