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.

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.

Dangerous Domestic Norms

The culture of violence is also linked to dangerous norms in private life. Domestic violence permeates Colombian society to an unknown, but likely profound extent, SISMA Mujer says.

The Colombian Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences documented 137,814 cases of interfamily and partner physical violence, mistreatment and sexual violence against women in 2010, in addition to 125 cases of femicide. The National Demographic and Health Survey found in 2010 that 73 percent of women who are physically abused did not denounce the violence they suffered.

During one of the CedaVida sessions in Soacha, Rubio and her friend, Angie Murillo, 17 and also pregnant, giggled at the thought of their male counterparts attending a parallel session.

"It would be good for them," Murillo said eventually. "They need to think about us more."

CedaVida has so far led 28 other groups like this for women in six departments, or states, over the past seven months. It has also conducted 10 programs for men.

The first session in Soacha drew almost 30 young women. Several were pregnant and many had their young children in tow.

Most belonged to the age category–between 17 and 34–when Colombian women are considered most vulnerable to gender-based violence, said Flor Diaz, a Bogota program coordinator for UN Women, headquartered in New York.

In the first session in Soacha, participants joined ice-breaking games, such as sketching outlines of their bodies and writing in the white space their favorite things about themselves.

The second session included a discussion of basic connotations of the terms "violence," "men" and "women." They linked "violence" directly back to women. When it came to "men," words such as machismo sprung to the minds of participants. For "women" some of the words were "beauty" and "money holders."

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Amy Lieberman is a freelance journalist based in Bogota, Colombia.