Indigenous Women: Models of Leadership, Community, and Resilience

August 2019
Angela Sanabria-Gonzalez
Photos by: Ana Karina Delgado

Heartland Alliance International (HAI) supports communities and individuals impacted by the decades-long armed conflict in the Pacific region of Colombia. Despite the negative effects of the pervasive violence, we consistently bear witness to extraordinary hope and resilience.

According to the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (Organización Nacional Indígena de Colombia or ONIC), approximately 2% of the country’s population is comprised of indigenous people. Nearly 38,000 of whom identify as Embera. The Embera people are primarily located in the Colombian departments of Chocó, Córdoba, and Antioquia, and they are in a constant struggle to protect their traditions and culture.

The conflict in Colombia emerged during the 1960s and continues today with frequent reports of torture, kidnapping, and forced displacement. In response, HAI launched a large-scale effort in 2010 to provide innovative, collaborative, and community-based mental health services to underserved populations most affected by the armed conflict. HAI’s culturally-competent and locally-adapted programs allow people to heal, become empowered to access justice and social services, and ultimately lead change in their own communities. For many, these services are the first step in the healing process following decades of violence and hopelessness.


Through our programs in Colombia, we create partnerships with community leaders, organizations, and local institutions to offer effective and comprehensive evidence-based and culturally adapted mental health services. Our community-based mental health model allows us to provide greater support to marginalized people and those who live in hard to access areas, including places outside the reach of government services.


For the past decade, the Embera have been migrating towards Quibdó to find refuge from the armed conflict and violence.  In 2012, Adiela and her community were forced to settle in Kumarandrua, which is located in the outskirts of Quibdó . Today, the group has grown to include more than 130 families with their own businesses and schools. In 2018, Adiela became the first woman Governor of an Embera community at the young age of 22. Since then, she has dedicated her tenure to building up women’s leadership and normalizing conversations around mental health.

“Before HAI, we didn’t know what mental health was. We thought it was only for ‘crazy people.’ We didn’t realize that knowledge and understanding could actually help the community begin to heal from displacement.”

“Now, thanks to our mental health sessions, we are able to talk about our deepest, darkest thoughts, and finally feel some sense of relief. Many of us have lost loved ones, land, and everything we once knew. Being able to talk about our loss with others helps us continue living.”

“The sessions with HAI have helped with my new role as Governor. Unfortunately, there is a lot of violence between Embera families and they tend to look to me for advice on how to resolve conflict. What I learned with HAI has helped me support my community and create a more peaceful coexistence. Even the men are finally accepting that women, like me, can be effective leaders and governors.”


“Mrs. Cindy (HAI psychosocial agent) helped me work through the memories of my trauma. In addition to mental health support, I also received leadership skills training. Today, I have accepted my circumstances and learned that in order to help others, you must also help yourself.”

“Working with Adiela has helped me understand the cultural differences between Afro-Colombians and indigenous people. Although we share the same territory, we are very different. I believe my work with HAI builds a sense of community and inclusion that leads to greater access to services for both Afro-Colombians and indigenous people.”

“Adiela went beyond her mental health sessions and actually participated in a leadership training. I am so happy to see Adiela’s progress because everything she learned with us, she was able to replicate in her community and that in itself is a success!”