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A place in society

By Anascas del Río Moncada

Editor’s note: The writer of this article is the second-place winner in the 2005 IDBAmérica Scholarship Competition. She studies political science at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Bogotá.

Sierra Morena is a neighborhood of small, rundown houses squeezed together into the mountains around Bogotá. The narrow steps between them don’t lead to heaven, but rather to the tiny spaces occupied by families who have been forced to abandon their former homes.

This is where Teresa Díaz and Diva Trujillo live. Both are victims of the violence that one day pushed them out of their homes, making them leave their belongings and many of their loved ones behind. What awaited them was “forced displacement,” one of the greatest disasters that affect the lives and safety of thousands of Colombians every year.

When Teresa and Diva talk about where they used to live, a look of homesickness fills their eyes, and the sadness begins to spread. “I was a nurse, and they made me go and treat members of the armed groups at all hours,” says Teresa, who was displaced from Chaparral, in the department of Tolima. “I couldn’t stand it anymore, and I had to get out of there.” With no support and no idea where to turn, Teresa and Diva came to Bogotá and began to confront the harsh life of the city and what it means to be a displaced woman.

A year ago, when their lives seemed especially bleak, Teresa and Diva decided to turn their misfortune into a source of hope and opportunities for other people who have fled their homes for Bogotá in search of anonymity and safety. Women constitute 48 percent of people who are displaced, and many are heads of household because their partners were killed, disappeared or were forced into the armed groups. They must confront an urban atmosphere that is unfamiliar, hostile and filled with obstacles, including the intense social discrimination that all displaced Colombians face.

A chaotic scene. Created by the dynamics of war, internal conflict and violence—which grew more intense in the 1980s and 1990s—forced displacement has been accompanied by discrimination, dispossession and violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. The problem has been exacerbated by drug traffickers’ accumulation of land and capital; by drug trafficking itself, which has “narcotized” the country at all levels; by clashes over control of areas where the illegal crops are grown; and by the power that these crops give to the insurgent groups.

The figures on displacement cases are full of contradictions and inaccuracies. For example, while the Social Solidarity Network, a government agency, reported 97,229 displacement cases through October 2005, the not-for-profit organization CODHES (Human Rights and Displacement Consulting Group, after its Spanish initials) calculated that 252,801 people had been displaced during the same period. The result is a situation in which solutions are postponed amid the various interests of powerful groups who are destroying the lives of Colombia’s indigenous population, people of African descent and residents of rural areas.

Yo Mujer. Teresa and Diva say their initiative grew out of seeing women and their children sleeping in the streets. “We wanted to help women who had recently come to the capital and didn’t have anywhere to go, no place to sleep,” Teresa says. “We want all women to help each other, because all of us are suffering the same catastrophe.” On December 24, 2004, after long, exhausting days of walking through Lucero, Tesoro, San Francisco, Patio Bonito and other neighborhoods in Ciudad Bolívar [a marginal area of Bogotá], with no money in their pockets, these newfound social entrepreneurs found a house in Sierra Morena that they rented for 250,000 pesos (approximately US$105) a month with the help of a loan from Casa de la Mujer, a nongovernmental organization.

That night, accompanied by 38 families, Teresa and Diva overcame their biggest worry at the time: having a place to sleep and something to eat. They lost no time in beginning to support themselves by making tamales and selling them in the streets. But the competition was very stiff, and they had to find other ways to earn money, such as raffles and seeking support from various organizations that understood the importance of their project. The dream that propelled Diva and Teresa has now grown into El Hogar de Paso [“A Temporary Home”], and Yo Mujer (“I, Woman”) an association of 216 leaders who offer security, hope and counseling to hundreds of people who have been displaced.

Yo Mujer’s goal is to offer options to displaced women and their families through a variety of projects. Hogar de Paso is a four-story house that is used to lodge up to 80 people over periods of two months. During this time, they attend orientation sessions about the city and the institutions from which they need to request the help they need. Assisted by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Mencoldex, a local NGO, Yo Mujer turned the house into a welcoming place, even as residents’ bitter stories flit like ghosts among the small rooms where at times up to 20 people sleep. Approximately 700 families have passed through El Hogar de Paso since it was founded.

A month and a half after Hogar de Paso was founded, a community dining hall was opened across the street. It currently serves 112 people, and will soon expand to 150 with assistance from the U.N. World Food Programme.

Helping citizens recover. Another vital aspect of Yo Mujer’s program is the psychological help it offers in collaboration with [Colombia’s] National University and the Hospital Estrellita. “People think they’re going to die, that they’re not worth anything. Some women are in terrible psychological shape when they get here, after five or seven members of their family have been killed,” Teresa explains. “In one case, we had a woman who’d had 11 relatives killed. Another woman needed help for six months—she didn’t want to go on living. But life has to go on, and we have to live for our children.”

Yo Mujer also tries to help displaced women learn about their rights and how to demand them. To do this, it offers training and support, which has represented a major challenge because of intense discrimination on the part of the government. “The representative says, ‘I know who’s been displaced here and who hasn’t,’” Teresa explained. “There are women who can’t file reports because of all the restrictions, which is why they’re not on the list of displaced people.” In order to improve this situation, Yo Mujer offers reliable legal assistance with the help of the National University. In addition, 75 women are receiving training in human rights [advocacy].

Another part of Yo Mujer’s program involves housing and income-generation projects. In 2005, the group was able to get 15 houses for displaced women and their families. However, they are still pressuring authorities for more help, given that the official housing subsidy is barely 8 million pesos [approximately US$3,382], and solutions get pushed aside by complex bureaucratic procedures. Yo Mujer’s current income-generation project is a microenterprise that makes snacks, enabling a number of women to support themselves. Also in the works is a partnership that would employ women according to their abilities in sewing clothes, baking, making soy products, and doing restaurant work.

A project run by women. This initiative, led by victims of Colombia’s conflict and by women who have traditionally been ignored and silenced, has succeeded thanks to the growing organizational capacity of [both] civil society and the affected population. “What is important is that no one has their rights violated,” says Diva, her eyes filled with excitement. “Our goal is to increase respect for human rights by creating jobs, viable living conditions, health, food and nutrition, employment, and so forth. All through peaceful development.”

Yo Mujer’s early achievements have become banners of success for its work. For example, several months ago the association won the Bogotá Cívico prize, and many people now say that they have benefited from the group’s efforts. Still, displacement is such a big problem that what we really need is a national program in which every Colombian would make a conscious effort to participate responsibly. We’re all part of the solution!