Being a woman social leader in this country is much more difficult than being a male leader


Mayerlis Angarita, Colombian social leader and human rights defender in the Montes de María region, is founder of the organisation Narrar para Vivir and winner of the 2018 Anne Klein Women’s Award.

Portrait Mayerlis Angarita

This piece is part of our dossier "No Women - No Peace: 20th Anniversary of UNSC Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security".

Raised in a Catholic family, she has felt the need to break with gender stereotypes since she was a child: at five years old, she would cut her hair herself because she wanted to keep it short; she played soccer and, contrary to her father’s wishes, who always wanted her to study to be a secretary, she always dreamed of being a lawyer.

In early 1995, when she was about to turn 15, the paramilitary disappeared her mother, Gloria Robles Sanguino. A few months before her mother’s disappearance, men from the National Front, commanded by the ex-paramilitary chief known as ‘Juancho Prada’, kidnapped her uncle, tortured and murdered him. Her father decided to move to another town with his children. Victims of displacement, Mayerlis and her family had to start over from nothing. After a period of great pain, given the impossibility of telling someone her story (in those years, the displaced were stigmatised), Mayerlis became familiar with the National Network of Initiatives for Peace and against War (Redepaz) and began working in peace-building processes.

But what prompted her to create Narrar para Vivir was the El Salado massacre between 16 and 21 February 2000. Mayerlis was part of the humanitarian commission that entered El Salado a week after the massacre. She was 19 years old and, though she had always lived in the midst of armed conflict, had never seen such barbarism: ‘The people of El Salado have not overcome pain because there has been no subsequent support. They can give them houses, roads and they can give them reparations, but the State has forgotten that wounds must be healed.’

After her mother’s disappearance, this was a new watershed in her life. ‘I came back from El Salado, arrived at the hotel, fell to my knees, cried and asked God for forgiveness. And I said: God, forgive me for complaining, for having believed that what happens to me is the worst. I thank you for being alive, for giving me strength and, from today, I will no longer feel sorry for myself and think that I’ll kill myself or that they’ll kill me.’

Building peace in the midst of armed conflict

On 26 March 2000, one month after the El Salado massacre, Mayerlis created the organisation Narrar para Vivir as a strategy for peaceful resistance by women survivors of the conflict as a way to overcome pain and delayed grief. Through the ‘narration’ methodology, the women organised ollas comunitarias (community meals) and narrated their pain: ‘We met in the courtyards of the houses and began to build peace; the thing is, women have been peace builders for years.’ Because of that, Mayerlis believes it is good news that 20 years of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 be commemorated, since it is the first legal document that not only requires that the rights of women be respected in the midst of armed conflict but, above all, that women be part of peacebuilding, which Narrar para Vivir has been doing for 20 years.

Resolution 1325 is what allowed women to participate in the peace negotiations between the government of Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC. In the Colombian case, this was essential. In 2013, numerous women’s organisations demanded that the Colombian government appoint two plenipotentiaries to the peace process. Narrar para Vivir, besides being in one of the victims’ delegations that travelled to Havana, was also among the 18 organisations that presented proposals and recommendations to the Gender Subcommittee, a group in charge of building the gender approach in the final Accord. Narrar para Vivir is also part of the Special Instance that guarantees the gender approach in the implementation of the Accord.

Indifference kills more people than bullets

It is thought that armed actors are the only ones doing harm, but to Mayerlis the biggest obstacle to exercising social leadership is indifference. There are people in those same communities who don’t understand the work of male and women social leaders and stigmatise them. Patriarchal culture is so ingrained that if a woman exercises leadership it is believed that this is because she does not love her children. It is precisely this patriarchal culture that makes training a woman leader more difficult than training a man. Women who are part of Narrar para Vivir have suffered more than 46 assaults. Mayerlis has already suffered three attacks: in 2012; in 2015, during a political campaign; and, most recently, in 2019. This is why Mayerlis has always said that protection must be differentiated, that guarantees and protection measures for women leaders are different from those of male leaders. For her, security means ‘that our right to defend rights is comprehensively guaranteed’.

Translation from Spanish by Eurideas