A group of women in the troubled Colombian port city of Buenaventura has been awarded one of the world’s most prestigious humanitarian awards for their work with survivors of forced displacement and sexual violence. The group, called Butterflies with New Wings Building a Future, won the 2014 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award.
Colombia’s 50-year civil conflict has forced some 5.7 million people to flee their homes – making the Andean nation second only to Syria in terms of its internally displaced population. It’s also the eighth-largest source of refugees.
Benedicia Benancia, 57, is a typical beneficiary of the Buterflies program. In 2001, she was chased from her home in western Colombia along with her seven children. “We had to escape the gunfire around us. It was immediate. We ran for our lives,” she said in a statement.
But the violence followed her to Buenaventura, where turf wars over drug routes are common and more than 80 percent of the population lives in poverty. Sexual violence, kidnapping and murder are commonplace.
Benancia said her life was precarious until she became involved with Butterflies. Among their programs is what is known as the “food chain,” which encourages members to save money and food by pooling their resources and providing a steady source of support in a place where there are few jobs. Benancia says that she used to sleep on a dirt floor, but thanks to the food chain she was able to build a house. “I wouldn’t have been able to save otherwise,” she said.
The UN said the cornerstone of the Butterflies’ work is life skills and civil rights workshops. “Women come together and, realizing they are not alone in their suffering, slowly regain their self-esteem and strength,” the UN said.
Buenaventura is one of Colombia’s most dangerous cities. In Buenaventura, where crossing into the wrong neighborhood can get you killed, the Butterflies often have to be secretive about their work.
“These women are doing extraordinary work in the most challenging of contexts,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said in a statement. “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. Their bravery goes beyond words.”