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Colombian Butterflies receive prestigious Nansen Refugee Award


Colombian Butterflies receive prestigious Nansen Refugee Award

The volunteers of the women's rights group, Butterflies, are recognized for their work in helping more than 1,000 women in Buenaventura, Colombia's main seaport.
12 September 2014
Strength in Numbers: The 19 coordinators of Butterflies, a women's rights network which also has 100 core volunteers. They put their lives on the line every day to assist forcibly displaced women and those who have been subject to sexual or physical violence. Many are survivors of abuse and can empathize with the women they help.

GENEVA, September 12 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency on Friday named a group of courageous Colombian women as winners of the prestigious annual Nansen Refugee Award for their work in helping survivors of forced displacement and sexual abuse in the violence-ridden and run-down Pacific port of Buenaventura.

The volunteers of the women's rights group, Red Mariposas de Alas Nuevas Construyendo Futuro (known in English as Butterflies for short), are being recognized for their selfless work in helping more than 1,000 women and their families in Buenaventura, Colombia's main seaport.

"These women are doing extraordinary work in the most challenging of contexts," said UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres. "Each day they seek to heal the wounds of the women and children of Buenaventura and in doing so put their own lives at risk. Their bravery goes beyond words."

Colombia has more internally displaced people (5.7 million) than any other country aside from Syria. Nowhere in the country is the devastation of the 50-year armed conflict felt as acutely as in Buenaventura. This industrial port city has some of the highest rates of violence and displacement due to rivalries between illegal armed groups, and women are often their targets. The groups violate women and children to demonstrate their power and frequently torture, rape or kill to exact revenge.

"The situation in Buenaventura illustrates the devastating impact of conflict on families and how essential the work of Butterflies is," Guterres said. "In their battle to gain territory, illegal armed groups in Buenaventura aim to destroy the social fabric of communities. They violate the most vulnerable by sexual assault, kidnap and murder. Butterflies' volunteers take the displaced and abused under their wing and help them to reclaim their lives and assert their rights," he added.

Drawing on modest resources, the women go about their work on foot, bus or bicycle. They move cautiously 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.

Women in the poorest areas of Buenaventura are often afraid to report sexual violence and the few who do so remain unprotected because they often live alongside their aggressors. Building trust is a slow and challenging process. Butterflies operates on the principal of "comadreo," which has special significance in Afro-Colombian culture, uniting respect, trust solidarity and confidentiality.

The cornerstone of the assistance Butterflies provides is the life skills training and workshops on women's rights that they organize. Here women come together and, realizing they are not alone in their suffering, slowly regain their self-esteem and strength.

UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie has praised the work of the winners. As a staunch advocate for ending sexual violence in conflict, Jolie says the work conducted by Butterflies is life-saving.

She said members of the group "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 Nansen Refugee Award will be presented to Butterflies at a ceremony in Geneva, Switzerland on September 29. The group will be represented by three women; Gloria Amparo, Maritza Asprilla Cruz and Mery Medina.

The award, marking its 60th anniversary this year, also comes with a commemorative medal and a US$100,000 monetary prize donated by the governments of Norway and Switzerland to support a project of the winner's choice. The Nansen Refugee Award is given to a person or group for outstanding work on behalf of the forcibly displaced.