Colombian women’s rights group wins UN refugee agency’s highest honor

Gloria Amparo grew up in extreme poverty in Colombia with an abusive father who regularly beat her mother. Witnessing this violence drove her to dedicate…

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Gloria Amparo grew up in extreme poverty in Colombia with an abusive father who regularly beat her mother. Witnessing this violence drove her to dedicate herself to helping women who are victims of violence.

In 2010, she joined a group of women with the same ambition and formed an organization called Butterflies with New Wings Building a Future.

The women’s rights group is committed to helping women who survive forced displacement and sexual abuse at the hands of armed groups. They do much of their work in Buenaventura, which has become one of the most violent cities in Colombia.

“We were tired of not being heard, and people not talking about the violence women were facing in Buenaventura,” stated Amparo, explaining why she co-founded Butterflies in 2010.

The group’s humanitarian work includes counseling, support for victims of violence, educational programs and advocacy work. Over the last few years, they’ve helped turn around the lives of more than 1,000 women and their families.

SEE ALSO: Violence in Buenaventura, Colombia warrants military action

On Friday, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced that this courageous group of Colombian women was chosen to receive the agency’s highest honor, the Nansen Refugee Award. The award includes a commemorative medal and a $100,000 monetary prize.

Established in 1954, the award is given every year to an individual or group of people who work to help the forcibly displaced. It was named after the League of Nations’ first High Commissioner for Refugees Fridtjof Nansen. This is the first time the award’s recipients are from Colombia.

“These women are doing extraordinary work in the most challenging of contexts,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said in a statement of the Colombian women’s rights group. “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.”

Risking their lives

In an interview with VOXXI, Francesca Fontanini, the United Nation’s senior communications officer in Bogota, said it is “an honor” for Colombia to have these women from Butterflies receive this prestigious award.

She said the group is made up of 120 women who are all volunteers. They operate with limited resources and often place themselves in dangerous conditions in order to help women and their families.

“Being in Buenaventura, which is one of the most violent cities in Colombia, every day they risk their lives to save other lives,” Fontanini said.

Fontanini noted that Colombia is second only to Syria when it comes to the number of internally displaced people. She explained that an estimated 5 million people have been forced to leave their homes due to escalating conflict between illegal armed groups and the security forces.

SEE ALSO: Renewed wave of FARC violence puts Colombia peace negotiations in peril

The internal conflict has lasted five decades. Colombian women and girls are the ones who’ve paid the highest price for this conflict, as women make up the largest share of people who are forcibly displaced. The United Nations estimates that 80 percent of the people displaced in Colombia are women and at least 50 percent of displaced women have experienced sexual and gender-based violence.

The devastation of the conflict between armed groups and the security forces has been felt more intensely in Buenaventura, where Butterflies’ volunteers carry out most of their humanitarian work. The city is Colombia’s biggest Pacific port and has become a major point of origin for cocaine smuggled to the United States.

Fontanini added that inside Buenaventura, escalating violence and rivalries between illegal armed groups has led to the creation of “invisible borders.” Crossing these borders, she said, could lead to death. There have been reports of people being dismembered in so-called “chop-up houses” for crossing these borders.

Making a difference

Despite the violence, the volunteers from Butterflies go into neighborhoods risking their lives to help women and their families.

Maritza Asprilla Cruz, who grew up in a home marked by extreme poverty and abuse, is one of those volunteers. She joined Butterflies two years ago after Amparo convinced her that she could make a difference in women’s lives.

“We hold our meetings behind closed doors,” Cruz said, speaking about the dangers of working in Buenaventura. “No one from outside can attend, because we are in danger, so we have to care for ourselves. There are neighborhoods that you can’t cross. Most days I change my movements in and out of the neighborhoods for my own protection.”

Cruz organizes and leads many of Butterflies’ workshops that teach women about their rights, which is one of the main cornerstones of the group. They believe that educating women about their rights is the best way to empower women to make better decisions and know how to defend themselves.

SEE ALSO: Gender violence, some fear, is getting worse in Latin America

Mery Medina is another Butterflies’ volunteer. She is caseworker who spends her days educating women on how to access services, report crimes and seek the justice they deserve.

“We go with women and help them every step of the way so they can report crimes to officials,” Medina stated. “A few years ago no one reported any crimes. We hid in fear. But now we’re gradually speaking out.”

Medina will join Cruz and Amparo to receive the Nansen Refugee Award on behalf of Butterflies at a ceremony in Geneva, Switzerland on Sept. 29. The award ceremony will feature a keynote speech via video from actress Angelina Jolie, who is a UNHCR special envoy, and musical performances.

In a statement released Friday, Jolie praised the work of these Colombian women, saying they “draw on their strengths as women to help thousands of vulnerable people who would otherwise have no rights and no protection.”