By David Sulewski
Early in my work as coordinator of the Colombian Refugee Project in Quito, Ecuador, I learned about a courageous group of women supporting victims of forced displacement and sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) in Buenaventura, Colombia. They are called Mariposas de Alas Nuevas Construyendo Futuro (Butterflies with New Wings Building a Future). Last year, they won the prestigious Nansen Award from the United Nations for their extraordinary work. When we shared this inspiring story with the refugees, a woman from Buenaventura told us that she knew of them and asked us, “When are they coming to Quito?” I managed to contact them and they accepted our invitation, but invited us to Buenaventura first to witness how they work for peace amidst conflict. In a series of earlier blog posts, I write about my visit.
I wrote a proposal to fund this initiative as a final project for the course Conflict Transformation Across Borders offered through UMass Boston. In the class, I gained invaluable skills in researching and designing the proposal, and received considerable support submitting it to funding agencies. Thanks to generous support from the Mennonite Central Committee, Asylum Access, Catholic Relief Services and the UNHCR, we hosted two Mariposas—Rut and Victoria*—in November to speak about their work and to offer a workshop with refugee women on the prevention and elimination of violence.
In the Refugee Project, we encounter many refugees who have suffered from sexual violence not only when they were persecuted and compelled to flee Colombia, but also during their flight across the border into Ecuador where they continue to face the risk of SGBV. Once, a refugee from Buenaventura who came to the Project wondered aloud, “Did I escape from the violence in my home country only to suffer another kind of violence here?”
Recognizing that women on both sides of the Colombia-Ecuador border are finding nonviolent, creative and effective strategies to mitigate violence, we believed that it would be valuable to bring them together. With their profoundly personal experiences living within the Colombian armed conflict, the Mariposas were best suited to facilitate workshops to transfer their knowledge and animate refugee women to continue organizing themselves to respond to SGBV.
Beginning with a public panel discussion with representatives from Ecuadorian institutions at the Facultad Latinamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO), the Mariposas shared their testimonies while panelists offered their perspectives on combating sexual violence in Ecuador. Then they met with staff at the United Nations to talk about identifying and responding to sexual violence and visited a women’s shelter.
At every occasion, they spoke from the heart. For the Mariposas, their identity as women, their painfully personal stories of persecution, their connection to their ancestors, and the strong bonds of solidarity that tie them together are the bedrock on which they build their nonviolent resistance. “It is impossible to forget what has happened to us, but the fear with which we live unites us as women and compels us to continue our struggle—we are the descendants of the cimarronas† that could not be enslaved,” Victoria said, ending her sentence on a note of pride.
The fear is real, however, as the Mariposas have no guarantees for their protection when they cross invisible boundaries drawn by illegal armed groups and enter violent barrios to accompany victims of sexual violence. By analyzing the changing dynamics in the barrios, keeping a low profile, and staying in constant contact with one another, they minimize the risk to their lives.
Despite the risks, Rut affirmed, “When a woman is violated, we go immediately to protect this woman, because for us, a neighbor is part of our family.” But, mistrust and fear exist among neighbors because the illegal armed groups live among them. “The first thing that the armed conflict has done to us is divide us,” Rut lamented. And, this is worse for victims of sexual violence for whom stigma and reprisals from their aggressor(s) intimidate them into silence.
“Enough,” Rut said, “Our work is to go into communities to prevent violence and to sensitize women. How do we do it? By getting them to fall in love.” The Mariposas knock on doors, talk over coffee, share their personal stories, and even tell a few jokes to lighten the mood. Slowly, respectfully, they begin to build trust and break through the silence. Whereas the illegal armed groups employ a strategy of violence against women as a form of control; the Mariposas use a strategy of love to build a network of comadres, women knowledgeable of their rights, providing mutual support and protection to resist displacement and struggle for peace and justice.
Of their visit to Quito, one thing is for certain: the Mariposas’ strategy of love easily won over the refugee women. For two intensive days, the Mariposas facilitated a workshop at the Refugee Project with refugee women on the identification and prevention of sexual violence. At the end, the participants shared their intention to take what they learned back to their communities in Ecuador.
Curious, a refugee asked them, “Why do you call yourselves Butterflies with New Wings Building a Future?” “Because of a seven year old girl who had been violated,” Victoria responded. The only way this girl could give words to the unspeakable pain she felt was to utter: “I feel like a butterfly with broken wings.” When the women gathered to form their group they discussed what name to give themselves. The wilted spirit of this young girl weighed heavy on their hearts. One woman proposed the name Butterflies with Broken Wings, but another asked, “How will this little girl fly again if her—and our—wings are broken?” At that moment, they agreed to exchange their broken wings for new ones.
The Mariposas are building a peaceful future because they know that Buenaventura—and all of Colombia—can change. Structures of violence can be undone. For the refugees in Ecuador, the same hope is taking hold. A refugee from Buenaventura who participated in the workshop said, “My dream is to go home some day.”
David Sulewski participated in the UMass Boston/FLACSO Summer Institute on Conflict Transformation Across Borders in Quito, Ecuador. He works in Quito with the Mennonite Central Committee as coordinator of the Colombian Refugee Project.
* Their names have been changed
† Cimarronas are the enslaved Africans who escaped the chains of bondage and fled to live free in the mountains.