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The Butterflies of Buenaventura, Saving Women’s Lives


The Butterflies of Buenaventura, a prize-winning group in this port city in Colombia that is helping women cope with sexual abuse and other endemic crime. JOHANNA HIGGS

BUENAVENTURA, Colombia — Described as Colombia’s horror capital, this costal city is a denizen of drug trafficking, gang violence and turf wars primarily between right-wing paramilitary networks and leftist rebels. Soldiers patrol the streets as part of the government’s attempt to crack down on the dangers, while abductions and sexual violence remain rampant as girls are regularly raped.

In the first half of 2014, for example, 11 women were killed and dismembered by gangs. Twenty assassinations were registered in January 2014 alone. Unemployment runs high — some sources say as much as 63 percent — while wages are dirt-low in this city of mostly Afro-Colombians.

José Adriel Ruiz Galvan, a priest working in one of Buenaventura’s roughest neighborhoods, said in an interview recently: “Most people living in Buenaventura have been displaced, have had a family member disappear, have been recruited by an armed group or have been sexually abused.”

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“The people are afraid, and so am I,” he added. When asked what the church does to cope with the violence, he replied, “Pray.”

Rapes of young girls, many as young as 13 or 14 years old, abounds, according to another priest who asked not to be named. “There are few girls who will reach 17 years old without being sexually assaulted.”

Will peace ever come to Buenaventura, as the government and the FARC militia steadily agree to new steps for a sweeping accord in Colombia, signaling an end to the 51-year-old war? Through huge efforts by civil society and international parties, a justice tribunal has been mapped out as an element in the peace deal. Remarkably, it will ban amnesty for those who committed crimes against humanity and genocide, hostage-taking or other serious violations of liberty, torture, forced displacement, forced disappearance, extrajudicial executions and sexual violence.

These crimes will be subject to investigation and trial by the new tribunal for peace, according to the latest communiqué on the negotiations. Although UN Women, the agency dedicated to advancing women internationally, proclaimed a breakthrough role of 16 women participating as gender experts in the peace talks, which have been taking place since October 2012 in Havana, Cuba, it took more than two years for that achievement to happen.

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Some women had refused to sit down with men who have committed so many crimes against them, but in a move that UN Women suggests has set a precedent in conflict resolution, the women who were negotiating at the talks from both sides of the warring parties met with women affected by conflict.

“Their testimonies of violations of their rights, including sexual violence and displacement, illustrated the various ways in which the war has affected their lives and those of their communities,” UN Women proclaimed.

Yet, it is hard to imagine how the peace deal can begin to slow the pace of violence in Buenaventura, especially against women. As one of the priests said: “The biggest problem in Colombia is not the guerrilla. It is the common criminals. This is our reality.”

Women in Buenaventura decided years ago to join forces to fight for their lives. In 2010, the Red Mariposas de Alas Nuevas Construyendo Futuro (in English, Red Butterfly Wings Building a New Future), was formed by those in the city who had had enough of the relentless cruelty. Their aim is to support women who are victims of abuse by educating them about their rights and enabling them to report sexual crimes to the police.

The Butterflies have been recognized for helping more than 1,000 women in Buenaventura; in 2014 they received the prestigious Nansen Refugee Award, given by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, for “their work in helping survivors of forced displacement and sexual abuse in the violence-ridden and run-down Pacific port of Buenaventura.”

As António Guterres, the head of the UN agency said, “Their bravery goes beyond words.”

Housing in Buenaventura. JOHANNA HIGGS
Slum housing built on top of the sea in Buenaventura, where violence reigns. JOHANNA HIGGS

The women do their work on foot, bus or bicycle, treading through the worst neighborhoods to teach women how to avail themselves of medical care and to report crimes, even as the Butterflies must contend with threats by the armed groups controlling these areas. It is common for women in the barrios to be too afraid to report sexual violence and other crimes, and the few who do are left unprotected because they often live near or with the men who have abused them.

Three Butterflies agreed to meet in the center of Buenaventura to talk with PassBlue in a restaurant in one of the larger hotels. The women boldly gave their names, Helena Valencia Acosta, Luz Mercedes Castillo and Luz Dary Santiesteban. Their work is essential: to provide women the chance to improve their self-esteem and to learn to love themselves.

Each woman had plenty to say about the situation in Buenaventura and how the Butterflies work on the notion of “comadero,” which is about building respect, trust and confidentiality.

A Butterfly in the group's office in Buenaventura. JOHANNA HIGGS
A Butterfly in the group’s office in Buenaventura. JOHANNA HIGGS

Valencia talked about how women were treated as objects, saying: “They [militias, spouses and others doing the abuse] see women’s bodies as territory. We are not objects. We are women.”

Dary, a leader of the butterflies and a victim of sexual violence, said that the trauma of abuse was not easy to forget. “We as women are rising up now to speak against the machismo and say no more to violence against women,” she said. “The machista society of Colombia doesn’t appreciate the value of women.”

Men, she said, must learn that women are not just for the bedroom and understand that they play a vital role in the development of Colombia.

Women in Buenaventura have been raped by the paramilitaries, the FARC and the men in their neighborhoods, the Butterflies said. There are cases where girls have been raped inside the home by their fathers, brothers and uncles. There are men who rape their wives.

Women think that it is normal to be raped. They stay quiet when they are beaten. “We realize now that we have been treated badly,” Dary said.

She said that to improve women’s self-esteem and the children of women who have endured abuse, their work includes organizing protests to demand an end to violence against women in their community. Their travels into the worst neighborhoods to give talks about building one’s confidence also allows them a chance to identify women who are being abused by the men in their lives.

The Butterflies also pressure the government to carry out its responsibilities to protect women, they noted. The Butterflies said they were planning to build a shelter for abused women with the money they won, $100, 000, from the Nansen prize.

More Butterflies talked in their office later on. The women, who have all been affected by the violence, preferred not to be fully named but volunteered to talk about life — and death — in their city.

As one woman, Ingrid, said: “We are trying to turn the fear we have been living with for so long into strength.”

While Laura said, “We are trying to bring peace through love and by teaching women that they have rights.”

One woman pointed to her face and told how her husband broke her nose; she has had multiple surgeries to fix it. She started to speak loudly as another woman looked outside the window and told her to speak quietly.

The threats to their lives was startling. When the women were asked if anyone wanted to speak privately, one young girl said: “No one will speak to you. They’ll kill you.”


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Johanna Higgs is from Perth, Australia. She is working on her Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from La Trobe University in Melbourne and is the director of Project MonMa, a nonprofit group focused on improving women’s lives. She has an undergraduate degree in anthropology and politics from James Cook University in Queensland, and a master’s degree in international development from Deakin University in Victoria. She speaks English and Spanish.

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