She was from a rural area in the department of Tolima, but after she was raped, she fled to the city of Soacha. There, she settled in a place where it was illegal to live, but she did not know where else to go. When a police officer befriended her and offered to help, she gratefully accepted. With her three daughters in tow, they went off to search for a new home. But instead of finding them security and shelter, the police officer raped the three girls in front of their mother. At first, nothing could be done. She did not know where to look for help. Because he was a police officer, the mother was terrified of reporting the crime.
This story would likely have remained buried in profound sorrow and silence without support from the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women for the Centro de Apoyo Popular (CENTRAP), a national women’s group based in Bogota that has been active in Soacha. It has created safe spaces for women to talk about violent experiences, developed the information collected into a comprehensive mapping of the risks women face in the city, and then successfully persuaded the municipal government to incorporate changes in its municipal development plan. These include the creation of a special police station for family issues and gender sensitization for public employees, particularly to increase police capacities to identify risks and respond to women survivors of gender-based violence.
According to government statistics, Soacha not only has the highest prevalence of intra-family violence in Colombia, but also the largest number of people displaced by ongoing internal armed conflict. However, the full impacts of violence on women were poorly understood until recently, particularly for those like the family from Tolima, who are packed into illegal and extremely poor slums.
By working directly with women’s groups and community members in six districts of the city, CENTRAP found that women are exposed to a variety of forms of physical violence and psychological violence, including from the loss of family members and homes. They also discovered that the different kinds of social services that support women in crisis do not communicate with each other, resulting in gaps in follow-through on reported cases of violence.
In bringing women together to tell their stories, CENTRAP has helped them to build bonds with other women in their communities, reducing isolation and encouraging many to finally seek justice. The woman from Tolima, for example, overcame her fear and filed a case with the police. CENTRAP’s Elizabeth Pino believes that reaching out to women like her has been the project’s most critical contribution. “These women are in such sensitive emotional states that they need spaces to rebuild courage and trust,” she says.
She also stresses the importance of the UN Trust Fund grant as seed money that has “started something innovative.” Local women’s groups are now monitoring the budget allocation process for the municipal plan to ensure that the new commitments to ending violence against women are properly resourced and implemented. Plans also call for developing a protocol for communication among service providers, so that women who have already suffered violence do not encounter further mistreatment from systems intended to help.
The Centro de Apoyo Popular (CENTRAP), Colombia, received a grant in 2007 from the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women for the project titled “Towards a Municipality Free of Violence: Soacha for Women.” For more information, please contact UN Trust Fund staff.
(Story Date: 6 January 2009)