Nansen Refugee Award: Butterflies take wing to help others
BUENAVENTURA, Colombia, September 12 (UNHCR) - When fighting erupted between rival armed groups in her village in western Colombia's Valle de Cauca province, Benedicia Benancia and her seven young children fled by boat. "We had to escape the gunfire around us. It was immediate. We ran for our lives," she recalled.
That was 13 years ago, and although she found shelter with a relative in the dilapidated industrial port city of Buenaventura, there was no refugee from the violence. "I and others fled violence, but we also found violence here," said Benedicia.
The lingering conflict in Colombia rarely hits the international headlines, but half a century of war has claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people and left a staggering 5.7 million registered internally displaced people as of July 2014.
Nowhere in the country is the devastation felt as acutely as in Buenaventura, where entire neighbourhoods are controlled by illegal armed groups fighting over territory and drug-smuggling routes. The groups use sexual violence to propagate fear and maintain control in the most deprived districts, rendering women and girls particularly vulnerable. The deep fear of reprisals has led to systematic under-reporting of such abuses, and the survivors rarely receive the psychosocial treatment they need.
But amid this poisonous atmosphere a group of forcibly displaced and local women formed a self-help group called Butterflies With New Wings Building a Future (Butterflies), winner of this year's prestigious Nansen Refugee Award.
The network of nine women's rights groups provides counsel and support for victims of abuse and reaches out into communities to educate women and put pressure on local authorities to uphold women's rights. Established in 2010, Butterflies has so far helped more than 1,000 women and their families, including Benedicia.
After fleeing to Buenaventura she found work as a house cleaner. Although her employer gave her food to take home, Benedicia's family situation was still precarious - until the day she discovered Butterflies.
Her neighbour, Maritza Cruz, introduced her to the group of women; a step which would prove life-changing. "When I met Benedicia a couple of years ago she was in a desperate situation. I told her about Butterflies and encouraged her to attend our workshops and join," said Maritza.
Through Butterflies, Benedicia regained control of her life and avoided being sucked into the quagmire of violence and extortion that has become a daily reality in Buenaventura. "Thanks to the network I have friends. I feel supported. I never feel alone," said the 53-year-old.
Benedicia now runs the Butterflies' food and savings scheme in Buenaventura's Vista Hermosa neighbourhood. In the city, where more than 80 per cent of people live in poverty, putting food on the table is a daily struggle.
The food and savings scheme, known among network members as the "food chain" has become a lifeline for Benedicia and other women who do not have access to bank accounts and credit; a steady source of support in a place where jobs are scarce.
Benedicia spent the savings she received to build a small house - brick by brick. "I used to sleep on a dirt floor, but because of the chain I've managed to build the house you see now. I wouldn't have been able to save otherwise," she said proudly, pointing to planks and a corrugated roof she bought with the savings over the years.
Gloria Amparo, one of the 19 coordinators of Butterflies, explained that at the heart of their ideology lies the idea of godparenting, or comadreo. Traditionally, godparents have played an important role in taking care of and raising children in Afro-Colombian communities. Within Butterflies, women are encouraging women to act like godparents for each other and their children.
"We've taken the ancestral godparenting ways that have been lost in our culture and placed it right inside the network to use it as way to rebuild broken communities, heal, and strengthen solidarity among women," said Amparo. "Working together, we can better serve women."
Amparo has been resisting and standing up to violence against women her whole life. Her own childhood, marked by extreme poverty, serves as a bitter example of the abuse women face at home. From an early age Amparo witnessed her father beat her mother. "He nearly took her eye out once. Powerlessness makes me angry. I'm convinced that no one should have to suffer like that," she declared.
Sexual and gender based violence has long been a daily threat for many women of Buenaventura. Displacement often forces traditional roles within the family and society to change, leaving displaced women more vulnerable. Witnessing such hopelessness drove Amparo to reach out to defend women in need and protect them. Amparo is convinced that the way to empower women is to ensure they know their rights and the laws that exist to protect them.
"When a woman knows her rights and what the responsibilities of the state are, it allows her to have choices and make decisions. Knowing your rights, you can better defend yourself and your community," she stressed.