“Butterflies with New Wings”: Gender, violence, and resistance in Buenaventura, Colombia
Colombia has the second-highest number of internally displaced people (IDPs) globally, following Syria. In Buenaventura, IDPs make up around 58% of the population, and over 80% of the total population lives in poverty. In particular, displacement has a disproportionate impact on afro-Colombian women, threatening their basic human needs. In this article, I will talk about Buenaventura women’s experience of everyday violence and resistance.
Buenaventura is situated on the Pacific coastline of Colombia and is a port city located within the Valle del Cauca department in the southwest region of the country. It is home to a large Afro-Colombian population and has been the site of intense violence and conflict over the past few decades. The city has a history of drug trafficking, gang activity, and territorial disputes between armed groups. These factors, combined with poverty, limited access to basic services, and a lack of government presence, have contributed to the displacement of thousands of residents and the emergence of a refugee crisis in the region.
Women in Buenaventura are among the most affected by the displacement caused by the conflict in the region. They face multiple forms of violence, including sexual violence, domestic violence, and gender-based violence. During the first six months of 2014, gangs murdered and dismembered 11 women, and as many as 20 killings were reported in January of that year alone. According to an interview with José Adriel Ruiz Galvan, a priest who works in one of Buenaventura’s most challenging neighborhoods, the majority of the city’s inhabitants have experienced displacement, the disappearance of a family member, recruitment by an armed group, or sexual abuse. In addition, Maria Camila Martinez Velasco reveals that in addition to the violence that occurs in public spaces, many families in Buenaventura are also affected by domestic violence, which is one of the most prevalent forms of violence in the city.
Many women in Buenaventura have been forced to flee their homes and communities due to the violence and displacement caused by the conflict. The displacement has had a severe impact on their lives, causing them to lose their homes, livelihoods, and social networks. Benedicia Benancia and her seven young children had to escape their village in western Colombia’s Valle de Cauca province by boat when a conflict broke out between rival armed groups. She remembers that they had to flee quickly as gunfire surrounded them and they feared for their lives. Although they eventually found shelter with a relative in the port city of Buenaventura, violence continued to be a part of their lives. Benedicia observed that she and other displaced individuals did not find refuge from violence, even in Buenaventura.
Along with violence and displacement caused by the conflict, women in Buenaventura also face structural forms of violence, such as discrimination and inequality. Women who have been displaced face significant challenges in accessing basic services such as healthcare and education, as well as facing discrimination and deep-rooted stigma from the broader society. Women are often excluded from decision-making processes and have limited access to resources and opportunities. They are also subject to harmful gender norms and stereotypes that perpetuate violence against them. Poverty, isolation, and discrimination have perpetuated their struggle.
In post-conflict situations like Colombia, the displacement of individuals has become normalized to the point where it has lost its significance, as people are reduced to the category of “the displaced.” Oslender summarized it as “the banality of displacement”. The homogenization of those affected by displacement has led to the violence of this process being viewed as an everyday occurrence, concealing the diverse experiences of individuals. As one woman said in an interview: “I can tell you that unless you have lived this experience, you can’t talk about it. But the women that have lived it can tell with our own words and our own tears.”
Despite these challenges, women in Buenaventura have been at the forefront of resistance and advocacy efforts in the region. They have organized and mobilized to demand their rights and challenge the patriarchal structures that perpetuate violence against them. One organization that has been doing important work in this area is Butterflies With New Wings Building a Future (Spanish: Mariposas con Nuevas Alas Construyendo Futuro; Butterflies). It is a grassroots organization founded in 2010 by a group of women from Buenaventura, consisting of nine women’s rights groups. It won the 2014 Nansen Refugee Award.
Butterflies is on a mission to eliminate gender-based violence, racism, patriarchy and to achieve social, political, cultural, and environmental justice. It demands equality, fairness, participation, and a life free of violence. “Each day they seek to heal the wounds of the women and children of Buenaventura and in doing so put their own lives at risk.” According to U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres.
Bibiana Peñaranda Sepúlved, the founder of Butterflies, stated during an interview with UN Women that every woman in the network had encountered some type of violence. She mentioned that the network “offers hope to every woman who arrives defeated and tired by the war.” Bibiana explained that they encourage these women to join them and move forward together by holding hands. “We are transforming the concept of power.”
According to a leader of Butterflies who had suffered from sexual violence, the pain is not easily forgotten. She stated that women are rising up to voice their opposition to machismo and put an end to gender-based violence.
Gloria Amparo, a coordinator of Butterflies, described how their ideology centers around the concept of “comadreo.” In Afro-Colombian communities, godparents have traditionally played a crucial role in caring for and raising children. Within Butterflies, women are encouraging one another to act as godparents for both their own children and each other’s, emphasizing the importance of community support and solidarity.
In July 2022, Butterflies initiated a training program that aims to empower women and the LGBTQ+ population. The training operates through five modules: Feminist spirituality and peace; Feminism with a black and indigenous community focus; Personal and political empowerment (self-care and mutual care); Ancestral and cultural practices; The rights of women and sexual diversity. In addition, Butterflies is actively advocating for women’s labor rights, demanding decent wages, social benefits, employment contracts, and the conditions necessary to protect and carry out our work activities. They see economic democratization as part of the good life for women in the Pacific.
In the case of Buenaventura, vulnerability and agency are not mutually exclusive. Instead, they are presented simultaneously as two facets of women’s experience. Looking to the future, will peace and good life come to Buenaventura?
Today, the view of the Buenaventura port is occupied by cranes and containers. With Colombia’s integration into the global economy and the port’s development plan, the region faces the threat of economic post-colonialism, and violence may continue across space and time.
“Slavery practices are recreated, and Colonization is still expressed through the development model. We think that this is a development model that is incompatible with the community, that breaks apart our organizational practices, breaks up extended families, breaks down a model that is part of who we are and what we have here… I believe they are colonial practices that haven’t ended yet.” Said a woman in an interview with Fondo de Acción Urgente America Latina y el Caribe.
The fight has not ended. The story of Butterflies reminds us that ending violence against women would be the most crucial precondition for peace and satisfying fundamental human needs.
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Ruihan is an MPhil student in Development Studies at Oxford University. She researched and wrote this article as part of the Oxford University Micro Internship programme.