Legal Services to the Displaced Population of Colombia An Evaluation with a Different Gender Perspective

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Law, Social Justice & Global Development
(An Electronic Law Journal)

Legal Services to the Displaced
Population of Colombia - An Evaluation
with a Different Gender Perspective

Claudia Muller-Hoff

This is a Commentary published on: 21 June 2001

Citation: Muller-Hoff C, Legal Services to the Displaced Population of Columbia – An Evaluation with a Different Gender Perspective, 2001 (1) Law, Social Justice & Global Development Journal (LGD).

Keywords: Gender, Legal Services, Displaced, NGO, Judicial System, Rights, Government, Economic Program.

1. Introduction

In the dominant discourses around forced displacement in Colombia the need for special attention to ‘women and children’ is established and employed almost as a standard argument by researchers and activists1 and even the state adopted it in its legislation for the prevention of forced displacement and the attention, protection, socio-economic consolidation and stabilisation of internally displaced people for reasons of violence, the Ley 387 of 18 July 19972. Yet, many of these announcements are not followed by explorations in concrete terms of what exactly the specificity of their situation is nor as to what it means in terms of responses.
At the same time, Nora Segura Escobar and Donny Meertens found that unlike men the displaced women after their arrival in the cities of refuge prefer to seek information and support through informal channels rather than making use of the offers of state and non-state institutions3. In a way this coincides with the mentioned ‘standard argument’ and with the fact that it has not been developed into concrete responses in the sense that displaced women seem to require an attention different from that which is on offer.
However, there also exist various qualitative and quantitative investigations that specifically engage in a gender analysis of forced displacement. They look, for example, at the economic and social conditions before and after displacement, such as the standards of living, levels of education, income and occupation, access to land, and forms of organisation; they highlight the needs in terms of mental and physical health, education and professional training and look at the occurrences of social discrimination and violence; they discuss the fact that the majority of households of displaced families are headed by women and analyse coping strategies and chances of integration into the formal or informal labour market and productive economy or the chances of safe and successful return or resettlement, all that with a view to gender differences4.
All these investigations about displaced women are perhaps undertaken with a well-meaning political ambition to work for change. Yet, they do not engage with the question of whom these investigations in fact serve and in whose interests they are undertaken. They use the women as research objects, serving, first of all, the researchers’ interests to produce academic knowledge. They establish a one-dimensional relationship of giving and receiving information that constructs an active/passive or a potent/ impotent dichotomy.
I suggest that instead of asking what are women’s necessities in order to enable ourselves to work for and on behalf of their interests, we should ask how the women themselves, who best know about their situation and needs, can regain the agency in articulating and defending their interests and what we can learn from experiencing them as subjects, as agents, as protagonists.
The following investigation aims at evaluating legal services of a selection of NGOs with the view to analyse how these organisations deal with gender issues and how they relate to and involve their target groups and specifically women into their work. Yet, in choosing this focus on NGOs, I do not want to disregard that the primary obligation from a human rights point of view to protect against forced displacement and all the human rights violations that it implies and leads to lies with the Colombian state and all its organs and agents. With this evaluation of NGO work I do not mean to suggest that the NGOs should replace the state in this responsibility. NGOs have a task that is very different from the State's. NGOs are the demonstrator and facilitator of social developments and of a societal pluralism. They provide for society's control and enrichment of the political discourse. Their existence and effective work is immensely important for the democratisation of political, socio-cultural and economic processes and we can appreciate this through serious but not discrediting attempts of evaluation and constructive critique. In this sense, I would like this article to be taken as an external contribution to self-reflective processes of quality control and improvement within the NGOs.

2. Profile of Four NGOs and Their Legal Services

In this section I will present profiles of four human rights NGOs, all based in Bogotá, explaining with regard to their work on refugee issues their conceptual background, their problem analyses, objectives and strategies, including the forms of interrelation with their target groups and the ways in which gender issues are addressed. The profiles are based on information from interviews with representatives of the organisations to whom I am very grateful for their openness, interest and cooperation. In addition, I have used written information that two organisations offered, an unpublished presentation paper of the organisation B and the yet to be published report of the organisation C. It is important to take into account, however, that an NGO and its team of workers is not a monolithic entity that could be fully represented by only one of its participants. As has become apparent in the interviews there are dynamic processes of debate, challenge and change going on in many organisations. Yet, rather than consulting a greater range of informants that might have allowed me to draw a more representative picture of every organsation as a whole I chose my informants with a view to their experiences in the particular area of refugee issues. So, I need to remind myself as well as the reader that the following portraits are based on individual and subjective or non-objective perceptions that should neither be understood as the only valid nor as an invalid or less valid representation of the investigated NGOs5.

2.1 Organisation A

A is a human rights organisation that departs from a critical perspective of law and that recognizes legal pluralism as characteristic of the multiculturalism of Colombia. The focus of their work, of the human rights team in particular, is the problem of the inaccessibility of the judicial system for marginalized social groups.
The organisation employs basically three strategies, investigations with a legal focus, pedagogical work with their target groups on human rights and accompaniment and strengthening of social movements. In the area of forced displacement, most weight is laid at the moment at quantitative and qualitative investigations about four groups of ethnic minorities that are affected by forced displacement, indigenous peoples, black or Afro-Colombian communities, gipsy communities and the comunidades raizales, the indigenous population of the islands San Andrés and Providencia. This focus acknowledges that the displaced population is not a homogenous group, not even in terms of their experiences of invisibilisation and marginalisation as displaced persons. It points at the differences for example in terms of the specific causes, such as the geo-strategic meanings in armed or economic conflict of the places of origin, as well as differences in meanings and consequences of displacement, such as the cultural and economic meanings of the places of origin or the possibilities of coexistence with the recipient communities.
My informant had the position towards the current legal situation that the Ley 387 offers an integral approach, that generally recognises the rights of the displaced population and recognises the problem as such, yet, it fails to address aspects, such as the special attention that is needed for specific groups, such as women, children, ethnic minorities. The actual cause for the inadequacy of state attention is seen in the lack of political will and commitment to apply the letter of the law and to translate it into reality. The strategy for NGOs and grassroots organisations, he suggests, is to continue denouncing publicly, at the national as well as the international level, the intolerable lack of attention and to pressure the government to ensure an effective application of the law. Hence, the organisation’s investigations aim to achieve that the government acknowledges the specific rights of the ethnic minorities under international humanitarian law, as the organisation's team working on displacement views them, such as the protection of their lands as central places of religious worship, and that in reglementing the Ley 387 it takes account of their special needs. However, according to my informant, without the government demonstrating its will to seriously search for a solution by, first of all, recognising these organisations as valid investigators and negotiators there is little prospect that the current situation will improve.
In addition to its investigations, A also works with grassroots organisations with the aim to promote social movements. The choice of target groups and cooperation with representatives of their social organisations affirms my informant’s view that they do not exclude sectors of the displaced population from their attention. Yet, they do not address specific groups, i.e. the diversity of interests along the lines of, for example, gender, age or social class within the ethnic communities. The perception is that the participation of men and women is balanced. However, this view is not shared by everyone of the workers. Another informant criticized that the organisation does not work directly with the victims but with organisations and networks and, hence, does not sufficiently address the specific concerns of women and children who form the majority of the displaced population. However, the group in cooperation with other NGOs has undertaken women’s projects in order to detect the specific experiences and needs of women. These projects, though, seem to be sporadic, i.e. a gender-differential analysis is not an integral part of the organisation’s methods. This is reflected in the statement of one of my informants that displacement hits everybody, i.e. men, women and children equally and, hence, the responses are the same as well.

2.2 Organisation B

The organisation B is a non-assistentialist human rights organisation whose aim is to contribute to the development of national and international human rights law in Colombia. B is norm-oriented, i.e. it departs from the international human rights treaties that the Colombian government has ratified. Legal services are provided in three main forms, investigation, legal protection through representation in international court cases and promotion and debates. All these fields of action can open spaces for questioning traditional human rights concepts and interpretations, yet, according to the experience of my informant the great majority of cases that are brought to the attention of the organisation involve, as my informant called it, ‘traditional’ human rights violations such as violation of the right to life or the right not to be subjected to forced disappearance, i.e. certain civil and political rather than economic, social, and cultural rights.
In the area of case work the organisation becomes active upon request. According to my informant, the cases that are brought to their attention are taken on indiscriminately as long as they involve a human rights violation that falls within the framework of the Colombian legal order. At the same time, however, th organzation promotes certain issues by investigating and preparing international precedents, for example to pursue the protection of particularly marginalized groups such as indigenous communities or displaced women.
The group targets mainly at politicians, law professionals and students, but does not work with grassroots organisations on a regular basis. Hence, their work, particularly in the areas of special promotion and investigation are not selected in response to needs as articulated from within the communities. For the case of displaced women this was explained with the particular difficulties that prevent displaced women from denouncing their cases of human rights violations for reasons of security, shame, etc. Nevertheless, generally the question needs to be raised who sets the organisation’s agenda, and how responsive to the realities of the displaced population and also how legitimate is that.
Regarding the current legal treatment of the issue of forced displacement, my informant holds the position that she appreciates the legislation, especially the Ley 387 as expressing an official recognition of the issue. However, in her view it displays inadequate attention to particularly vulnerable groups such as, for example, women, children, the elderly or indigenous communities. This should be resolved by way of regulation, the formulation of which should allow spaces for participation of NGOs and organisations of displaced people. Yet, the main obstacle to the improvement of the current situation of the displaced population is seen in the apparent lack of political will of the government as well as the administration to deal with the issue, i.e. to materialise the legal pronouncements of the Ley 387 as is demonstrated by the complete lack of progress, in terms of regulation and application over the last more than three years since the law exists.
To improve the situation, my informant suggested to grant the Red de Solidaridad Social more legitimacy and decision-making powers, that is, more space and instruments for effective action; furthermore, to decentralise decision-making powers regarding the distribution of financial resources in accordance with the already decentralised obligations of attention; and finally, to produce a regulation of the law that fully incorporates the Principios Rectores de los Desplazamientos Internos of the Colombian Office of the UNHCR and the Colombian Defensoría del Pueblo. As indicated earlier, the organisation B apparently counts on strategies and actions such as promotional work in the national and international political arenas on behalf of the displaced population and educational work targeted at the administrational and judicial apparatus and the universities.

2.3 Organisation C

C is an organisation whose legal services are part of their integral program of humanitarian attention targeted at a number of displaced families in Bogotá. In addition to the basic assistance in the form of humanitarian emergency aid which the Red de la Solidaridad Social has entrusted the organisation with, the programme comprises psychological attention, psycho-social sensibilisation and reconstruction of an individual and collective memory as well as a range of legal services. In that sense, the legal services are an integral part of a communitarian work, that focuses on education, training and political mobilization.
The group offers a range of different legal services. Firstly, they work on an individual level with the families they are attending in Bogotá, responding to their legal issues, such as the legalisation of cases of disappearances and deaths or demands of widowhood pensions and compensation for lost moveables and immoveables. Secondly, they work with organised and non-organised groups in training workshops about the concepts and contents of human rights and the practical procedures of demanding their fulfilment. These workshops aim at developing an understanding of the responsibility and obligations of the state to attend adequately to the displaced population that corresponds with the notion of ‘rights’ and at developing peaceful conflict resolution strategies. Thirdly, they accompany and train organisations of displaced persons with regard to the legalisation and financing and legally revise their programmes and actions. They understand their own role in relation to the target groups as assessors and facilitators, the role of the participants from the displaced population as protagonists in the process of political organisation, negotiation and participation, and their cooperation as a mutual and ‘retro alimenting’ learning process.
From their work experience, especially with the particularly strong participation of women in the workshops, the workers have found that women show a great potential of political leadership and efficiency which led them to initiate the foundation of the association of displaced women that will be discussed later. Hence, the motivation for the political mobilization of specifically women is, according to my informant, not primarily to ensure special attention to women’s particular needs but, in a more strategic sense, to allow for the development of women’s alternative modes of collective political and economic work. Another motivation for this mobilization project was the consideration that the distrust of displaced people, that is strong not only towards persons and institutions outside the community, but also amongst each other prevents them from making use of the productive potentials of togetherness and is, therefore, a fundamental obstacle in processes of political mobilization. The women’s association is an attempt to facilitate the creation of mutual trust among the participating women through the experience of common creativity and productivity.
The variety of legal services could be understood to indicate a somewhat contradictory positioning towards the current legal situation. The accompaniment and facilitation of processes of political organisation leaves it to the participants to determine their political agenda, but the aim is to achieve political negotiation and participation that could include challenges of the existing legislation. On the other hand, the individual and collective consultancy and similarly the educational work aim at making use of the existing legal system, yet, challenging the systematic exclusion of the displaced population from the judicial system and the legal protection they are entitled to. The latter position is reflected in my informant’s comments about the current law. In her view, the Ley 387 addresses a lot of important aspects with regard to the problem of forced displacement, yet, it lacks adequate special attention to particularly vulnerable groups within the displaced population. Furthermore, the pedagogical potential that the law could offer to administrational and judicial personnel does not become effective, because the necessary training programmes as well as a clear conceptualisation of human rights protection on the side of the state, are missing. As a result, officials interpret and apply the law in a non-consistent manner or even refuse its application arguing that the necessary regulation is still missing, i.e. not recognising, that various provisions of the law are directly applicable, that is, oblige the state to act without requiring regulation, such as the provision of humanitarian emergency aid for three months. So, the primary problem, in her view, is not a lack of adequate legislation or regulation, but the lack of political will to seriously deal with the problem. In this situation she sees the role of the Constitutional Court as also critical in terms of concretising the concept and content of human rights and to pressure the state to abide by its obligations.

2.4 Organisation D

The human rights organisation D works for the validity and enforcement of human rights through providing integral assistance to the victims of forced displacement, particularly on the issues of return and resettlement. This form of assistance emphasises the accompaniment, legal advise and facilitation of processes of political organisation. The group targets at and works with communities in the places of return and resettlement, and also with grassroots organisations of displaced persons in the cities, that is, the places of refuge, but it does not work with individual ‘clients’. My informant pointed out that the aim is to provide the communities with tools that allow them to organize themselves, be it politically, economically or in any other form. The organisation, therefore, neither works to promote interests towards the state and government on behalf of the displaced population, nor does it want to adopt an active or initiative role in their processes of political formation. The idea is to enable those processes that will allow the displaced people to take on the agency and responsibility to represent themselves in the political arena and to accompany and facilitate them through legal and operational advise. In practical terms, the integral assistance requires to visit the communities, to assist initially by accompanying and supporting the families in their processes of suffering, to develop, together with the communities, realistic visions of survival and decisions about which legal and judicial actions to adopt.
Responding to the lack of female participation on the side of social organisations and communities, the organisation has organised some workshops with the intention to encourage and enable women to integrate themselves as active and responsible participants into the existing organisational structures of the displaced populations. However, it has not become apparent, whether this approach includes an analysis of the causes of women’s absence from these arenas. The integrationalist approach does not take into account or explore the alternatives to the existing male dominated manners and methods of negotiation and decision-making that women could offer.
My informant employs these understandings of legal services and political activism in view of the following problem analysis. He specified various reasons why so far there has been close to no progress in improving the situation of the displaced population. Judicial actions are unsuccessful because of the partiality of the judges that increases the problem of impunity; the mesas de trabajo, roundtables of negotiation, in which communities and organisations of displaced people, NGOs, governmental and state institutions and organs participate, do not yield results because there is no will to commitment on the side of the state; the recourses that are designated to the attention of the displaced population are mismanaged, i.e. distributed in an unsystematic and uncontrolled manner and so do not arrive where they are needed. All this is evidence that there is no coherent and seriously committed state policy as to how to approach the problem of forced displacement, in particular, there has not yet been a serious attempt to implement the Ley 387. And finally, my informant stressed the context of the armed conflict. Of primary importance in his view is to work for the prevention of displacement by focussing on its main cause, the flourishing Para militarism. On the other hand, more legislative activity is not seen as helpful, as the instruments that exist, above all the human rights provisions contained in the Constitution, such as the right to life, the right to family life and the right to free movement, if applied and effective, provide for the basic guaranties that displaced persons need to reconstruct a life in dignity.
As the main actors in bringing about these changes by pressuring the state he sees, first of all, the displaced persons themselves. However, their situation of utter deprivation of civil and political as well as economic, social and cultural human rights inhibits their possibilities to engage themselves in processes of political activism which is why they need the assistance and strengthening accompaniment of NGOs. Furthermore, great responsibility is seen on the side of the United Nations and foreign governments to pressure the Colombian government to abide by their obligations according to internal law, especially the Constitution, and international human rights and humanitarian law.

3. Displaced Women Organising Themselves in the Asociación Colombiana de Mujeres Desplazadas

The Asociación Colombiana de Mujeres Desplazadas Luchando Para Proyectar el Futuro (Colombian Association of displaced women fighting to design the future) was founded in November 2000. I was invited to its first meetings and so had the chance to meet and talk to several women about their perceptions of their rights and needs as displaced women, about their experiences with state institutions, NGOs and other support institutions, about their expectations and suggestions for solutions and about their hopes and motivations to engage in the Asociación. The following presentation is based on information taken from non-representative interviews with three women participants in the Asociación6, from the discussion in the first two foundation sessions of the Asociación, and from the Statutes of the Asociación.

3.1 Rights, Needs and Demands

All my informants had very clear ideas about what their rights are and where they derive from. All agreed that as citizens of Colombia they have the same basic rights as every other citizen, derived from the Constitution of 1991. They mentioned primarily the rights to life and free movement, to adequate housing and food, to education and health, and the right to work, furthermore, the rights to access to their lands and to compensation for their losses. One informant mentioned furthermore the right to have their own culture respected and the freedom of expression and association. All those rights understood as demands are legitimised by the concept of a life in dignity the validity of which my informants assume as self-evident. That means that although they derive their rights from the Constitution, the idea of universal and indispensable human rights is tacitly part of their argument.
The state is seen to be responsible for guaranteeing these rights and to fail completely in doing so. The lack of financial resources is consensually rejected as a valid defence, but rather seen as proof of the existing social injustice that assigns resources, for example, to the military or the cultural sector but not to the satisfaction of basic needs of the displaced population. Apparently there exist feelings of helplessness and dependency on the state in terms of the realisation of these rights. One of my informants stressed the fact that the lack of general and legal education especially of displaced people many of which are campesinos and campesinas from rural areas reduces their capabilities of negotiating and demanding their rights as they simply do not know them.
My informants have a clear position that the immediate and essential necessities that they formulated were all corresponded by rights. This could either mean that in their view the legal situation in terms of the law as it is ‘written in the books’ provides for full protection or it could be understood to indicate that the women feel they could only legitimately formulate as needs and demand from the state what has already been constitutionally established as a right. The comment of one of the women that she participates in the Asociación in order to achieve ‘at least what we are entitled to according to the law’ seems to indicate the latter.
In any case, there was a consensus that the legal provisions only in theory offer that protection but that the prevailing pattern is non-compliance and open contravention against the law by the various state entities and agents.
From the range of needs and corresponding rights we can read that the primary interests centre less around the return to their former life and more around immediate survival issues as well as around reconstruction of a life in dignity in the sites of refuge. In the pursuit of that, my informants felt that they had not received any help from any side, although at the same time all of them reported to have received at some point in time some minor form of emergency aid, mostly from the Red de Solidaridad Social. I can only understand this as meaning that these forms of aid were completely insufficient and/ or did not offer the type of support that is primarily needed. To re-establish one’s former productivity and economic autonomy is a central issue. Not to depend on the charity of others and not to see oneself and to be seen as a burden or cost factor for the society forms part of what it means to reconstruct a life in dignity. This is a key problem around the women’s experiences with aid and support programmes from governmental institutions as well as NGOs and churches as will be seen below.

3.2. The Services of NGOs: Experiences, Critiques and Expectations

My informants offer very clear and detailed analyses of their experiences with, critiques and expectations of the NGOs’ aid and support services.
The NGOs are criticised for their lack of training and competence in terms of project planning and management, administration and financing as well as in terms of tolerance and respecting cultural differences. Rise to another important point of critique of aid institutions in general gives the experience with a church that conditioned the provision of aid and with an NGO that offered food aid packages of such poor quality that the recipients felt humiliated. Moreover, strong distrust is expressed towards any form of intermediaries, including NGOs as the experience is that all forms of aid, be it financial or in kind, are not directly handed over to the people in need and so never arrive where they are supposed to.
With regard to legal services my informants understand as such a form of legal advice provided on an individual basis on issues such as reclaiming lost properties and claiming pension and compensation payments. Some women have made use of such services, others did not need to. In any case, a particular need for more accessible services of such kind has not been expressed. The legal advice to and legalization of the Asociación through the NGO that iniciated and facilitated their foundation is not considered a legal service the women themselves had made use of.
As clear as the critique are the suggestions and expectations of the role of NGOs. The strong desire to reintegrate oneself as a productive and autonomous member of society means that the services should include orientation, sustainable training and productive projects. The overall performance of NGOs needs to be improved through professional, efficient and sustainable project planning and management and independent control of the financing. The general disillusionment and distrust against NGOs that results from experiences of corruption and mismanagement led to the suggestion that all NGO personnel should be recruited from the displaced population to avoid that intermediaries work to serve other than the target population’s interests. While the argument of agency and control in the hands of the displaced people is very strong, one of my informants has an interestingly ambivalent position. On the one hand she mentioned as the support she expected the provision of means for the satisfaction of basic needs, such as the provision of housing, food, health and education through the Colombian government, foreign states and NGOs. This together with her response to my question how one could improve the situation – ‘I don’t know how’ – indicates to me feelings of complete disillusionment and disempowerment. Yet, at the same time, it was her to suggest, that all support work should be taken on by the displaced people themselves, as all intermediaries, no matter of which institution or political background or well-meaning intentions, would only endanger the efficiency and reliability of the project execution and redistribution of means. This is the motivation for her to participate in the Asociación. Obviously I cannot assess how justified that distrust towards NGOs is but I trust in the sensibility of her conclusions that derive from her life experiences. While being highly critical about the prospects of the Asociación because of the involvement of an NGO, an organisation of intermediaries, she still considers it necessary to engage herself in that process to make their situation visible on the national and international level, to collectively fight for their rights to be guaranteed by the state, and to gain access to programmes, institutions and processes they were so far excluded from, and she feels that it is her role as head of household to take on this role on behalf of her family. So, apparently in spite of all the disillusionment she has not lost her sense of agency and maintains a vision of political activism.

3.3 Why a Women’s Organisation? – Motivation, Objectives and Activities

All my informants, while coming from different points of critique with the existing state and non-state programmes of attention to the displaced population came to the same conclusion that they cannot wait for the needed help or support to come upon them but that they must become active, organise themselves and collectively fight against their legal, political, economic, social and cultural deprivations, in other words, to empower themselves through a collective process. At the same time, they acknowledged that they are not experienced in nor prepared for organisational and political work, they lack skills of planning and management as well as knowledge of legal and financing issues.
During the first meetings of the Asociación, the women discussed the needs and motivations for an organisation of displaced women. Various reasons were critical. Firstly, because there was a lack of organisational structures, women did not know about each other and each others’ problems, which prevented them from formulating political demands and to unite their voices to make them loud enough not to remain unheard in the national and international arenas of politics and government. Secondly, the disillusionment with the existing infrastructure of attention of the state as well as of NGOs and the international community make it necessary to become active against this ignorance and indifference. Thirdly, economic productivity can be increased through the synergetic effects of cooperative efforts. Moreover, various economic programmes of the government, for example training and financing projects for the foundation of small-scale enterprises frequently are accessible only to applicants that are organised in groups with legal capacity. A further important indication for the self-perception of the Asociación are the discussions around and the choice of their name. Mujeres Desplazadas (displaced women) identifies the groups as being united through their sharing of similar experiences and situations. At the same time the discussions revealed an awareness of the differences that are, however, not seen as separating. Luchando para Proyectar el Futuro (fighting to design the future) indicates that the women do not want to portray themselves as passive victims but as active and forward-looking; not as separatist, i.e. pursuing ‘only’ displaced women’s interests but as working for peace and solidarity for the whole of the society.
In its Statutes, the Asociación formulates as its aims to develop policies and projects in the area of forced displacement, to work for the socio-economic and cultural stability of the family and to acknowledge and promote the women’s leadership in all its activities. The motivation for the organisation, hence, is not so much the perceived necessity to afford special attention to women’s specific needs, but rather the strategic consideration that women have special organisational and negotiation skills and leadership qualities to offer that suggest efficiency and success in their political, economic and social activities.
Accordingly, the catalogue of envisaged activities, according to Article 2 of the Statutes, is not designed to respond to women’s specific needs or to benefit exclusively women. They range from the collaboration with other organisations, the participation in the policy-making processes, and the creation of projects of income generation and training to the generation of financial resources and the offer of orientation services. Noticeable is, firstly, the broadly defined character of the Asociación that contains political, social, economic objectives and elements of networking, activism, production and service provision. Secondly, solidarity and a collective thinking and planning characterize the Asociación, which promotes organisational initiatives that involve team work and which aims to benefit not women as such, but families as well as marginalized groups such as the economically marginalized, women from ethnic minorities and the elderly. This corresponds with the views of my informants, that because women and men are indiscriminately subjected to forced displacement - which is not to say that they experience it in the same way - , they do not want to exclude men as beneficiaries of the services and achievements of the Asociación. On the contrary, they view this form of organisation as a means to ensure the benefit for the whole families, because women, as opposed to men would channel and redistribute equally every benefit to all the members of their families.

4. Conclusion

From the contrasting profiles of the legal NGOs and the Asociación, we can draw the following conclusions. To a considerable extent the problem analyses of the various NGOs and the women from the Asociación coincide, namely in the sense that both sides recognize the positive potentials of the legislation and lament the open non-compliance of the state with its legal obligations due to the lack of political will.

In response to that analysis a wide range of concepts of legal services has been developed. They include the legal investigation of human rights issues in the area of forced displacement, the presentation of international human rights precedents, the lobbying for the rights of displaced populations in national and international political arenas, individual and collective legal advise and representation, collective legal education, the accompaniment and legalisation of organisational processes and political mobilization. Underlying almost all of those concepts is the understanding that the working of law is not something entirely outside the sphere of influence of the people concerned but that collective and political action and the formulation and operation of law are closely interrelated. This understanding, however, has not been effectively communicated to the base. Therefore, the women’s disinterest in what they understand as legal services cannot be taken to mean that displaced women would consider the concepts and work of those NGOs as unimportant or superfluous.

The NGOs’ various approaches imply different forms and degrees of involvement of the displaced persons. For example, some organisations, such as the organisation A, work only with organisations but not directly with displaced communities or individuals. Others, such as the organisation B,do not work with organisations but handle individual cases and target in their promotional and educational work at groups different from the displaced communities, such as professional lawyers and politicians. Some of the services of A, C and D employ educational or ‘empowerment’ approaches and are, therefore, in danger of addressing the displaced populations in a top down or paternalist manner. And finally, some services, that are offered, for example, by organisations C and D, are designed to directly hand over the agency to the displaced people themselves. The less directly, broadly and actively the organisations involve the displaced people the more questionable or at least the more in need of justification seem to me to be their ways of agenda-setting and their concept of legal services in general.
Furthermore, there are differences in whom the services are meant to benefit in what way. While the individual case work of organisation C, for example, is supposed to serve the approaching client by integrating her or him into the judicial machinery, the investigations of A and B, on the other hand, are preparatory work that, in my view, is more likely to enrich the academic discourse or to support promotional work in the national and international political arenas. Legal education and political mobilization projects, again, aim at ‘empowering’ the displaced population, i.e. to enable them to work themselves for their own benefits. The degree of efficiency, validity and legitimacy of the legal services in my view is determined by the extent to which the NGOs hand over their control over the redistribution of benefits and by the extent to which the outcomes of the services translate into structural changes to the indiscriminate benefit of the displaced population as a whole and as such.
None of the NGOs I talked to found that their approaches excluded certain groups from their attention. All of them had addressed the issue of gender in some form, A through an investigation into women-specific consequences of forced displacement, B through preparing an international precedent about displaced women, D through workshops in cooperation with other NGOs that aimed at integrating women into the existing organisational structures of displaced people and C through the initiation of a women’s association. Apart from the latter, the issue of gender has not been an integral and structural part of their agendas. And all projects but the latter either addressed women as an object of investigation (A), as a model for demonstration within a legalistic discourse (B) or as the object of integrationalist efforts (D) but they did not transfer the agency and leadership to women.
In contrast, the women’s perspectives are characterised by disappointment and disillusionment about the efficiency and reliability of NGO support services and programmes and by a great distrust against any form of intermediation or delegation. Instead they stress their own agency and leadership as opposed to mere participation together with people outside their shared experiences and interests. Furthermore, they stress that the collective political and economic work of women is a strategic approach that proves to be more efficient than the work of male dominated or mixed groups.

While the existing male-dominated initiatives tend to neglect women’s’ issues in their regular agendas and, hence, seem to make ‘special’ women’s projects necessary, the women perceive an urgent necessity to act and to improve the life situation of all displaced people, they do not promote the idea of ‘separatist’ women-specific projects. This, however, is not to say that displaced women’s situations, experiences and needs do not differ from those of men. On the contrary, women’s activism certainly would not neglect, ignore or exclude women’s concerns, yet, these are not a prevalent nor the only nor an isolated issue to be addressed, according to the women.

The women do acknowledge that there is a lack of experience of working in organisations, of political and economic project planning and management and of legal and accountancy knowledge and skills. That means that there is a need for some form of assistance in forms that some NGOs would qualify as legal services that they do actually offer.
Displacement destroys the local organisational infrastructure and community life, communal decision-making, collective trust and co-operation, resulting in the absence of communication, in general distrust and retreat into privacy7. To overcome the standstill that this implies there is a need for more development not only of grassroots movements as such, but specifically of women’s collective agency and leadership as a strategic option. There is also a need to continue legal services in the sense of accompanying such processes of self-organisation, leaving agency and leadership entirely to the displaced people as a respectful reaction to the existing distrust, taking it serious and understanding that it is a sensible response to the life experiences of forcibly displaced persons.


1 See, for example, Conferencia Episcopal de Colombia, Derechos humanos - desplazados por la violencia en Colombia, Bogotá 1995, p. 85; Plataforma Colombia de Derechos Humanos, Democracia y Desarrollo, La desventura de los desplazados, en: Así van los DESC, 05/2000, pp. 18ff, at p. 23; Alejandro Valencia Villa, Balance y perspectivas de los mecanismos internacionales de protección jurídica de los desplazados, in: Instituto de Defensa Legal, Consulta sobre desplazamiento y refugio en la región Andina, Lima, Peru 1995, pp. 199ff, at p. 209; Gustavo Gallón Giraldo, Invitación a vivir al derecho en Colombia, in: Comisión Colombiana de Juristas, Otorgamiento del Status Consultivo ante Naciones Unidas a la Comisión Colombiana de Juristas, Bogotá 1999, pp. 11ff., at p. 15.


See, for example, articles 17 and 19 of the Ley 387.


Nora Segura Escobar and Donny Meertens, Lo que dejan las guerras, (source unknown), pp. 35ff, at pp. 37f.


See, for example, Women's Commission for refugee and women and children, La Farsa de la preocupación - El abandono de la población desplazada en Colombia, (without place of publication) 1998; Nora Segura Escobar and Donny Meertens, Uprootedness, Gender and Internal Displacement in Colombia, in: Beyond Law 6 (7), 1997, pp. 15-33; Haydi Duque, Mujeres en situación de desplazamiento - una experiencia de reinvención social, desde la perspectica de género e contextos urbanos, in: Martha Nubia Bello, Elena Martín Cardinal and Fernando Jiovani Arias (eds.), Efectos Psicosociales y culturales del desplazamiento, Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Corporación AVE, Fundación Dos Mundos, Bogotá 2000 pp. 227ff; Donny Meertens, Género y conflicto armado en Colombia: aproximación a un diagnóstico, (source unknown) pp. 4ff; Nora Segura Escobar et al., La Mujer desplazada y la violencia, Informe final de la investigación presentado a la Consejería Presidencial para los DD. HH., Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Facultad de Ciencias Humanas, Bogotá; Jorge E. Rojas Rodríguez (CODHES) et al., Mujer Desplazada - Violencia y Discriminación, in: Un país que huye - desplazamiento y violencia en una nación fragmentada, CODHES, UNICEF, Bogotá 1999, pp. 127ff; Boletín de la Consultora para los derechos humanos y el desplazamiento, edición especial No. 3, mujer desplazada: violencia y discriminación, Bogotá 1997; Donny Meertens, Víctimas y sobrevivientes de la guerra: tres miradas de género, Revista Foro, vol. 34, pp. 19ff; RUT informa – sobre desplazamiento forzado en Colombia, Vol. 5 (01-03/2000) and 6 (04-06/2000); Red Nacional de Mujeres, Informe final del encuentro nacional de mujeres en situación de desplazamiento por violencia en Colombia, Bogotá 1999


For that reason, this article - different from the copies that I sent to the investigated organisations for internal discussion - does not contain the names of the NGOs as I do not want them to be represented and identified in ways that not every worker might agree with and as for the purposes of this article, which are to demonstrate, illustrate with a few examples and discuss the wide range of possible and existing concepts and practices of legal services, there is no need to identify the organisations.


I want to cordially thank María G., Luz Cecilia P. and Luz Martina P. for their essential and extensive help and support.


Manuel Enrique Pérez Martínez, Sistematización de la Experiencia de Atención Humanitaria de la Fundación para el Desarrollo Social, la Democracia y la Paz - PROGRESAR - a Grupos de Población en Situación de Desplazamiento por Violencia: hacia una estrategia de reconstrucción comunitaria, Bogotá 2000 (not yet published), p. 48.


Boletín de la Consultora para los derechos humanos y el desplazamiento, edición especial No. 3, mujer desplazada: violencia y discriminación, Bogotá 1997.

Conferencia Episcopal de Colombia, Derechos humanos - desplazados por la violencia en Colombia, Bogotá 1995.
Duque, Haydi, Mujeres en situación de desplazamiento - una experiencia de reinvención social, desde la perspectica de género e contextos urbanos, in: Martha Nubia Bello, Elena Martín Cardinal and Fernando Jiovani Arias (eds.), Efectos Psicosociales y culturales del desplazamiento, Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Corporación AVE, Fundación Dos Mundos, Bogotá 2000.
Gallón Giraldo, Gustavo, Invitación a vivir al derecho en Colombia, in: Comisión Colombiana de Juristas, Otorgamiento del Status Consultivo ante Naciones Unidas a la Comisión Colombiana de Juristas, Bogotá 1999, pp. 11ff.
Meertens, Donny, Género y conflicto armado en Colombia: aproximación a un diagnóstico, source unknown, pp. 4ff.
Meertens, Donny, Víctimas y sobrevivientes de la guerra: tres miradas de género, Revista Foro, vol. 34, pp. 19ff.
Pérez Martínez, Manuel Enrique, Sistematización de la Experiencia de Atención Humanitaria de la Fundación para el Desarrollo Social, la Democracia y la Paz - PROGRESAR - a Grupos de Población en Situación de Desplazamiento por Violencia: hacia una estrategia de reconstrucción comunitaria, Bogotá 2000 (not yet published).
Plataforma Colombia de Derechos Humanos, Democracia y Desarrollo, La desventura de los desplazados, en: Así van los DESC, 05/2000, pp. 18ff.
Rojas Rodríguez, Jorge E. (CODHES) et al., Mujer Desplazada - Violencia y Discriminación, in: Un país que huye - desplazamiento y violencia en una nación fragmentada, CODHES, UNICEF, Bogotá 1999, pp. 127ff.
Red Nacional de Mujeres, Informe final del encuentro nacional de mujeres en situación de desplazamiento por violencia en Colombia, Bogotá 1999.
RUT informa – sobre desplazamiento forzado en Colombia, Vol. 5 (01-03/2000) and 6 (04-06/2000).
Segura Escobar, Nora, and Donny Meertens, Lo que dejan las guerras, source unknown, pp. 35ff.
Segura Escobar, Nora et al., La Mujer desplazada y la violencia, Informe final de la investigación presentado a la Consejería Presidencial para los DD. HH., Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Facultad de Ciencias Humanas, Bogotá.
Segura Escobar, Nora, and Donny Meertens, Uprootedness, Gender and Internal Displacement in Colombia, in: Beyond Law 6 (7), 1997, pp. 15ff.
Valencia Villa, Alejandro, Balance y perspectivas de los mecanismos internacionales de protección jurídica de los desplazados, in: Instituto de Defensa Legal, Consulta sobre desplazamiento y refugio en la región Andina, Lima, Peru 1995, pp. 199ff.
Women's Commission for refugee and women and children, La Farsa de la preocupación - El abandono de la población desplazada en Colombia, (without place of publication) 1998, pp. 227ff.

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