Women change the world: Colombia

Story - 2019-03-03
Women’s rights are human rights! Unfortunately the obvious statement is far from reality. Still in 2019 women face systematic discrimination of their rights and liberties every day in every country.
Portrait of a smiling Jani Silva in a lavender colored shirt.
Jani Silva is not easily scared and continues her struggle despite the threats she receive. Photos by: ANZORC

This week we celebrate women who organize and stand up for their rights and challenge patriarchal norms in our societies. To commemorate International Women’s Day Forum Syd highlights inspirational women who show that together we have the power to change! 

The story of Jani Silva - a rebel from the heart

Talking with Jani after one of the usual meetings she leads with the communities of Perla Amazónica (Amazonian Pearl), a peasant reserve zone in the southern Colombian region of Putumayo, the conversation took us to chat about her favourite place in the world. She immediately invites us to wake up very early the next day and visit a place in her farm, where she sits during the sunrise, looking down at the river, the frontier with Ecuador, and the mountains standing in the horizon.

- I feel very connected with this place at that early hour, it is my place. People here make fun of me, they say that when I die, I will be haunting people here, she says laughing. 

Jani Silva with a fierce gaze is standing in front of a lake.

A tireless fighter

Jani, who looks very calm, recochera (a very Colombian way of describing someone who is good humoured and likes to joke around), loving and charismatic, is recognised as having a strong character and, said in her words, being a rebel from the heart. Her dissatisfaction with the difficult situations that communities live in her region, has turned Jani into a tireless fighter for what belongs to the peasant communities.

She is always looking for solutions, talking to the people, moving throughout the territory to acknowledge their needs. As a leader, she represents more than 800 families of the Amazonian Pearl Peasant Reserve Zone, all of which share the same desire for peace in their territory.  Energized by Jani’s enthusiasm and wisdom, these communities are preserving the peasant culture, protecting the environment, and demanding the recognition of peasants as political subjects with specific rights, an issue that has been recently promoted worldwide through the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas.

I am a woman that suffers with other people’s suffering, who is very concerned with the fragility of some people due to the imposition of others… I am convinced that if many people become aware of the critical situation many others are experiencing, we could definitely change the well-being conditions in the rural areas.

Jani Silva, 53 years old, was born in the city of Leticia (the capital city of the Colombian Amazonian region) but since she was very young she fell in love with the rural way of life. At age 15 she decided to abandon school and stay in the countryside.

- I enjoyed very much going fishing in the afternoons, taking pleasure in the most simple things, surrounded by a community that rapidly felt like family, we were all acquainted, says Jani, as she is interrupted by the salute of a passerby, and then they mock each other for a while. 

An activist since the start

Since she was only 18 years old she has been part of the local Board of Community Action, with a long trajectory in the support for human rights within her community. 

- One of the most inspiring moments for me occurred while attending a community meeting, when I discovered that nobody knew how to elaborate a minute, even though they were members of the local Board. I suddenly was aware that I could be very useful for my community, in spite of my lack of formal education, and being only 15 or 16 years old.

Jani Silva together with her big family of seven children.

Now a mother of four, grandmother of seven, Jani is the legal representative (unanimously elected by the 22 Community Boards) of the Integral Sustainable Development Association of the Amazonian Pearl (ADISPA). An organization that currently represents the Amazonian Pearl Peasant Reserve Zone, and which has promoted the implementation process of the Peace Agreement in the territory, as well as promoted reforestation initiatives and socio-environmental affections due to oil operations, including the Amerisur company, which ignores UN principles on human rights and the environment.

Receives anonymous threats

Due to these sensitive advocacy exercises, since December 2017 Jani has been displaced from the territory and forced to live in the nearby city of Puerto Asis, where she is still being anonymously followed and threatened. And unfortunately the extremely risky conditions have reached a critical point for other ADISPA members. As we are writing this story, we receive the terrible news of the assassination of Darwin and Rocío Milena, a young couple who were members of the organisation. 

Jani Silva is gesturing with her hands during a meeting.

The Putumayo region has been affected by several armed groups, especially by paramilitary groups and military forces who have stigmatized the rural communities as guerrilla collaborators, giving rise to the persecution and killings of social leaders. Nevertheless, it has been a region with notorious levels of organisation and mobilisation. In 1996 the region experienced an intense period with the cocalero marches, which were responded with repressive measures, and made way also to massacres, feminicides, and disappeared people. 

On 2010 we had a big mobilisation due to the lack of teachers, the lack of roads, the problem with illegal crops in the region, among others.

- And we decided to hold a strike in the Putumayo River, something that was never done before, and we blocked the river with boats, with the participation of different religious groups, also something that was never done before, and that many thought was impossible to achieve. It made me very proud of the work we were doing, says Jani, who despite the sad memories always seems to transmit an inspiring and warm feeling.

Experiencing how she relates with all the passersby that greet her while we are talking, you can understand why all the peasant families have placed their trust on this honest, hardworking woman who in spite the personal threats and periodical killings of members of her organisation, is still carrying on the struggle to build peace in the Amazonian Pearl.

Read our series "Women change the world" of inspiring women's rights activists:

Belarus: Irina Sukhys is protecting the environment from nuclear plants.
Cambodia: "Being a young girl wont stop me", Song Rany an emerging leader.
Kenya: Grace Lolim, defying culture in the fight for equality. 
Liberia: Betty Breeze Doh, standing up for thousands of women in Liberia.
Somalia: Kaltun Sheikh Hassan challenges old norms and practices.
Sweden: Lovette Jallow is fighting racism in Sweden.

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