By Angela Sanabria
Colombia is home to a great diversity of women, representing 51.4% of the country’s total population. It is also a country with alarming rates of abuse against women, otherwise known as gender-based violence. Despite these rates, the Colombian government lacks the tools to combat gender-based violence and address human rights abuses in the courts. Still, hundreds of women manage to survive violence, often inflicted upon them by their partner or ex-partner.
“Every time I look at myself in the mirror, reality hits me again. It never occurred to me that I could fall victim to violence; I was not prepared for it, I did not know what to do or where to go. Here, in Buenaventura, it’s difficult to access services from hospitals and institutions. It was thanks to the Ombudsman Office that my case was referred to ACOPLE, where I found the mental health support necessary to overcome what happened to me”.
Luz Aida Caicedo is a Colombian woman of African descent who was born near the Yurumanguí River, but has lived in Buenaventura for over 40 years. Located on the Pacific Coast, Buenaventura is the main port of Colombia and a city plagued with violence.
“I left my house when I was a young girl, but I started to miss my family, my house, and the river, so I returned after a few years. When I returned, the conflict was picking up. During that time, there was a massacre and one of my brothers was killed, so I decided to return to Buenaventura permanently and stay away from the conflict”.
Luz Aida built her life in Buenaventura where she got married and had two children, now ages 18 and 15. After 20 years of marriage, she had never experienced violence. What happened to her next was something she never expected.
“We were separated for more than a year, but he kept insisting. One night he came into the house and attacked me. He cut my face with a scalpel and now I have a permanent scar. He also hurt my back and my hands; he even tried to strangle me but my own blood made his hands slip. My children shouted at him and urged him to let me go, but he didn’t react. My daughter suffered a cut in the leg because she was trying to help me. A neighbor finally came in and hit him on the head. I was able to breathe and run for help”.
In Colombia, five women are killed every two days. Of these cases, at least 50 were classified as femicides in 2018. A femicide specifically refers to the killing of a woman or girl because of their gender.
REPORTING IS THE ONLY THING THAT WILL SAVE OUR LIVES!
“I never hesitated in reporting the incident because it’s the only thing that can save our lives. Unfortunately, the sentence he received is not as severe as it should be. He was given nine years in prison. However, it’s only been one year and he is already requesting a sentencing reduction because of health issues. This news has triggered my anguish again. I’m uneasy because I know that if he leaves prison, he will achieve his goal. Still, I somehow found the strength to do what I had to do. While I was in the hospital, I got in touch with the Ombudsman, who referred me to ACOPLE.
What kept me motivated was the reminder that all my life I had high self-esteem. I walked with my head held high. But after the attack, my self-esteem was on the ground. I felt worthless. I felt as though a piece of paper was stronger than me. Still, I couldn’t give up; my children were depending on me. Step by step, with ACOPLE’s support, I regained my confidence, and the thoughts of ending my life went away. I had never thought about ending my life before, but seeing myself in the mirror, seeing the scar, and my internal struggles made me think I was crazy. Being able to talk about what I felt, about the fear and the anguish, helped me release some of the burdens. Now, I see things differently and I am beginning to heal”.
ALLIANCE OF ORGANIZATIONS FOR THE EMOTIONAL ACOPLE
The Alliance of Organizations for the Emotional (ACOPLE) is a Heartland Alliance International (HAI) project funded by the United States International Development Agency (USAID). HAI leverages local partners like the National Association of Displaced Afro-Colombians (AFRODES) to provide psychosocial support to people who have suffered human rights abuses.
ACOPLE’s model seeks to build and strengthen the capacity of host communities, so that they can provide psychosocial care to community members who have suffered from internal displacement, forced disappearances, massacres, and gender-based violence.
AFTER THE ATTACK…
Today, Luz Aida’s day-to-day life is quite busy. She wakes up early for her job in a restaurant where she cuts meat, arranges chicken wings, and debones fish. On Sundays, Luz Aida works as a nail technician and prepares “cocadas”, a popular regional dessert made with coconut. All this works yields 250 USD per month for her and her two children to live.
“Now that their father is in prison, I am completely responsible for our children. Sometimes, I don’t have enough to give them a decent meal, but they are good kids; they understand. My daughter always says to me that the three of us are happy alone; we don’t need anyone else or anything else. This gives me the strength to continue moving forward. I try to remind myself that I have always been an independent woman and a good person. I left the river when I was 10 years old because there was no high school in my town. I came to Buenaventura to find work. From a young age, I’ve always worked and taken care of myself, so every day I remind myself that I can handle any situation life throws at me. Maybe because of that, the day of the attack I felt a sense of serenity and peace of mind about having done things correctly my whole life.
THE FIGHT IS ALSO AGAINST SOCIAL STIGMA
In Colombia, there is a perception that women must stick to household duties and traditional gender roles. These ideas perpetuate the culture of “machisimo” and maintain a patriarchy that fosters gender-based violence.
“Buenaventura has a strong culture of “machismo,” so when people see a woman with a scar on her face, they assume she deserved it, they wonder “what was she involved in?” I have also suffered from social stigma, including stares and criticisms. Still, I managed to overcome all that and I hold my head up high again. I no longer feel guilty or wonder if I could have done things differently. The sessions with ACOPLE helped me rebuild my life, accept my new appearance, and learn to live again. “
A MATTER OF RIGHTS
The women’s rights movement in Colombia has struggled for justice for more than 80 years—since its first victory in the 1930s, when women were granted the right to attend high school. The 1991 Constitution was a huge step forward in the protection of women’s rights and social participation. Since then, constitutional reforms, judicial rulings, and other legislative acts have been promoted, but the protection of women’s rights remains a challenge.
“It seems likely that the justice system will approve a sentencing reduction because of his health issues. Recently, I visited the Ombudsman’s Office to ask about my options – how can I protect myself and my children? They, too, are at risk. In this moment, I feel alone, as if my hands tied, because his freedom would cause a tragedy – I am sure of that. Even from prison, he asks about me—he wants to know who I’m dating, where I’m working, and who is visiting the house.
As of now, I have not received good news. Apparently, there’s nothing I can do to prevent him from getting out of prison. Still, I’m holding on to my dream of leading a quiet life with purpose. I dream of being able to start a new life far from here with my children. I want to open my own beauty salon, so I can do honorable work, and provide my children with an education, so they can have better opportunities than I had.”