Maria: a tight-knit community thanks to Butterflies
Maria Victoria has the undivided attention of 10 women gathered in a circle in a village church in western Colombia as she performs a role play with great flair. She is acting the part of a company employee who is struggling to fend off the sexual advances of a boss, played by another woman. “Girls, remember the laws you need to know that protect you against sexual harassment at work,” says Maria Victoria, leading the workshop in the Triana community as one of 22 coordinators for Butterflies.
“It’s about owning your own body, taking care of yourself and defending yourself against unwanted sexual harassment in and outside of work,” she tells them. Maria Victoria says that being part of Butterflies has taught her more about women’s rights and has helped heal the trauma she has suffered. “I can [now] share my grief with others who have also suffered because of the conflict,” Maria Victoria says. “It makes dealing with grief easier. To ease the pain I’ve learnt you have to share it. I feel less lonely.”
Like most of the 120 women working for Butterflies in and around the tough port city of Buenaventura, Maria Victoria has lost a loved one in Colombia’s 50-year armed conflict. She vividly recalls the Saturday evening nearly 15 years ago when four masked gunmen attacked the hilly Triana community where she and her family lived, alongside 400 other families, some 40 kilometres from Buenaventura. Her husband was at a billiards hall with three of their six children at the time. Maria Victoria heard gunshots and when a neighbour started screaming, “It’s Pedro, Pedro,” she knew her husband had been shot.
“I ran to the billiards hall and saw three people along with my husband lying dead on the floor. My three sons had witnessed the killing of their father,” says Maria Victoria. Within a week, Maria Victoria fled with her teenage children and sought shelter at her brother-in-law’s house in Buenaventura. “I feared for my family’s life. Fear drove me to leave,” she says.
In 2008, Maria Victoria returned to Triana. Yet she lives in fear of another attack by armed groups. “I try not to stay in Triana for too long at any one time . . . I just don’t feel safe anymore after what happened. I’ll never really feel safe again.” Following her husband’s murder, Maria Victoria became a community leader for Mother for Life, a rights group that provides support for women who have lost relatives in the conflict. It also aims to end violence against women. Mother for Life is one of 23 grass roots women’s organizations working in urban and rural areas around Buenaventura that have joined Butterflies since 2010.
Butterflies’ volunteers in Triana meet most weeks in the community hall and once a month at the church to discuss issues such as laws protecting women, how to confront and report domestic violence, and business, activities that can help empower women. Most of the women in Triana earn a small amount from selling home-brewed liquor and cleaning the clothes of road construction workers and gold miners.
“Being with Butterflies has allowed to me to learn more about my rights. Once you know your rights and the laws protecting women, you can better defend yourself and your community,” says Maria Victoria, who leads some of the workshops. She says the women of Triana have formed a tight-knit community thanks to Butterflies. “It gives me strength to know I have friends and neighbours who take care of each other,” says Maria Victoria. “If someone is not home by nightfall, we’ll start phoning each other and making enquiries. Because of the network we look out for each other more and we’ve grown stronger and more unified as a result.”