Bristol Colombia Week 2019: Opportunities and Challenges for the Colombian Truth Commission

Post written by: Mary Ryder ( mr12859@bristol.ac.uk)

Mary Ryder is a 1st year doctoral researcher at the School of Education, University of Bristol. Her research explores the conflict narratives of rural farmers in drug-producing regions of Colombia, within the country’s transitional justice processes.

As we approach three years since the negotiated peace agreement between the FARC-EP and the Colombian state, the University of Bristol’s Centre for Comparative and International Research in Education (CIRE) co-hosted members of the Colombian Truth Commission (CTC) to participate in ‘Truth, Memory and Diaspora: The Seeds of Peace in Colombia’, a week of transnational dialogue and collaboration between UK and Colombian institutions.

The University of Bristol has been working with the CTC through a variety of different collaborative projects including ‘MEMPAZ: Bringing Memories in from the Margins’, funded by AHRC, Newton and Colciencias, which supports the creative memory practices of local organisations to bring memories from the margins into Colombia’s transitional justice processes; and ‘Transitional justice as education’, funded by AHRC, which works to support the gender and pedagogy work of the CTC by connecting it with feminist and educational expertise from around the world.

The week of events served as a unique opportunity to hear directly from the CTC about the achievements, innovations and challenges faced in the implementation of the peace agreement, at this pivotal time in Colombia’s history. In this blog I highlight the key messages shared.

Gender and Pedagogical Innovations

Alejandra Coll, of the Gender Working Group at the CTC, addressed the question: ‘What does it mean to be a feminist and learning Truth Commission?’ Together, she and Ana Cristina Navarro, of the Pedagogy Working Group, discussed the Truth Commission’s innovative approaches to gender and pedagogy – two fundamental issues on the peace-building agenda in Colombia.

Alejandra Coll declared the CTC a feminist Truth Commission. Colombia is the first Truth Commission to have a gender approach central to its entire mandate, which is intended to uncover the disproportionate impact of armed conflict on the lives of women, girls and LGBTI people as a consequence of the violence exercised against them because of their gender, sexual orientation and gender identity. The Gender Working Group at the CTC has adopted a framework grounded in feminist theory and is employing feminist methodologies designed to promote the participation of women and LGBTI people.

Do Colombian society and Colombia’s education system embrace diversity? This is one of the key questions that needs to be tackled through the CTC’s intersectional work. It should be noted that the CTC is able to make recommendations in its final report, to address structural inequalities and stimulate long-term policy and social change, including through education. 

The Truth-telling of ‘the Colombia outside Colombia’

Commissioner Carlos Beristain commented on the work being done to collect testimonies in “the Colombia outside of Colombia”, to investigate how the armed conflict has been experienced by Colombians living abroad, many of whom were forced to leave the country in exile.

The Commissioner asserted the challenges of carrying out truth-seeking processes in such a polarised context, where lies have been institutionalised, pain internalised, and social fractures run deep in society. 

The CTC intends to create new spaces where previously silenced memories can be shared. Carlos Beristain was joined by members of the UK Truth Commission hub of civil society organisations to reflect upon their efforts to encourage UK based Colombians to give their testimony. 

“We hope you fall in love with the truth commission and become the channel of communication between people who want to give a testimony and us,” said Andrei Gomez Suarez, who is one of the individuals documenting interviews for the Truth Commission in the UK. 

The Challenges of Working in a Polarised Context

Emeritus Professor Gonzalo Sanchez, the former director of the Colombian National Centre for Historical Memory and a member of the Advisory Board of the Truth Commission, reflected on historical memory and peace-building in times of polarisation

Gonzalo discussed the question of who produces memory work and for whom? He raised concerns that in Colombia today, memory and truth are being threatened by “toxic narratives,” made up of hatred, vengeance and fear, built up over years of conflict, and driven by those who oppose the negotiated peace agreement. 

Related to this is the issue of legitimacy and memory production. A key challenge for the CTC is to ensure that marginalised voices, which have historically been excluded and discriminated against, are heard and taken seriously by the Colombian state. 

“It would seem that we are moving from a memory by and for the victims to one constructed by and for those responsible.”

The Opportunity for Reconciliation

The final event of the week, a screening of ‘The Witness’ (El Testigo), a film about the photographer Jesús Abad Colorado who has documented violence in Colombia for over 25 years, allowed Gonzalo Sánchez and Lina Malagón, a Human Rights Lawyer teaching at the University of Bristol, to reflect on whether Colombia is ripe for reconciliation. 

The documentary tells the inspiring human stories of the people in Abad Colorado’s photographs, exploring the pertinent themes of resilience and forgiveness, and what they mean to those for whom so much is at stake. According to Gonzalo, the invaluable memory work of Abad Colorado to not only document, but also humanise the conflict, opened the door for the victims to speak out. 

The film generates a strong emotional connection with the conflict, felt inclusively by those who experiences the conflict indirectly or from a distance. is time to know the truth because we all have a story to tell and we need to move on, expressed Lina, in a resounding message of hope.  

Lessons learned

Bristol Colombia week 2019 provided a valuable opportunity for many Colombians and friends of Colombia to learn more about the CTC and to connect with the country’s transitional justice process, and with one another, so we can support peacebuilding from afar.

Truth-seeking in Colombia will not end with the culmination of the CTC’s three-year period. It is hoped that the final report produced by the CTC will create the conditions conducive to peace and will be accompanied by meaningful efforts to promote dialogue, reconciliation and coexistence on a local and national level, and beyond the national borders.


Why does global inequality in education persist?

Tigist Grieve, a member of CIRE at the School of Education, sat with our colleague Clare Walsh to talk about her research for the University of Bristol magazine Nonesuch October 2019 issue. The article is copied below.

International Development Ethnographer and Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow, Tigist Grieve, is researching marginalised voices in rural Ethiopia in an effort to explain the ongoing difficulties in achieving education for all globally.

In a year where we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of men landing on the Moon, we still can’t achieve access to education for all across the globe.1 I continually ask myself, why not? How is it so hard? We make it complicated by not listening and by not understanding other people’s perspectives. Why is it the trend to look at people living in poverty from a deficit point of view? My work as a Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow has given me the opportunity to build on my years of PhD research, which focuses on improving the educational outcomes and empowerment of adolescent girls in Ethiopia. I want to bring those voices of marginalised adolescent girls to the ongoing debate of gender and empowerment, while recognising the effort and resilience that goes unnoticed when we have a deficit-based perspective about certain categories of people.

I want to inspire people to go where others would never expect them to by engaging with relevant stakeholders in Ethiopia and beyond.

In particular, my work is about seeing the social, engaging and responding to local voices. In the words of the writer Arundhati Roy ‘There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.’

My inspiration for examining voice is the inspiring work of Robert Chambers, author of Rural Development: Putting the Last First. I am listening to the everyday lived experience of people. My work is about voice – the voices of children, of women, of the resource-strapped communities in rural areas. Really, international development policy to date hasn’t given adequate space to hear them, it’s not informed by their experiences or by their voices.2 Even where there is a claim for ‘voices of the poor’ it is proxy voices where the privileged few speak on their behalf from a position of assumption.

My work is focused on disseminating my research findings back to target communities in Ethiopia, to spark constructive debate about rural schooling and development. I want to do this in a way that challenges policy makers, development practitioners, donors, teachers, researchers and communities themselves.

I’m researching within two communities in Ethiopia, a peri-urban and rural, chosen because they are under the same local authority, but with considerable geographical differences. I believe there’s a misconception that certain communities don’t understand the value of education, but we need to research why, looking at policy, political economy, culture, social pressure. For example, despite the increasing enrolment, school attendance is very poor, not because education is not valued but because the expectation that children will be working around their homes and farms is greater. Girls’ attendance is much lower than boys because societal pressure is higher on girls. Boys have much better autonomy in how they use their time while girls in rural areas are time-poor. My work confirms the importance of recognising the difficulty of transforming gender relations through schooling alone.

We need to make informed decisions through lessons learned from quality research. The joy of being a researcher at the University of Bristol is the opportunity to collaborate with world-leading multi-disciplinary teams interested in developing ideas to meet the global challenges of development.

In analysing categories of children and childhood experiences, I’ve discovered that children are highly mobile in search of opportunities for them and their families, starting from a very young age. My research showed that the ultimate question in rural Ethiopia is ‘Who is this child to me?’ 16 per cent of children in households in my area of research do not live with their biological families and relatedness matters in this culture. This context is so important in Sub-Saharan Africa, which has such a huge population of children orphaned by the AIDS epidemic.3 The concept of family is a complex one and under-theorised in the context of Ethiopia. If you’re related to the head of the household, you have access to better resources.

I’m also looking at issues such as access to water and autonomy of reproductive health (or lack of). These also play a part in preventing girls from obtaining an education. A school without a water source or toilet facilities is not hospitable to children, even less so to adolescent girls dealing with menstruation. Climate change also has a part to play in water scarcity issues, with the African continent identified as one of the parts of the world most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.4

The University’s second cohort of 15 Vice-Chancellor’s Fellows started in the academic year 2018-19, joining the 12 from 2017-18. Alumni and friends have contributed funding for six of the Fellows to date. For more information on the Fellows see our dedicated web page.

1 UIS. (2018). One in Five Children, Adolescents and Youth is Out of School. [Available online at: uis.unesco.org/sites/default/files/documents/fs48-one-five-children-adolescents-youth-out-school-2018-en.pdf.] (last accessed 23.08.19).
2 Brock, K. and McGee R., (eds) (2002). Knowing Poverty: critical reflections on participatory research and policy. Earthscan.
3 UNICEF. (2016). For Every Child, End AIDS: Seventh Stocktaking Report, 2016.
4 Serdeczny, O., Adams, S., Baarsch, F., Coumou, D., Robinson, A., Hare, B., Schaeffer, M., Perrette, M., Reinhardt, J. (2016). Climate change impacts in Sub-Saharan Africa: from physical changes to their social repercussions. Regional Environmental Change. 1-16.