Through the Butterflies, Benedicia regained control of her life
When fighting erupted between rival armed groups in her village in western Colombia’s Valle de Cauca province in 2001, Benedicia Benancia and her seven young children fled by boat. “We had to escape the gunfire around us. It was immediate. We ran for our lives”, she recalled. Benedicia found refuge in the home of a relative in the dilapidated port city of Buenaventura. She found shelter – but no escape from the violence.
In a country with 5.7 million people uprooted by conflict, Buenaventura has one of the highest rates of violence and displacement due to escalating violence between illegal armed groups. Sadly women are often their targets. The groups violate women and children to demonstrate their power and strength. Women are tortured, raped or killed to exact revenge on armed rivals. “I and others fled violence, but we also found violence here,” says Benedicia.
Living in a neighbourhood where gunfire is common and where drug turf wars between rival illegal armed groups can keep residents in hiding for days at a time, Benedicia says people keep silent to survive. As a single mother Benedicia struggled to support her family and keep them safe. She found work as a house cleaner and although her employer gave her food to take home, Benedicia’s family situation was still precarious- until the day she discovered Butterflies, a women’s rights network.
A neighbour, Maritza Yaneth, introduced her to the group – a step which would prove life-changing. “When I met Benedicia a couple of years ago she was in a desperate situation. I told her about Butterflies and encouraged her to attend our workshops and join,” says Maritza.
Through the Butterflies, Benedicia regained control of her life and could avoid being sucked into the quagmire of violence and extortion that has become a daily reality in Buenaventura. “thanks to the network I have friends. I feel supported. I never feel alone,” says the 53-year-old.
The extreme levels of poverty combined with the violence– exacerbates the vulnerability of women and children. In Buenaventura it is estimated that more than 80 per cent live in poverty and of that 20 per cent live in extreme poverty – earning less than US$2 a day. To help impoverished families (like her own) to gain strength and independence, Benedicia took charge of a food and savings scheme, initiated and run by Butterflies. It operates across many of Buenaventura’s slum areas. The scheme has become her life line and a safety net for so many other families that could have been forced to flee due to the violence and intimidation.
Each week, Benedicia collects a small sum of money and two pounds of rice from each of the 24 members of the scheme in her neighborhood. “I keep track of everything in this notebook,” she says, pointing to a list of names and figures. Every few months Benedicia returns to the members ramshackle houses to give each a share of the rice and funds collected. The scheme, known among Butterflies members as the “food chain,” has literally become a life saver for Benedicia and other women who are the sole support for their families and do not have access to bank accounts. The food chain provides a steady source of support in a place where jobs are scarce
“Some women use the money they save to pay bills and even the bus fare to run errands. Others, when they get the rice, cook a whole load with fish and put it in the freezer [for future use],” explains Benedicia. With financial independence, comes strength for these women and an ability to face the challenges that daily life in Buenaventura brings. For Benedicia, the food chain allowed her to finally find the safe refuge she sought:
“I used to sleep on a dirt floor, but because of the [food] chain I’ve managed to build the house you see now. I wouldn’t have been able to save otherwise,” she says.
Thirteen years after she was uprooted, the Colombian government recently recognized Benedicia as an internally displaced person. But Benedicia is full of hope, “My dream is to own a small farm where I can grow what I need in the nearby countryside and live in peace,” she says.