In a city dominated by grim statistics, a group of Butterflies have swept in to offer hope and practical assistance.
Red Mariposas de Alas Nuevas Construyendo Futuro, or Butterflies with New Wings Building a Future Network, is a locally based organization that aids survivors of forced displacement and sexual assault in Buenaventura, Colombia, the country’s main seaport along the Pacific coast. In the city of 392,000, 42.5 per cent of the population is displaced and a vast majority live beneath the poverty line (between two-thirds and 80 per cent, according to different sources).
According to Human Rights Watch, paramilitary successor groups dominate the urban centre. Sexual and gender-based violence are rife as opposing groups exert their dominance over inhabitants. Over three-years ending in December 2013, more than 150 people were reported missing as a result of forced disappearances. Victims of disappearance are reportedly slaughtered in casas de piques (“chop-up houses”) and their bodies dumped in the ocean. Recruitment of adolescents to armed groups, extortion, kidnapping, torture and limits to access to humanitarian aid, as well as mass displacement as a result of fighting amongst armed groups, are also common crises faced by Buenaventura residents.
Nineteen coordinators and at least 100 volunteers work at extreme personal risk to offer assistance to women in Buenaventura. Their work has brought them under threat, but recently, it has also garnered them immense international accolade. In September, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees awarded Butterflies the 60th annual Nansen Refugee Award in recognition of their “selfless” and “extraordinary work” that has helped more than 1,000 women and their families. A $100,000 prize accompanies the award, which the group intends to use to open a safe house for victims of violence and displacement.
They offer workshops and training on rights of victims, provide life skills training, offer psycho-social support and assist women to access medical care, among other vital services. Butterflies has “become a vital point of reference for victims of (sexual violence)” in Buenaventura since it began operating in 2010, a report by the Norwegian Refugee Council observes. As a local organization, Butterflies has vast knowledge of the conditions and connections to various channels and institutions that can be useful to survivors of displacement or violence. The peer network empowers women with its vast knowledge and strengthens community organization while calling attention to the problems they face.
Butterflies also helps women to report crimes. In Buenaventura, where perpetrators may reside in the same neighbourhoods as victims and the threat of retaliation for reporting crimes to a minimally effective law enforcement is immense, this is an extraordinary fearful task. The Norwegian Refugee Council reports that an estimated 18 per cent of female sexual assault victims report crimes. Helping more people to report crimes creates greater awareness of the situation and, hopefully, lends to a solution.
Unfortunately, the information provided in this article has been limited to what is available on English-language media and rights groups. The organization provides more information about its activities on its Spanish-language website.