Joaquín Sarmiento/FNPI

A refuge to only a small portion of the millions displaced by violence in Colombia, it still offers a powerful model of resistance and rebuilding.

The air in the courtyard is humid and still. As day turns to dusk, cooking smells waft through open windows and the sound of frying onions and peppers joins a duet of dogs and television sets. Mango trees offer welcome shade, their limbs heavy with fruit. A few blocks away is a playground carefully lined with tires painted in Easter egg pastels. At this hour, the playground is hard at work: swings swinging, slides sliding, and a handful of teenagers playing soccer. A sign at the edge of the gravel yard offers warning to both children and adults: Cuidado el machismo mata. (“Watch out: Machismo kills.”)

The City of Women, on the outskirts of Turbaco, Colombia, is designed by women for women, an answer to the decades of civil war that have left women vulnerable to violence, sexual assault, and forced displacement. For some of the women who live here, building the city meant just that. They started by constructing a concrete-block making facility, then taught themselves how to make bricks. They dug ditches and poured foundations, built roofs and painted houses in bright shades of parrots and plants. The result of their years of hard-fought labor is a community of ninety-eight houses, a sanctuary for survivors.

“Before coming here I didn’t know I had rights. I watched things and thought I had to be silent because there was a lot of fear about denouncing them,” says Marina Martinez Moreno, one of the community’s founding members. “We have become an example of something to follow, even for intellectuals at universities. Most of us didn’t have an education but even with nothing we have been able to create this.”

While the City of Women offers refuge to only a small portion of the millions of women displaced by violence in Colombia, it offers a powerful model of resistance and rebuilding. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, 7.4 million people in the country have been displaced by conflict between government security forces, paramilitary groups, and armed insurgency groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). Among the millions affected by this violence, women and children are particularly vulnerable to crime, exploitation, sexual assault and malnutrition. The City of Women, completed in 2006, remains a powerful testament to the women who built it, a brightly colored community of houses and hope—some of it still there, some of it evaporated.

Moreno, 52, was displaced more than once before coming to the City of Women from San Juan Nepomuceno with her husband and three children. “There was a struggle between guerrillas and paramilitary groups,” she says, going down the list of loved ones lost, her voice matter-of-fact: A brother and cousin murdered, a cousin-in-law killed, an uncle kidnapped. “It’s hard but this pain has been useful in helping other people.” She pauses, emotion seeming to catch up with words. “It’s very hard.”

The transition from patriarchy to matriarchy is not always easy, she adds. Moreno divorced two years after moving into the City of Women. The reason for the rupture, she says, was simple: Her husband found her newfound independence hard to take.

Teresa Ysabel Parra is another one of the women who lives here. At 54, her skin is smooth and taut over remarkable cheekbones, but her eyes are tired. Her voice, too. She tells her story with the air of someone who has told it before, likely too many times. Before she begins, she puzzles at the interest journalists and aid workers seem to take in stories like hers. They come, they go, and nothing changes, she says.

The playground in the City of Women with a sign that warns, "Watch out: Machismo Kills."(Joaquín Sarmiento/FNPI)

Parra helped build the City of Women—the gutters, specifically—and recalls the novelty of a farmer like herself learning how to construct houses. Parra, originally from San Marcos in the Sucre department, in the north of the country, first became displaced in 2002 after her husband was killed. Wanting to find protection and a better life, Parra left, taking three of her nine children with her. The six others stayed in the region with her late husband’s family. For the past twelve years, Parra has called the City of Women home.  But while she now has a house, life is still not easy. “We are struggling with food and money, trying to have a dignified life.”

Though the City of Women was built as a utopian response to decades of brutality against women, the safe-haven has not been immune to violence. Parra recalls working on a community garden project several years ago on a plot of land about thirty minutes away from the City of Women. As she and other women planted corn and beans, a group of masked men on motorcycles rode up and began threatening them. “I remember losing my sandals and running until my feet bled. We spent the whole day scared and hiding.” After, Parra tried to return to the fields to work but couldn’t. “I was too afraid.”

In other instances, the violence has escalated beyond threats. In 2004, when the community was under construction, the security guard of the women’s brick-making factory, a husband of one of the women, was murdered. In 2007, the community hall was vandalized: cables cut, windows broken, the building burned to the ground with three canisters of gas. The women’s brick-making machine was also destroyed. In 2011, the daughter of one of the founders of the group was murdered. These examples are only several among many, demonstrating that an act so bold as women defiantly building a refuge provokes equally bold acts of intimidation and destruction.

The vision for the City of Women emerged from the El Pozón neighborhood of Cartagena after Patricia Guerrero, a human rights lawyer from Bogota, founded the Liga de Mujeres Desplazadas, or League of Displaced Women, in 1999. El Pozón, home to a large number of displaced people, is a sprawling and dangerous neighborhood lacking in proper housing and public services. “At the beginning there was no hope, from men or from women. No one thought this project would succeed,” says Guerrero. “For me the reality of the project was uncertain, too, because there was a lack of economic resources, the threat of paramilitary violence in certain regions and continued attacks on our organization. Despite all of that we moved forward.”

For Guerrero, beginning construction on the City of Women in 2003, with funding from the Colombian government, the United States Congress, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, was only a beginning. Her organization continues to pursue funding for additional housing for displaced women and families and she leads a campaign to pursue justice and reparations for victims of gender-based violence.

One of the first things you notice upon entering the City of Women is how many men there are. In this sense, it could be any other neighborhood; men of all ages sit on porches and on motorcycles, walk the sidewalks and visit the smattering of shops selling cold drinks, snacks, and phone credit. Men are not barred from the City of Women as they, too, are victims of displacement and violence. The difference here, though, is that in a sharp detour from patriarchal traditions, it’s the women who own the houses and the Liga, made up entirely of women, who make community decisions.

Though there have been workshops and anti-machismo training for men living in the community, true change, particularly among older generations, remains a challenge. Machismo has been reduced “very little,” says Guerrero, adding that she holds out hope for the younger generation. “The fact that women own the houses intensifies the violence,” she says. “But the young ones who grew up in the city have seen a different model. They have been raised with a process, but the adults are still machismo; there is still violence and discrimination against women.”

Fifty-three year-old Ana Luz Ortega, another founding member of the community—she helped build support columns—first came to Cartagena eighteen years ago to escape paramilitary violence in Alto San Jorge, where she lived with her husband and six children. “There were very few people who stayed or survived,” she says. “All the villages around us emptied.” After their arrival in Cartagena, Ortega and her family spent six years in El Pozón without electricity, gas, or water. Floods frequently transformed the streets into swamps. In spite of the rude conditions, her family was skeptical when she first became involved with the League of Women. “My husband said I was wasting my time going to all these workshops,” she says, recalling that she had to leave her kids home alone while she attended meetings. “But I told my children I didn’t want them to grow up with drugs and rape. We had nothing.”

Ana Luz Ortega in her kitchen in the City of Women. (Joaquín Sarmiento/FNPI)

While the City of Women is safer than what came before, a true sense of security remains elusive. “There is still violence, especially against women,” Ortega says. “There is also a lot of discrimination against displaced people. Maybe people don’t know our history.”

Community relations within the City of Women can also prove thorny. Moreno, though a founding member, was ultimately expelled from the League of Women for violating several of the organization’s regulations. Nevertheless, as a home owner, she is allowed to stay in the neighborhood and is grateful for all she has learned. “The Liga taught me that we could beat fear and that together we would have more strength.” Moreno remains active in several other community groups working towards equality, protection, and education.

The impact of the City of Women extends beyond its borders, setting an example for other women and, because of the community’s insistence on access to public services such as running water and electricity, bringing increased construction to surrounding areas. “There is a lot of corruption but officials know that we are watching,” says Moreno.

Last November, the Colombian government signed a revised peace agreement with FARC rebels in an effort to finally end the decades of violence that have plagued the country. For her part, Moreno is hopeful. “We have to work with the peace process so that young people don’t have to experience this violence,” she says, adding that she has already noticed a difference in Bolivar, the department where the City of Women is located. “Here there are no more killings. Before (the agreement), they were monthly or weekly.”

The City of Women is home to women, men and children of all ages. (Joaquín Sarmiento/FNPI)

A recent report from the UN Refugee Agency, however, indicates that violence since the peace deal is continuing to displace people across the country, particularly among Afro-Colombian communities and indigenous people. According to a March report, 3,549 people—or 913 families—have been displaced in 2017 due to fighting in regions along the Pacific Coast. As the report describes: “Since the signing of the peace agreement, increased violence by new armed groups has resulted in killings, forced recruitment—including of children—gender-based violence and limited access to education, water and sanitation, as well as movement restrictions and forced displacement of the civilian population.”

For Guerrero, continued violence only affirms the importance of her work. “The misery of women in the City of Women is getting worse. The same conditions that were motivation in the beginning to build this place are now coming back,” she says, citing poverty, lack of government support and access to education. “We have asked for collective reparations from the government but this is not progressing.”

Guerrero, who lives under the protection of bodyguards, describes the road to justice as long. “The threats continue, not just to the organization but also to the people who defend human rights, or for the people who defend the reclamation of land, and all the people who are linked to the advancement of the Havana treaty,” she says. “We will remain vigilant.”

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