Shifting Frames, Vanishing Resources, and Dangerous Political Opportunities: Legal Mobilization among Displaced Women in Colombia

Published date01 March 2015
Date01 March 2015
Shifting Frames, Vanishing Resources, and
Dangerous Political Opportunities: Legal
Mobilization among Displaced Women in Colombia
Julieta Lemaitre Kristin Bergtora Sandvik
How can we make sense of the use of legal claims and tactics under conditions
of internal displacement and armed conflict? This article argues that in violent
contexts mobilization frames are unstable and constantly shifting, resources
tend to vanish, and political opportunities often imply considerable physical
danger.It is grounded on a three-year, multimethod study that followed inter-
nally displaced women’s organizations as they demanded government assis-
tance and protection in Colombia. Through detailed examples of specific
cases, this article illustrates the constraints of legal mobilization in violent con-
texts, as well as different social movement strategies of resistance. It, thus,
contributes to decentering theories of social movement uses of law that tend
to be based on the legal cultures and institutions of industrialized liberal
democracies, rather than on those of the Global South, and hence, tend to
exclude violence.
Colombia is a constitutional democracy with a strong adminis-
trative state and a steadily growing economy. Its 1991 constitution
and Constitutional Court are widely viewed as representative of a
new Latin American constitutionalism that is both liberal and egali-
tarian. Since the adoption of this constitution, a variety of grassroots
organizations have relied on the strong enforcement mechanisms of
the Constitutional Court, as well as on the Court’s progressive activ-
ism. At the same time, Colombia has been engaged in a protracted
civil conflict involving guerrilla warfare, counterinsurgency and
drug war operations, paramilitary armies, and extensive militariza-
tion of everyday life.The conflict has resulted in massive internal dis-
placement affecting millions of peasants. However, among the
numerous grassroots organizations asking the Constitutional Court
for relief thereis a vigorous presence of internally displaced people.
This article is based on research funded by the Norwegian Research Council. The
authors thank Juliana Vargas, Eva S. Lopez and Juan P. Mosquera for research assistance
and Lucie White and Meghan Morris for their comments on a previous draft.
Please address correspondence to Julieta Lemaitre, Universidad de los Andes,
Cra.1Este No.18A-10 Edificio RGC Of.402, Bogot
a, Colombia; e-mail: jlemaitr@uniandes. or Kristin Bergtora Sandvik, PRIO, PO Box 9229 Grønland, NO-0134 Oslo, Nor-
way; e-mail:
Law & Society Review, Volume 49, Number 1 (2015)
C2015 Law and Society Association. All rights reserved.
How can we make sense of the use of legal claims and tactics
under conditions of internal displacement and armed conflict?
More generally, what impacts does violence have on legal mobili-
zation and collective action by vulnerable groups? To explain legal
mobilization in conditions of conflict and acute insecurity, we focus
on the dynamics between internally displaced women and the law
in Colombia, and use detailed empirical descriptions to ground a
theory of legal mobilization in violent contexts.
Internally displaced persons (henceforth IDP) form a signifi-
cant portion of Colombia’s 48 million inhabitants (DANE 2014).
Armed conflict, waged mostly in rural areas, has taken an enor-
mous toll on civilian populations. According to official data, as of
October 2014, almost 7 million Colombians had registered as vic-
tims of armed conflict. The vast majority is rural residents forced
to migrate to urban areas, giving up their land and livelihoods. At
5, 9 million, Colombia has one of the highest rates of internal dis-
placement in the world (IDMC 2014; UARIV 2014). Most IDP are
individuals and families that have fled either to small or midsized
cities in their own regions, or to large urban centers, joining the
ranks of the urban poor. IDP struggle to survive in informal hous-
ing and unregulated labor markets; they also face great difficulties
accessing already overtaxed poverty-alleviation programs (Ib
and Moya 2010). IDP are discriminated on the basis of their rural
(and often racial) origins, as well as their political identities: many
Colombians imagine IDP to be guerrilla collaborators, paramili-
tary informants, or participants in the drug trade. Indigenous and
Afro-Colombian communities, which are disproportionately repre-
sented within the displaced population, also face culture loss.
Women and girls, who constitute slightly over half the IDP popu-
lation face additional gender-specific risks, such as sexual violence
and poor maternal health; women also have a comparatively
greater risk of losing property without compensation (Centro de
Memoria Hist
orica 2010, 2011; Meertens 2010; OAS 2006).
The problems confronting IDP are not limited to poverty, dis-
crimination, and loss of livelihood and of community. Despite a
favorable legal framework and an abundance of supportive insti-
tutions, IDP also face enormous difficulties when attempting to
organize to claim rights, largely because of the persistent violence
that characterizes their environment. Since 2000, hundreds of
social movement leaders (including leaders from the IDP commu-
nity and human rights defenders) have been killed or disappeared
(Somos Defensores 2013), and threats, harassment, and physical
attacks are part of everyday life. Not surprisingly, few IDP belong
to any type of organization, a problem that is compounded by low
levels of legal literacy (Comisi
on de Seguimiento 2008; Petesch
and Gray 2009).
6Legal Mobilization among Displaced Women in Colombia
Despite these obstacles, a vocal network of organizations has
mobilized to defend the rights of internally displaced women;
they often use legal forums and institutions, as well as rights dis-
course, to do so. Much of this activism has emerged in response to
the Constitutional Court’s 2004 orders for structural reform of
the government’s humanitarian response to internal displace-
ment; it has also benefited from the interest of international
donors and agencies. More recently, with the adoption of a legal
framework of transitional justice, through Law 975 of 2005 (the
Justice and Peace Law) and Law 1448 of 2011 (the Victims’ Law),
women’s IDP organizations have also positioned themselves as
beneficiaries of truth, justice, and reparations. Such activities,
however, carry personal and collective risk, including threats,
physical attacks, and assassination.
There is ample literature—both theoretical analysis and case
studies—on law and social movements (for succinct overviews, see
Tsutsui, Whitlinger, and Lim 2012; Vanhala 2011). For the most
part, however, such literature is based on the legal cultures and
institutions associated with liberal democracies in industrialized
countries. These studies do not adequately address the impact of
contextual differences on dominant theories, particularly the
implications of violent contexts on legal mobilization.
Likewise, the literature on women in conflict evades the ques-
tion of legal mobilization in violent contexts. In theory, absent
state collapse, the best way for women to claim rights should be
through civic and political organizations that are capable of hold-
ing the existing state accountable for lack of protection. Citizen
participation in humanitarian crisis and transitional justice is often
mentioned as the appropriate way to guarantee human rights (De
Greiff and Rubio 2007). However, there is little to no considera-
tion in the literature of the risks of citizen participation in violent
contexts, low-intensity conflict, or transitional situations, nor is
there research on the ways that such participation actually occurs.
We use materials collected in a three-year study of internally
displaced women and their organizations to illustrate a theory of
legal mobilization that takes insecurity and violence into account.
Using insights from Colombia, this article addresses the gap in
theories about legal mobilization in violent contexts. It is based on
extensive fieldwork. Between 2009 and 2013, the research team—
which consisted of the authors, three graduate students, and two
undergraduate research assistants—conducted a multimethod
study that followed internally displaced women’s organizations as
they demanded government assistance and protection. We main-
tained updated reviews of the literature and press coverage of
internal displacement in Colombia and we also mapped internally
displaced women’s organizations. By 2013, we had identified 66
Lemaitre and Sandvik 7

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