“I had the feeling that a piece of our heart was going to be taken away from us.”
That’s what you, Madam Vice President, Francia, once said when you explained how you got into politics. You were 13 years old when the government of the day decided to divert the Ovejas River to build a controversial dam. The river on whose banks your grandmother had taught you to grow coffee and manioc. The river where you learned to swim.
If this river had been diverted, a source of water, an elixir of life for an entire region would have dried up. The inhabitants of your village La Toma would have had to leave their houses and their homeland. At that time, you stood up together with the people from the village and raised your voice. In court, you appealed against the decision and were able to prevent the river from being diverted.
You were only 13 years old, but that was the beginning of your commitment to the environment and human rights. Your struggle continues to this day, and we can learn so much from your efforts.
That’s why we’re presenting the Unidas Prize to you today. Because you embody what this prize and this network is all about. We are fighting for equality together, regardless of gender, regardless of where we come from.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank you personally, because your commitment is also a role model for feminist foreign policy, which we as the German Government have just launched. In my country, too, there were and still are those who think that feminist foreign policy is something banal or something completely out of touch and that we’re imposing our opinion on others around the world.
But you only have to take a look at the world, perhaps as a woman, to see that the opposite is the case. In Latin America, many countries are way ahead of us in terms of feminist foreign policy, even though it may not be called that.
All your life you have done just that. You have campaigned for what Margot Wallström, the former Swedish Foreign Minister, once defined as feminist foreign policy, namely the three Rs. Campaigning for equal rights, equal resources and equal representation.
We can learn from you in this that politics needs perseverance, especially when it comes to women’s rights. The struggle for the livelihood of the people of La Toma continued for decades. That was the reason why you studied law and helped time and again to defend the rights of the people from your village in court against the interests of the big corporations.
But there was one thing that even the courts were unable to stop: the illegal mines. When the excavators started digging, you interrupted your studies and returned to La Toma.
For ten days, you walked with 80 women from La Toma to Bogotá, over 500 km. You stayed in the capital for 22 days until you achieved your goal. The Government set up a task force before having the illegal mines cleared.
In politics, progress and even justice are sometimes laborious. But your example shows that this leads to success. And this leads to success if you have staying power and, above all, plenty of passion.
And all those who know you even better than I do are aware of that, I think, every day. But I also have to admit that, on some issues, you ask yourself, and I’m sure many people, including Colombian women, ask themselves this: how long can we keep on discussing equal rights in the 21st century? For me, one example is the right to abortion for women all around the world. Until last year, gynaecologists in Germany weren’t allowed to state on their websites that they perform abortions. Until recently, when we finally changed that as the new German Government.
In the US, hundreds of thousands of women and men have taken to the streets because the right to abortion is being increasingly restricted in many states.
In Colombia, the Constitutional Court ruled last year that abortion is, at long last, no longer a criminal offence. This success was also thanks to you – thanks to many courageous women. Women’s rights activists who have been fighting for equal rights for decades, whose fight is also the fight for the right to abortion.
And I would like to say quite clearly at this point, as Foreign Minister and also as a woman and mother of two daughters, that no male politician, judge or public prosecutor knows what an unwanted pregnancy means, especially following cases of rape.
It’s our body, it’s our choice.
And we will fight together around the world until this applies to each and every woman. It is our mission to ensure that the universal right to be able to decide what happens to our own bodies can be taken for granted by our daughters.
Francia, you know better than anyone how much still needs to be done. No country in the world has achieved genuine gender equality to date. That’s why you’re setting up a dedicated ministry that will promote equality for women and marginalised groups in society. This is a huge step on a path that is arduous and continues to require the utmost perseverance.
But you will keep on treading it, even if you have to endure hostility as a result, as I heard once again this morning.
But we can also learn from you what courage in politics means. Racist and sexist hostilities are part of your everyday life. Unfortunately. We talked this morning about the fact that every woman knows this feeling when others run out of arguments, that suddenly an additional sexist level of attack is deployed in interactions with women. And even more so as a black woman. And that’s why it’s so important for us, with you as the recipient of this Unidas Prize, to make it clear that this is about equality. But this is always also a question of anti-racism. For you and for many people who want to make a difference, who want to achieve genuine equality at long last, fearing for your lives is always part of your struggle.
According to the organisation Global Witness, Colombia is the deadliest country for environmental activists in the world. The organisation recorded 65 murders in 2022.
And you have also been the victim of attacks time and again. I think we can all only imagine what impacts such terrible memories have on a person. On a woman who is sole in charge of two children. On an activist who had to witness so often how her friends had to pay with their lives for standing up for a political cause. And yet you kept going – because you care about your fellow human beings.
You have always known that you can make a difference. Because you feel their pain. Like the pain you felt when you were 13 when a piece of your heart was about to be taken away from you and your family on the Ovejas River.
That’s why you kept going, even in the face of immense resistance.
And that brings me to my third point. We can learn from you why participation and access to resources, the third part of feminist foreign policy, are so important.
You once said the following: “When I was little, I never wanted to be black. The black women I saw on TV played enslaved women, cleaners and prostitutes. And at the same time, I saw white women who had happy families and married beautiful men with blue eyes who looked like princes.”
And today you’re not a princess; you’re the Vice President of your country. And the important thing is that you can be a shining light for all the other girls and women.
Millions of girls see themselves in you and know: I can also do that.
During the elections last year, we saw – and this news also made it as far as Germany – how many people you were able to mobilise as a person, as a woman. In the remote regions of Chocó, Cauca and Nariño, people sometimes travelled for days to be able to cast their vote at their nearest polling station. Turnout of 80 percent – nothing like that had ever happened there before.
I remember something a human rights activist in Berlin once told me: “It’s difficult to become something that cannot be seen or heard.”
But you can be seen and heard. And that’s been the case for decades. In so doing, you give other women a voice. And that’s what we mean when we talk about representation.
It makes a difference when women have a seat at the table in order to decide the future of our society. When our parliaments and company boards reflect our society as it is – namely half female – and exclude no one. We Germans can also learn this from others, from modern constitutions. Even in Germany in the German Bundestag, we don’t represent everyone in our society.
Like every country, we have about 50 percent women in our society – or indeed a little more. But only 34 percent of the members of our Parliament are female.
That’s what I always point out in Germany when I talk about feminism or equal rights. It’s in the interest of us all to get all parts of society on board when we talk about our future.
Because no society can achieve its potential if it excludes or discriminates against half of its people. Who could know this better than you? The people of Colombia.
For decades, the conflict between rebel groups and paramilitaries has held your country in a stranglehold. Single mothers now fend for entire communities in the highlands because the fathers have been abducted or killed. This conflict has left deep wounds in Colombian society that can only be healed if everyone is involved.
Studies show that the likelihood of a peace agreement – for which your new Government also stands, a comprehensive peace – lasting at least two years increases by 20 percent if women are actively involved in peace negotiations.
And yet, around the world, only 13 percent of all negotiators are women. That’s why you, Francia, campaigned early on for women to be involved in the peace process in Colombia. And today you’re part of the team negotiating with the ELN on behalf of your Government.
When you gave your moving speech on the Plaza de Bolívar after the election, you said: “Just like Martin Luther King, I have a dream. I have a dream to see my nation at peace.”
The fact that this no longer has to remain a dream for your children, but can become reality, is thanks to women like you. Francia, it is therefore an honour for me to present you with the Unidas Prize today for everything that you have achieved.
For your commitment, for your courage, and for giving millions of people, millions of women, a voice. So that no 13-year-old girl has to live in fear that a piece of her homeland will be taken away from her in the future. Congratulations!