Building a culture of peace in Colombia

20 September 2019

Nieles, the leader of a local women’s support group, paints a banner for a march

Nieles, the leader of a local women’s support group, paints a banner for a march.

Saturday 21 September is International Day of Peace. Through our local experts, we are responding to the violence faced by so many women and young people in the Magdalena Medio region of Colombia.

“Women experience violence every day,” explains Nieles.

Nieles is a passionate and determined leader of a local women’s support group in the Magdalena Medio region, northern Colombia.

“The conflict has affected everyone in Magdalena Medio, but women have a different experience. Their bodies were taken. They were tokens of war.”

With an internal armed conflict lasting over 50 years, most Colombians have been affected by civil war. More than 280,000 people have been killed in the conflict between Colombian government forces, left-wing guerrillas and paramilitary groups.

What is happening in Magdalena Medio?

The 2016 peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) marked a historic step towards peace.

However, in so many regions of Colombia, violence continues as a daily problem and the Magdalena Medio region is no different. After so many years of conflict, generations of people have grown up knowing only violence. Violence has become a normal way of life, and not just for the remaining armed groups. Violence is used to solve problems between neighbours, between school children and even among family members.

Violence towards women in Magdalena Medio continues to be widespread. It exists in many different forms – physical, psychological, verbal or sexual. Over the years, many women have experienced threats, been forcibly displaced, disappeared or suffered sexual assault.

“There’s also political violence. For example, in elections it’s hard for women to be recognised and reach the same level as men,” adds Nieles.

Three women painting a banner for a march in Colombia

Nieles is working with other local women to “fight for peace not with weapons, but by shooting knowledge and training and learning.”

But while communities in the Magdalena Medio region have grown tired of the ongoing violence, they have not given up hope.

“The conflict has done so much damage to women. But despite all the physical abuse, the displacement, the sexual violence, we fight for empowerment and peace. We are the women peacebuilders. It’s important that society itself changes. Women and men need to be seen as equal,” urges Nieles.

How is the Hands On project responding to the violence?

To respond to the violence faced by so many women and young people in the Magdalena Medio region, CAFOD and our local experts, Programme Development and Peace (PDP), are working with local women’s groups, youth groups and secondary schools to promote a culture of peace and reconciliation.

The project is called “Hands On Magdalena Medio” and is funded by CAFOD supporters and the European Union. It aims to promote changes in attitudes and behaviours and, consequently, encourage more peaceful and tolerant communities. Girls facing violence in their homes and communities are provided emotional support and advice. 

“We need to empower women to fight for peace, not with weapons, but by shooting knowledge through training, social mobilisation, political advocacy, management and learning,” explains Nieles.

Support the Hands On Magdalena Medio project in your parish

To help women and girls better understand and demand their rights, local women’s groups, like Nieles’, run workshops and creative activities involving art and drama. People are encouraged to ask themselves the question: what is violence? They provide a space for men and women to come together in order to discuss different types of existing violence and to share their own personal experiences. The activities help people become more aware of the various forms of violence, particularly against women, and provide better understanding of how widespread it is within their communities.

“We cover 23 municipalities, reaching more than 5,300 women and girls,” explains Nieles.

A future with gender equality

After raising awareness of women’s rights, the next step is looking at how people can resolve their problems by encouraging more positive relationships with their partner.

Nieles believes that to build gender equality, and subsequently establish long-lasting peace, it is important to support women’s political and civic participation. Through women’s support groups, Nieles is encouraging more women to take on leadership positions in local councils in the Magdalena Medio region – councils which are dedicated to working on peace and reconciliation within communities.

At present, very few women are represented in these local councils. Nieles feels strongly that this needs to change.

“I believe the world has two wings – women and men. This bird, when it flies, must have a balance between the two wings because, without that balance, you can’t fly.”

Help local leaders like Nieles build a culture of peace

Nieles is hopeful about the future and is already seeing a difference in her community.

“I love hearing testimonies from women about what’s changed. Where men begin to recognise women not as objects but as humans. And they educate their sons and daughters on equal opportunities for women.”

Luz, a young mother who attends Niele’s women’s support groups says, “After workshops with Nieles, I got stronger and stronger. I turned to my husband and I said, no more. No more physical mistreatment.”

Nieles is certain that a new generation is growing: “A generation where boys and girls who grow up into men and women participate equally,” she says. “That’s the peace we dream of.”

Saturday 21 September marks International Day of Peace. This story was printed in the Catholic Times on 20 September.

Back to top