A group of women in the troubled Colombian port city of Buenaventura has been awarded one of the world’s most prestigious humanitarian awards for their work with survivors of forced displacement and sexual violence.
The group, called Butterflies with New Wings Building a Future, won the 2014 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award Friday. Since 2010, the organization has helped more than 1,000 women and their families by providing life skills and emotional and legal support. The award was announced just after midnight Friday.
Colombia’s 50-year civil conflict has forced some 5.7 million people to flee their homes – making the Andean nation second only to Syria in terms of its internally displaced population. It’s also the eighth-largest source of refugees.
Internally displaced people are those who have been forced to flee their homes and seek refuge within their country.
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Benedicia Benancia, 57, is a typical beneficiary of the program. In 2001, she was chased from her home in western Colombia along with her seven children.
“We had to escape the gunfire around us. It was immediate. We ran for our lives,” she said in a statement. But the violence followed her to Buenaventura, where turf wars over drug routes are common and more than 80 percent of the population lives in poverty. Sexual violence, kidnapping and murder are commonplace.
Benancia said her life was precarious until she became involved with Butterflies. Among their programs is what is known as the “food chain,” which encourages members to save money and food by pooling their resources and providing a steady source of support in a place where there are few jobs.
Benancia says that she used to sleep on a dirt floor, but thanks to the food chain she was able to build a house. “I wouldn’t have been able to save otherwise,” she said.
The UN said the cornerstone of the Butterflies’ work is life skills and civil rights workshops. “Women come together and, realizing they are not alone in their suffering, slowly regain their self-esteem and strength,” the UN said.
In Buenaventura, where crossing into the wrong neighborhood can get you killed, the Butterflies often have to be secretive about their work.
“These women are doing extraordinary work in the most challenging of contexts,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said in a statement. “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.”
Mery Medina is a caseworker with the organization. In a statement, she said the group strives to shed light on crimes that have long been hidden or ignored.
“The fight is to fight indifference. One way of protesting is not to keep our mouths shut,” she said. “We go with women and help them every step of the way so they can report crimes to officials. A few years ago no one reported any crimes. We hid in fear. But now we’re gradually speaking out.”
Buenaventura is one of Colombia’s most dangerous cities, and earlier this year the government militarized the area to try to dampen gang violence.
In its 60th year, the Nansen Refugee Award recognizes extraordinary humanitarian work on behalf of refugees, internally displaced or stateless people. The award also includes a $100,000 monetary prize. This is the first time a Colombian organization has won.
The award is named after Norwegian Arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen, who helped repatriate some 450,000 prisoners of war after World War I.
Major Source Countries of Refugees as of 2013
Afghanistan 2.6 mln
Syria 2.5 mln
Somalia 1.1 mln
Dem. Rep. of the Congo 499,500
Viet Nam 314,100