16 Days of Activism: Colombia's Butterflies take wing to spread message

With the help of UNHCR and groups like the Nansen Award-winning Butterflies, women in Ecuador are learning how to combat sexual and gender-based Violence.

Women from Ecuador and Colombia take part in the recent meeting in Lago Agrio, exchanging their experiences in the struggle against sexual violence.  © UNHCR/S. Aguilar

QUITO, Ecuador, December 9 (UNHCR) - A network of women's rights group in Colombia, winner of this year's Nansen Refugee Award, has been exchanging views and experiences with similar groups in South America with UNHCR help.

The collaboration between Ecuador's Network of Safe Houses and Colombia's "Butterflies with New Wings" network, which won the Nansen Award for their work in helping survivors of forced displacement and sexual abuse in the violence-ridden Pacific port of Buenaventura, coincided with the current annual 16 Days of Activism against Sexual and Gender-Based Violence, which ends on Wednesday,

The two groups met in the town of Lago Agrio in the border province of Sucumbios. The Butterflies shared their experiences with local women and members of the Network of Safe Houses, which groups NGOs and foundations in a country where, according to official figures, six out of 10 women have suffered some type of violence

Refugees are particularly vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence and UNHCR is working with Network of Safe Houses to create secure environments for women and to mitigate the risk of sexual violence. The network runs six safe houses to shelter and assist survivors of sexual and domestic violence and their children.

The Colombians hope to impart knowledge and learn from their visit. One of the visitors recalled how she was sexually and verbally abused by her partner. "Thanks to the [Butterflies] network, I now know that is not normal," said Sofia.* "I have learnt to value myself and to fight for my rights. Today, I am wide awake."

At the same meeting, Butterflies member Marcela explained to the group why it was important for women to feel sheltered by a collective. "Comradeship is our tool to address mistreatment and the violation of our rights," she said. "We are women, leaders committed to our families and our community who made the decision to undergo community work."

It is hoped that UNHCR's participation in the 16 Days of Activism campaign, culminating on International Human Rights Day, will help to create awareness and promote action to end violence against women and girls in Colombia, Ecuador and elsewhere.

Lucia Barbosa, from the Amazonian Centre in southern Colombia's Putumayo department, is familiar with the challenges facing women in Colombia. "Strengthening ourselves as women enables us to live. Through words, dances for peace, and the creation of protection spaces for women, we fight against the normalization of violence within a materialistic and masculinized environment."

John Fredrikson, UNHCR's representative for Ecuador, has called for an inter-institutional system to assist women affected by conflict and understand the double victimization they face.

After so long, and with the help of UNHCR and moral support of organizations like the Butterflies, women in Ecuador are beginning to take charge of their own protection, development, wealth and future.

"We were women with broken wings," says Marcela. "We started to work when [life in] Buenaventura was beginning to overwhelm us with murders, [forced] recruitments, violations. Accompanying one another makes us feel renewed, we have new wings."

By Sonia Aguilar in Quito, Ecuador