Colombia’s City of Women

How a group of women affected by domestic violence and displaced by Colombia’s conflict united to build their own city

“We made little cardboard houses and put them in a big box, and you reached your hand in and pulled one out … ‘What number are you in? … Aiyee! you’re my neighbour!'” says Lubis proudly. “It was an amazing experience. From that moment forward, we thought as a collective.”

Lubis is the owner of one of the 98 life-size, concrete realisations of those little cardboard houses and one of the leaders of the Liga de Mujeres Desplazadas (League of Displaced Women), the Colombian women’s group. The organisation’s efforts have built a community known as the City of Women, to restore the right to housing to some of its most vulnerable members and their families.

Based in the northern region of Bolivar, the Liga is a grassroots group run by and for women affected by the conflict between the government, right-wing paramilitaries, crime syndicates and leftist armed rebel groups, such as Farc, a battle that is still ongoing despite a peace process which began in 2012. The six-decade long conflict in Colombia has displaced more than six million people, hitting indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities in particular.

While most of the combatants in this war’s armed factions are men, more than 50 percent of those forcibly displaced by it are women. It is estimated that half of these have experienced sexual violence: perpetrated systematically mainly by paramilitary groups, but also by state forces and rebel groups.

 "I had six children, and I had to flee many times from rape," says Everledis. Photo by Julia Zulver/Al Jazeera.

“I had six children, and I had to flee many times from rape,” says Everledis

In the Colombian context, being “forcibly displaced” means being violently expelled from your home by gunmen. Some fled after witnessing the murder of their partner, having their children “disappeared”, their farm razed or their community massacred.

“I had six children, and I had to flee many times from rape,” says Everledis, one of the founding members of the Liga. “The paramilitaries took our pigs, cows, and horses. They would kill the men and throw them in the river.”

“My town was [a big producer of] palm oil. They burned cars, did their best to make people leave, and now the multinationals can buy very cheap land because no one lives there,” says another Liga member. “There had always been showdowns between the guerrillas and the army, but when the paramilitaries entered the area, there was an extermination.”

Survivors of this violence typically settle in impoverished shanty towns on the outskirts of Colombia’s major cities, where they live in informally constructed shelters without access to clean water or healthcare – let alone employment, support networks or processes of justice.

A backdrop of extreme poverty

El Pozon, located far from the five-star hotels and postcard-perfect tourist attractions of Cartagena, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, is one such neighbourhood.

With about 100,000 inhabitants, it is Cartagena’s most densely populated borough, having received a steady influx of internally displaced people over the past 50 years. This marginalised population live in precarious homes which are hand-built from cardboard, tin and plastic sheeting and are not equipped to withstand the region’s periodic floods.

It was in El Pozon that the Liga was founded, against a backdrop of extreme poverty, paramilitary “social cleansing”, forced recruitment, domestic violence, and territorial fighting over the strategic narco-trafficking routes in the Cartagena bay area.

Some of the women displaced there began to organise around what they termed their “Sueno de vida digna”: dream of a dignified life.

And it was a dream, because a city of houses built by and for displaced women seemed impossibly far from the reality of their lives in El Pozon.

“Everyone – including our own partners – said that we were crazy,” says Eidanis, another Liga leader. “[They told us] that this project was impossible. But we demonstrated that it is possible … It’s the only housing project belonging to female victims in the country.”

She says this with pride, from the terrace of the house she now owns in the City of Women.

It is almost a decade since its completion, and the city now has its own small primary school, a community centre, and a few informal shops selling food and household essentials, which are run from the women’s living rooms or by the roadside.

Each of the brightly painted houses has its own front terrace, furnished with rocking chairs and close enough to the neighbours to allow them to talk over the noise of children playing football or chasing chickens through the mango-tree-lined avenues.

“It’s not just the fact that we have a City of Women,” Eidanis continues, “but that it was us who built it. We had to learn about construction, topography … Some women designed the blocks, others built them.”

Building the city

Construction of the city began in Turbaco – a municipality on the outskirts of Cartagena – in 2003, thanks to international funding secured by the founder and lawyer of the Liga, Patricia Guerrero.

Eidanis describes how the labour was managed collectively. In an organisation that was by then five years old and already 300 strong, the collective effort to build the city solidified its foundations. While some women built and laid bricks, others tended the crops grown on site to sustain the community. Some were responsible for collective childcare, others cooked the meals.

“It was something that brought the organisation even closer together, us living and working together like that, day by day,” Eidanis remembers.

Columbian Women 4

Seletina worries about whether she can afford the bus fare to take her sick grandson to a clinic in Cartagena

And as Lubis takes us through the city, teasing the children playing in the streets, laughing with neighbours, and shouting greetings through doorways, it is clear how continuing to live and work alongside one another for the past decade has only strengthened this collectivism.

“We form a group of women who make up a little Colombia,” says Dayanera, another Liga leader. The women living here are from all over the country: from Choco, Antioquia, Bolívar, La Guajira and many other regions torn apart by this unending war. Yet they are united by shared experiences of violence.

“Above all, this is our strength”, Dayanera says, “that the pain of one is the pain of all.”

This is an extract from an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera.

Photo credit: © Julia Zulver/Al Jazeer