Domestic Violence

Young Colombians Talk About Their Danger Zones

Monday, March 26, 2012

A new wave of programs is gently stirring young Colombians in violent cities to talk about their lives. Organizers say their goal is to help women think about protecting themselves and their children from family violence.

SOACHA, Colombia (WOMENSENEWS)--Inside a cool church classroom, a circle of teens pause nervously at the unfamiliar request: "Tell us about your lives."

"It's the first time I've had an opportunity like this, and it's a big deal for us," said Kely Rubio, an 18-year-old woman who is three-months pregnant. "It's strange to be talking about these things--what we want from life, about ourselves--but it's a beautiful thing."

Rubio is participating in a new wave of programs across the country, facilitated by a national nongovernmental group, CedaVida, or Yield Life, based in Bogota. The goal is to encourage both young women and their male partners--sometimes their aggressors--to address gender-based violence.

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The sessions begin gently, with wide-open general questions. "Tell us about your lives."

Given the pervasive violence in cities where the programs are held, facilitators can be sure that answers will funnel down to the common denominator of violence.

"Men here feel like they have the right to abuse a woman or do anything he wants with her," said Rosa Cuervo, 52, a single mother of two who accompanied her 16-year-old daughter to the session. "And she will allow it. My father abused my mother for years and I looked at that and said, 'This is not what I want for myself or for my children.'"

Police intervention in cases of domestic violence in Soacha is rare, Cuervo said. Women frequently face intimidation from their spouses or even neighbors if they try to file a complaint. "Women know if you call the police you will get threats, but I think you have to take the risk."

Janeth Gonzalez facilitates the 64-hour program now underway in Soacha, a city of about 400,000, one-hour south of Bogota, where gangs and paramilitary and guerilla groups are all present. "Young women come here to discuss what violence means, what violence looks and sounds like to you," she said.

Setting Limits

The goal, said CedaVida Director Adriana Martinez, is for women to set stronger limits for themselves and their children in situations involving violence. The workshops may not defuse widespread armed conflicts in the country, but they can encourage women to identify, avoid, and potentially step away from violent family behavior.

The workshops may also help men reflect on their own actions.

"We use various strategies to hook the men and get them to come," Martinez said. "We don't say that we are going to talk about women's rights. It's more about their masculine identity."

Colombia hosts a nearly five-decade-old conflict among entrenched communist guerilla groups and emerging right-wing paramilitary factions. The violence has displaced between 3 million and 5 million Colombians, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

Against this backdrop, violence against women and girls is used systematically and with near total impunity by both illegal and legal armed actors, says SISMA Mujer, a Bogota-based leading women's rights research and advocacy group. Documentation of this violence is minimal, according to the group's findings.

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