Colombia’s City of Women

How a group of female victims of violence displaced by Colombia’s conflict united to build their own city.

Colombia City of Women [DO NOT USE] Julia Zulver
Lubis, one of the leaders of the League who helped to build the City of Women [Julia Zulver/Al Jazeera]

“We made little cardboard houses and put them in a big box, and you reached your hand in and pulled one out … ‘What number are you in? … Aiyee! you’re my neighbour!'” says Lubis proudly. “It was an amazing experience. From that moment forward, we thought as a collective.”

Lubis is the owner of one of the 98 life-size, concrete realisations of those little cardboard houses and one of the leaders of the Liga de Mujeres Desplazadas (League of Displaced Women), the Colombian women’s group. The organisation’s efforts have built a community known as the City of Women, to restore the right to housing to some of its most vulnerable members and their families.

Based in the northern region of Bolivar, the Liga is a grassroots group run by and for women who are victims of the conflict between the government, right-wing paramilitaries, crime syndicates and leftist armed rebel groups, such as FARC, a battle that is still ongoing despite a peace process which began in 2012. The six-decade long conflict in Colombia has displaced more than six million people, hitting indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities in particular.

While most of the combatants in this war’s armed factions are men, more than 50 percent of those forcibly displaced by it are women. It is estimated that half of these have experienced sexual violence: perpetrated systematically mainly by paramilitary groups, but also by state forces and rebel groups.

“I had six children, and I had to flee many times from rape,” says Everledis [Julia Zulver/Al Jazeera]

In the Colombian context, being “forcibly displaced” means being violently expelled from your home by gunmen. Some fled after witnessing the murder of their partner, having their children “disappeared”, their farm razed or their community massacred. 

“I had six children, and I had to flee many times from rape,” says Everledis, one of the founding members of the Liga. “The paramilitaries took our pigs, cows, and horses. They would kill the men and throw them in the river.”

“My town was [a big producer of] palm oil. They burned cars, did their best to make people leave, and now the multinationals can buy very cheap land because no one lives there,” says another Liga member. “There had always been showdowns between the guerrillas and the army, but when the paramilitaries entered the area, there was an extermination.”

Survivors of this violence typically settle in impoverished shanty towns on the outskirts of Colombia’s major cities, where they live in informally constructed shelters without access to clean water or healthcare – let alone employment, support networks or processes of justice.

A backdrop of extreme poverty

El Pozon, located far from the five-star hotels and postcard-perfect tourist attractions of Cartagena, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, is one such neighbourhood.

With about 100,000 inhabitants, it is Cartagena’s most densely populated borough, having received a steady influx of internally displaced people over the past 50 years. This marginalised population live in precarious homes which are hand-built from cardboard, tin and plastic sheeting and are not equipped to withstand the region’s periodic floods.

It was in El Pozon that the Liga was founded, against a backdrop of extreme poverty, paramilitary “social cleansing”, forced recruitment, domestic violence, and territorial fighting over the strategic narco-trafficking routes in the Cartagena bay area.

Some of the women displaced there began to organise around what they termed their “Sueno de vida digna”: dream of a dignified life.

READ MORE: FARC rebels’ last days in the Colombian jungle?

And it was a dream, because a city of houses built by and for displaced women seemed impossibly far from the reality of their lives in El Pozon. 

“Everyone – including our own partners – said that we were crazy,” says Eidanis, another Liga leader. “[They told us] that this project was impossible. But we demonstrated that it is possible … It’s the only housing project belonging to female victims in the country.”

She says this with pride, from the terrace of the house she now owns in the City of Women.

It is almost a decade since its completion, and the City now has its own small primary school, a community centre, and a few informal shops selling food and household essentials, which are run from the women’s living rooms or by the roadside.

Each of the brightly painted houses has its own front terrace, furnished with rocking chairs and close enough to the neighbours to allow them to talk over the noise of children playing football or chasing chickens through the mango-tree-lined avenues. 

“It’s not just the fact that we have a City of Women,” Eidanis continues, “but that it was us who built it. We had to learn about construction, topography … Some women designed the blocks, others built them.”

Building the City

Construction of the City began in Turbaco – a municipality on the outskirts of Cartagena – in 2003, thanks to international funding secured by the founder and lawyer of the Liga, Patricia Guerrero.

Eidanis describes how the labour was managed collectively. In an organisation that was by then five years old and already  300 strong, the collective effort to build the City solidified its foundations. While some women built and laid bricks, others tended the crops grown on site to sustain the community. Some were responsible for collective childcare, others cooked the meals.

“It was something that brought the organisation even closer together, us living and working together like that, day by day,” Eidanis remembers. 

Seletina worries about whether she can afford the bus fare to take her sick grandson to a clinic in Cartagena [Julia Zulver/Al Jazeera]
Seletina worries about whether she can afford the bus fare to take her sick grandson to a clinic in Cartagena [Julia Zulver/Al Jazeera]

And as Lubis takes us through the City, teasing the children playing in the streets, laughing with neighbours, and shouting greetings through doorways, it is clear how continuing to live and work alongside one another for the past decade has only strengthened this collectivism.  

“We form a group of women who make up a little Colombia,” says Dayanera, another Liga leader. The women living here are from all over the country: from Choco, Antioquia, Bolívar, La Guajira and many other regions torn apart by this unending war. Yet they are united by shared experiences of violence.

“Above all, this is our strength”, Dayanera says, “that the pain of one is the pain of all.”

Lubis believes that the realisation of this shared pain was the driving force behind the Liga’s mobilisation.

“When we started to talk, we realised that each of us wasn’t alone. This is something crucial, fundamental … it was the process that gave the organisation its strength.”

The Liga de Mujeres Desplazadas

The foundations for the Liga were set in the 1990s by a small group of women who met each morning queuing for fish, in El Pozon. They began to share their experiences of forced displacement and organised meetings in each other’s houses as their numbers grew.

Patricia Guerrero, a feminist lawyer from Bogota, began to join these meetings in 1999. As part of her work she had been looking for female leaders of existent social organisations in El Pozon. Discovering the gathering momentum of this network of displaced women, she formally founded the Liga. 

In meetings Guerrero spoke openly about her own feminism which, along with the human rights vocabulary she brought, provided important conceptual and linguistic tools for the Liga. 

“She came to a meeting of displaced women and spoke and it gave me goosebumps,” recalls Dayanera. “I wanted to know, I wanted to know what my rights as a woman were. I wanted to learn to express myself.” 

READ MORE: Colombia and FARC rebels reach deal on missing people

Today, Dayanera expresses herself with an articulate clarity. The is true of all the Liga women. They are practised in telling their stories and advocating for themselves. 

Seletina, another leader, laughingly tells us: “I was very shy, but in the Liga I’ve gotten rid of some of this shyness … and now, well – I don’t speak well, but at least I speak. I’ve left some of my fears behind.”

Dayanera links this to a restoration of self-worth: “I’m not someone who went to university, but wherever I go now, I feel I have capabilities.”

Lubis takes this sentiment a step further, declaring: “The Liga has been my school and my university.” 

This focus on speech and representation is part of a belief that their collective voice, rooted in shared experience, can speak louder in the ear of the Colombian state, which many of these women distrust. 

“We thought that the state was going to help us,” Lubis remembers, “but many of the companeras [friends] learned from the moment of their displacement that we are alone.”

Denouncing the state

While victims are supposed to appeal to one arm of the state for justice, other arms are seen as responsible for the very violations they seek redress for. The local police force in El Pozon, for example, is widely accused of being in collusion with the paramilitary groups perpetrating continued violence in the region. Some women know from experience that state security forces are equally capable of violations. This results in a complete lack of confidence in the processes of justice, leading victims to fear reporting crimes.

Although the City of Women is its most visible, one of the Liga’s most empowering achievements has been overcoming this fear. As Dayanera explains: “Knowing our rights gives us the strength to know that we have to denounce. When we denounce we do not fall into ignorance – not of the state, not of the paramilitaries, not of anyone. We all denounce because if we do not all denounce, total impunity will continue. To denounce is to make ourselves strong.” 

Dayanera and her daughter at the stand where they sell food to neighbours; opportunities to make money are limited, and often confined to the community itself. [Julia Zulver/Al Jazeera]
Dayanera and her daughter at the stand where they sell food to neighbours; opportunities to make money are limited, and often confined to the community itself. [Julia Zulver/Al Jazeera]

On an individual level, condemning the crimes of some of the most powerful actors in Colombian society is difficult and dangerous, but doing so as a collective has given the women courage. This is one good to have come from the suffering they have endured. “No hay mal que por bien no venga,” as Dayanera puts it, quoting an old expression equivalent to “every cloud has a silver lining”.

Lubis clasps her hands together by way of demonstrating this: “Once a woman denounces, she doesn’t need to be alone. ‘I’ll take your hand, let’s go’ …. From that first moment we started to work and we didn’t stop. We haven’t stopped.”

Activism in court

From 2006 to 2009, the women of the Liga compiled 159 cases of their members’ experiences of displacement and gender-based violence, and took them to the national Public Prosecutor’s Office. It resulted in the office providing psychological support to those women who had testified.

The Constitutional Court issued a number of orders instructing the Ministry of the Interior to develop strategies to protect displaced women. These, however, were never adequately enforced and nothing was done to bring any of those involved in the 159 cases to justice. Seeking protective measures, in 2010 the Liga filed a denouncement of impunity against the Colombian state itself, with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. This is still in process.

The Liga is now one of eight Colombian women’s organisations to be recognised as being entitled to receive collective reparations as part of the country’s transitional justice process.

We are very, very, very threatened. Threats are permanent here in the community because of our work … because we denounce.

by -Dayanera, leader in the Liga

Collective as opposed to individual reparations are important to the group as they acknowledge collective harms. Specific populations – in this case women and predominantly Afro-Colombian women – are recognised as having been systematically violated. Granting collective reparations (including goods, compensation and rehabilitation) to grassroots organisations such as the Liga is seen as restitution for the group rights that have been violated. 

“We are still in the process of documenting. At the moment we are working on collective reparations,” says Lubis. “The 2011 Law of Victims and Land Restitution says that victims of the war will be totally, wholly given reparations. For us this is education, health, housing, everything … everything that in one moment the war and the violence took from all of us. It hasn’t been easy. The state has its position, and we have our organised position.” 

But there is a cost to this organised position. To the same degree that their work makes them visible as both women and activists, it makes them targets. Dayanera is clear about the link between her work and her safety.

“We are very, very, very threatened. Threats are permanent here in the community because of our work … because we denounce,” she says.

A history of violence

In the early 2000s, the area saw an influx of paramilitaries. These right-wing groups – the brainchild of Cold War US military advisers to Colombia, then supported by narco-traffickers in the 1980s – were designed to crush leftist armed rebels and their supposed civilian allies.

The flawed demobilisation of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), a paramilitary and drug trafficking group, in 2005 meant that many ex-paramilitaries joined other drug trafficking groups. These groups consequently inherited the notion that civil activist groups such as the Liga were their targets.

When work began on building the City in 2003, masked and hooded men would drive past, threatening violence and murder. During the three years of construction, family members of Liga women were “disappeared” or killed. In 2005, Julio Miguel Espitia – who was guarding the City’s brick factory – was murdered. Many women left out of fear. Yet, Lubis recalls, it was his widow, a member of the Liga, who resumed the building work first.

“Simona said; ‘How can we stop? If my husband was working so that we could have houses, let’s keep going towards this dream. We’re going to build this City of Women’,” Lubis remembers.

Shortly after the City’s completion in 2006, a group of unknown men burned down the multi-purpose community centre used for communal cooking, childcare, and workshops. The women rebuilt the centre, naming it “the heart of women”.

Keila Esther Berrio Almanza, one of the women living in the City, was murdered in 2011. She was the daughter of one of the Liga’s founding members, Everledis. A photo of Keila, taken during the building of the City now hangs in her mother’s house. Keila’s own daughter, who lives with Everledis in the City, plays an active role in the Liga Joven, a youth advocacy organisation for children of Liga women.

The presumed perpetrators of the ongoing violence and intimidation are paramilitary groups and drug trafficking gangs such as Aguilas negras (Black Eagles) and ERPAC, the revolutionary anti-communist army. Pamphlets have been left in the City, threatening murder if women don’t shut themselves in their houses with their children by 10pm. ERPAC declared the “stupid women organisers” a military target, and have threatened the women with sexual violence. 

Eidanis sits on the terrace of her house. Her home is being renovated to include a second floor to create more room for her family [Julia Zulver/Al Jazeera]
Eidanis sits on the terrace of her house. Her home is being renovated to include a second floor to create more room for her family [Julia Zulver/Al Jazeera]

“We come from violence,” Seletina says. “And the fear continues because the threats continue. Sometimes unknown men arrive with hoods on, and threaten us [and] our daughters … some have been raped … some have become pregnant. They are 12 or 13 years old. And our sons, they give them drugs – 11 or 12 years old and they give them drugs.” 

However, it is because of this violence, because the City of Women is still standing and now has about 500 inhabitants, that Lubis associates it with peace. “Because when a community that is so threatened and persecuted resists … and builds a City of Women in an environment of territorial resentment … this is an example of building peace,” she says. “Together, with the children … with the dream that we have: this builds peace.”

Colombia is in the final stages of peace negotiations between the government and the largest left-wing rebel group FARC, being held in Havana.

Against this backdrop, questions about the role of organisations like the Liga in building a lasting peace seem like obvious ones to ask. But when we meet Patricia Guerrero and present her with this notion, she laughs ironically and calls the peace process a “Sancocho” – a traditional Colombian stew. In other words: a mess.

Everyone and their dog is suddenly breathing peace - because, of course, who wouldn't want to be seen to be on the side of peace? But what will it change? The original conditions of the war - inequality, fundamental ideological disputes over land ownership - still exist. Nothing is resolved.

by - Patricia Guerrero, founder and lawyer of the Liga

“Everyone and their dog is suddenly breathing peace – because, of course, who wouldn’t want to be seen to be on the side of peace? But what will it change? The original conditions of the war – inequality, fundamental ideological disputes over land ownership – still exist. Nothing is resolved.”

When asked about the “gender experts” invited to contribute to the peace accords, Guerrero is sceptical: “Who chose them? And in whose name exactly is it that they speak? Not in mine. Even less in the name of the women of the Liga.”

Lubis agrees, “The processes need to come from the women, from the base. Not from someone else.”

Guerrero is exhausted. “To get anything, anything at all, you have to fight for it – fight with sit-ins, fight by knocking on their doors. You knock on the door, they open it, they close it in your face, you knock again, they open it, they close it in your face again, you knock on the door, they open it, you push it open,” she says.

But to position the Liga’s gains within the current international narrative about an advancing peace would belie the complexity of life for the City of Women’s inhabitants. For them, the reality is ongoing violence and continued threats. 

And such threats do not only take the form of physical violence. Seletina’s infant grandson waddles around on her terrace, eating mamoncillos – a local fruit like an orange, bitter lychee. He has had diarrhoea for days, and Seletina explains that if it continues she will have to take him to the hospital in Cartagena, two bus trips away. This will cost the equivalent of 80 cents, which for most of the households in the City is prohibitively expensive. Residents talk about not even having the equivalent of 30 cents in their pockets. One woman in the community died because of this lack of accessible healthcare.

The lack of affordable transport also results in an insular economy. Money-making ventures involve informally selling food and basic household items to fellow inhabitants of the City, or on the side of the road to Cartagena.

The result is that the majority of the City of Women’s inhabitants are still living in absolute poverty, on less than $1.50 a day. Despite these women’s evident capabilities, the labour market does not value them: because of their lack of formal education and their rural origins and because of racial and gender discrimination.

This reality, the women are careful to emphasise, is not exactly the dignified life they dreamt of. And, as Patricia Guerrero observes, if this is so in the City of Women, how must it be for the rest of Colombia’s nearly 3.5 million displaced women, living precariously within impoverished host communities with no network to rely on.

It is being conscious of possessing the right to luchar or to fight that is at the heart of the Liga’s story says Guerrero. The City of Women is the concrete manifestation of the Liga de las Mujeres Desplazadas’ resistance. It is a defiant space from which to “seguir en la lucha” (continue the fight), as the saying goes here.

Children sit on the front terraces of the houses in the City of Women [Julia Zulver/Al Jazeera]
Children sit on the front terraces of the houses in the City of Women [Julia Zulver/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera