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An elderly woman makes her way through the flooded streets of Cordoba, Colombia. Credit: Julián Arango for CERF/OCHA

Women in Colombia are taking steps to protect themselves from sexual and gender-based violence, with support from OCHA’s Central Emergency Response Fund.

Some 180 women from communities affected by flooding and armed violence in Colombia’s Córdoba department have come together in the town of Santa Cruz de Lorica to build a women’s shelter. Although some men helped behind the scenes, the women themselves built the shelter and painted it, and are now maintaining it.

The shelter is just one part of a programme that includes workshops on justice, human rights and community organizing. The majority of the women attending the programme are heads of households; many have no high school education and some have experienced sexual and gender-based violence in the home and in the wider community.

Córdoba has been affected by both armed conflict and displacement, exacerbated by heavy flooding in 2010 and 2011 which affected more than two million people. The Colombian Government estimates that almost 70 per cent of those affected by floods have already suffered displacement due to armed conflict.

Many of the women say that building the shelter goes beyond the physical; the very act of uniting, making decisions, supporting their community and creating a space specifically for themselves and their families has transformed their lives.

“We fight for our own lives and those of our children, so that they may never need to carry a gun,” says Milena, one of those participating.

“For me, one of the most important things has been to recognize that I have the ability to transform my life,” says Miryam, another of the women. “We feel that as women, we have been awakened with new knowledge of how to take care of ourselves and our community. We are ready to share our knowledge.”

The United Nations in Colombia reports that in areas where armed combatants are present, some 17 per cent of women have suffered some form of sexual violence, including rape or sexual harassment. In 2009, Colombia’s Constitutional Court recognized the different and disproportionate impact that armed conflict has on women.

OCHA’s Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) provided more than US$5.9 million to six United Nations agencies in Colombia in 2011, some $97,000 of which was given to the UN Population Fund, UNFPA, for activities aimed at preventing gender-based violence towards people affected by forced displacement and flooding in Córdoba. Some of this funding, together with support from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), UN-WOMEN, the Catholic Diocese of Monte Libano and the NGO Corporacion María Cano, has been spent on the women’s workshops and shelter.  

“CERF helped mainstream gender issues into the emergency response with a particular focus on reducing the impact of gender-based violence and sexual violence in Córdoba,” said  Tania Patriota, UNFPA Colombia Representative. She continued, “By strengthening women’s leadership and scaling up the prevention of violence, CERF funds have not only helped to safeguard the rights of women, but also reinforced the empowerment of women through rebuilding communities.”

More>> CERF website

Reporting by Julian Zosa