UNHCR presents Nansen Refugee Award to courageous Colombian women
Their work, deep inside the communities, helps them reach the most vulnerable women, but also brings with it danger and threats from illegal armed groups
A courageous Colombian women's rights network was in the spotlight on Monday as it received UNHCR's prestigious Nansen Refugee Award in Geneva, Switzerland, for its outstanding work to help victims of forced displacement and sexual abuse.
The group, Butterflies with New Wings Building a Future (Butterflies), is active in one of the most violence-ridden corners of the country, the port city of Buenaventura. Here, illegal armed groups battle over territory and women are often caught in the crossfire. The Butterflies network of volunteers risk their lives to help women and their children in danger. Since it was established in 2010 Butterflies has helped an estimated 1,000 women and their families.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, presented the award and Nansen Medal to three representatives of the women's rights group: Gloria Amparo, Maritza Asprilla Cruz and Mery Medina.
Praising their dedication, he said, "Every day they [Butterflies] put their own lives at risk - in order to rescue abused and displaced women and children. Butterflies are truly a grass root organization and they help the most vulnerable people in the most vulnerable region."
Referring to the heroic work of Butterflies, High Commissioner Guterres said, "Protection is what they do. They not only assist and support victims, but organise them to fight for their rights, report the crimes and seek justice."
Drawing on only the most modest of resources, the women go about their work on foot or by bus or bicycle. As cautiously as they can, they move through the most dangerous neighbourhoods to help women access medical care and report crimes. This work, deep inside the communities, helps them reach the most vulnerable women, but also brings with it danger and threats from the illegal armed groups.
Speaking on behalf of Butterflies, Gloria Amparo talked about the violent situation in Buenaventura and their commitment to continue their work.
"This violence is heightened and inflicted against us, women and girls in the midst of the armed conflict of Buenaventura, a conflict which we have been living through for many years", she said. "This violence not only intimidates us, but also affects us physically and psychologically. Often, fleeing is the only escape.
"We are but one example of efforts by many Afro-Colombian communities, organizations and towns which struggle for the recognition of our rights to diversity, identity, cultural richness and other ways of living. We ask for your solidarity so that you can keep supporting us today and tomorrow in the construction of our future."
The Nansen Refugee Award marks its 60th anniversary this year and is UNHCR's top humanitarian honour. Since Eleanor Roosevelt was selected as the first winner in 1954, more than 60 individuals, groups and organizations have been recognized for outstanding and dedicated work on behalf of the forcibly displaced and stateless people. It also includes a medal and US$100,000 to fund a project linked to their work.
As a staunch advocate for ending sexual violence in conflict, Special Envoy for the High Commissioner for Refugees Angelina Jolie praised the work of the women of Butterflies in a special recorded message.
"The Mariposas [Butterflies] draw on their strengths as women to help thousands of vulnerable people who would otherwise have no rights and no protection. By winning this award, I hope it helps more people everywhere to understand that we have to change attitudes to sexual violence, and to help end impunity for these crimes," said Jolie.
The award ceremony, in Geneva's Bâtiment des Forces Motrices, featured musical performances from Mexican acoustic guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela and UNHCR supporters Swedish-Lebanese singer-songwriter Maher Zain and Malian singer-songwriter Rokia Traoré.
Speaking about playing in the Nansen award ceremony, Zain said that his recent visit with UNHCR to meet Syrian refugees in Lebanon had made him appreciate even more the impact of the butterflies "lifesaving work" work. Rokia Traoré recognised the great "courage and strength" shown by the Butterflies and the importance of their stance against sexual and gender-based violence. Rodrigo y Gabriela also said it was a great honour to be able to recognise the unique achievement of the Butterflies.
The Nansen Refugee Award is named after Fridtjof Nansen, the famous Norwegian polar explorer, humanitarian and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who served as the first High Commissioner for Refugees for the League of Nations. Nansen was a constant and vital supporter of the refugee cause in a time before UNHCR existed.