An hour from Cartagena, the City of Women is a refuge for Colombia’s displaced — and a model for other victims of displacement around the world.
By Kary Stewart
Deyanira Reyes, a member of the League of Displaced Women, in front of one of the 102 homes that make up the The City of Women. (Photo: Kary Stewart)
When Yajaira Mejía arrived in the city of Cartagena, Colombia, in 2001, she was distraught. A month earlier she had found her partner lying dead on the street, shot near their house in Plato, Magdalena. He had been made a public example by local armed gangs for refusing to give them a percentage of his meager income as a street seller.
This was the second time Mejía had been displaced. The first time, she had been forced to flee the city of Valledupar after an in-law was assassinated and another family member disappeared. When she subsequently lost her partner in Plato, Mejía suffered a breakdown and, fearing for her own safety and that of her children, fled her home once again, heading to the north of the country. Wandering around Cartagena lost and confused, she found herself in El Pozón, one of the poorest areas of the district.
There she met dozens of women who had also been displaced as a consequence of the internal war between rival armed groups that had been raging in the country for close to 40 years. Like her, their husbands and relatives had been killed or had disappeared. Others had lost sons and daughters in horrific circumstances. Many others had suffered sexual and other abuse.
At that time the Colombian government had no strategy in place to deal with this influx of emigrant women. They were left to live in slums, building shelters from scraps they found and doing whatever work they could to feed their children. There was no water, sanitation, or any other basic facilities.
“We lived in subhuman conditions,” Mejía recalls. “Our homes were built on dirt and our children walked about barefoot. All we could do was cling to the hope that we had arrived with.”
“We think the model can be replicated for communities in conflict or post-conflict, anywhere where women have the fundamental right to decent housing.”
In Cartagena, Mejia met Patricia Guerrero, a Colombian women’s rights activist, academic, and lawyer who, together with a group of about 15 other emigrant women, had set up La Liga De Mujeres Dezplazadas, theLeague of Displaced Women, in 1999.
“Of the six million people who were displaced, more than 70 percent are women and children,” Guerrero says. “The issue of displaced women seemed to be something that nobody cared about in this country, and that’s how my work started.”
Over the next few years, Guerrero guided the women, holding workshops on their civil liberties and legal entitlement as victims of displacement.
The right for safe housing for them and their families was at the top of their wish list, and, in 2003, the League began work on what has become its emblematic project, a town that houses 500 victims of displacement, called la Ciudad De Las Mujeres, or the City of Women, located in Turbaco, Bolivar, about an hour from Cartagena. Funding for the land and construction came through the United Nations and international non-governmental organizations. The women covered the shortfall for constructions costs by doing most of the work themselves, even setting up their own brick-making factory.
But it wasn’t easy. In a country where men ruled both culturally and politically, and corruption and violence were rife, the actions of the women were seen as an act of defiance.
“As the first group of victims that had developed a project of this level, it was very threatening to the status quo,” recalls Eidanis Lamadrid, who was national coordinator for the League at the time. “The workshops and the housing project put us in the eye of the hurricane.”
(Photo: Kary Stewart)
“There were many incidents,” Mejía recalls. “Leaflets were distributed stating that we were ‘nosy snitches.’ There were robberies. We received phone threats.”
In 2005, Julio Miguel Espitia, husband to one of the women, was murdered as he was guarding the brick factory. The authorities did not find the culprits, and some women fled in fear. Still, Espitia’s widow urged the women to continue with the project.
In 2006 a group of men who were never identified set fire to the community building. The women re-built it.
By refusing to bow down to threats, the women made themselves known as an organization that stood for equality and were against discrimination and violence. The work continued. By 2006, 102 houses had been completed.
During my visit to the city I was invited into the home of Celestine Ramos Andrade, one of the first women to join the League. Andrade was given a house by committee in recognition of her volunteer work for the organization and now shares the two-bedroom, 75-square-meter space with her partner, who moved to the city with her. Andrade exudes gratitude and appears to care for her home with meticulous devotion.
“The way I would describe my house is that it’s the best thing that God ever gave me,” she tells me with tears in her eyes. “For me it’s like a mansion and even though I’m old, because of it I have managed to attain happiness and dignity.”
In the city, the women have established a credit fund for educational needs and for micro-enterprises. They have planted corn and beans and have built a community restaurant, a childcare center, and an aqueduct. Their arrival also sparked a development boom in the surrounding area. Today their homes have tripled in value, and the city now sits on the edge of a town of more than 3,000 people.
“We lived in subhuman conditions. Our homes were built on dirt and our children walked about barefoot. All we could do was cling to the hope that we had arrived with.”
“We think the model can be replicated for communities in conflict or post-conflict, anywhere where women have the fundamental right to decent housing. But it takes a very organized community, a lot of money, a lot of tenacity and also luck.” Guerrero says.
The daily struggle is far from over, however. In the street outside Andrada’s home, young children are just leaving school but there is no funding for secondary schooling and no access to higher education. Employment prospects are close to non-existent, and the women mainly live off of odd jobs such as selling chicha or hand-made artifacts.
“The issue of forced recruitment of our young people is also problem here,��� explains Lubis Cárdenas, who handles communications for the League, referring to the recruitment of young people into guerilla groups. “The youth don’t have anything to do and when someone says, ‘Hey, here’s an informal loan, come and work for us,’ what are they going to do?”
The women’s calls for justice and dignity have nevertheless gotten them this far — and helped shape a model for women’s empowerment in Colombia.
“The initial work we carried out within the municipality was to get them to recognize a displaced community,” Lubis says. “We had a lot of problems because, in reality, it was taboo to allow for women to participate; the men are the ones who occupied political seats. We had many disputes about this.”
When the women arrived, the local government had similarly been uninformed about laws such as Law 387, which declares that it’s the state’s responsibility to care for displaced persons.
“As a group we transformed the political norm and the way gender issues are approached,” Lubis says. “The entire dynamic of how they spoke about the displaced population had to change and this was ultimately a subject of gender.”
Later, when Cardenas takes me to meet with the mayor of Turbaco, Antonio Victor Alcala Puello, he confirms just the how far the district has come in how it views the community.
“The League of Women can count on us,” Puello says. “We want to work with them because, as they have been the victims of violence, they are the ones who know most about these issues. There’s no doubt that they can advise us regarding the policies we should implement.”
In terms of justice, the League has spent years building cases against the perpetrators of the violence against them. Unfazed by the government’s initial apathy over their plight, the League has filed lawsuits with the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights. To date, 144 cases — 15 of them for sexual violence — are pending at the Commission.
As Colombia tentatively celebrates the signing of this year’s historic ceasefire agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the League of Displaced Women has established a formidable model for other victims of displacement who aim to seek justice.