Colombian women’s network receives annual UN refugee award

The 19 coordinators of Butterflies, a women's rights network in Colombia, which also has 100 core volunteers. They put their lives on the line to assist forcibly displaced women and those who have been subject to sexual or physical violence. Photo: UNHCR/L. Zanetti

12 September 2014 – A Colombian women’s rights group, whose members put their lives on the line to assist survivors of forced displacement and sexual abuse, is this year’s winner of a prestigious award presented by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The volunteers of the group, Red Mariposas de Alas Nuevas Construyendo Futuro (known in English as “Butterflies” for short), are being recognized with the Nansen Refugee Award for their work in helping more than 1,000 women and their families in Buenaventura, Colombia’s main seaport.

“These women are doing extraordinary work in the most challenging of contexts,” said High Commissioner António Guterres. “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.”

Colombia has more internally displaced people (5.7 million) than any other country aside from Syria, according to UNHCR, which adds that nowhere in the country is the devastation of the 50-year armed conflict felt as acutely as in Buenaventura.

This industrial port city has some of the highest rates of violence and displacement due to rivalries between illegal armed groups, and women are often their targets. The groups violate women and children to demonstrate their power and frequently torture, rape or kill to exact revenge.

“The situation in Buenaventura illustrates the devastating impact of conflict on families and how essential the work of Butterflies is,” Mr. Guterres said. “In their battle to gain territory, illegal armed groups in Buenaventura aim to destroy the social fabric of communities. They violate the most vulnerable by sexual assault, kidnap and murder.

“Butterflies’ volunteers take the displaced and abused under their wing and help them to reclaim their lives and assert their rights,” he added.

UNHCR noted that the women, drawing on modest resources, go about their work on foot, bus or bicycle. They move cautiously through the most dangerous neighbourhoods to help women access medical care and report crimes. The cornerstone of the assistance Butterflies provides is the life skills training and workshops on women’s rights that they organize.

This work, deep inside the communities, helps them reach the most vulnerable women, but also brings with it danger and threats from the illegal armed groups.

UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie has praised the work of the winners, calling it life-saving. She said members of the group “draw on their strengths as women to help thousands of vulnerable people, who would otherwise have no rights and no protection. By winning this award, I hope it helps more people everywhere to understand that we have to change attitudes to sexual violence, and to help end impunity for these crimes,” she said.

The Nansen Refugee Award, which marks its 60th anniversary this year, will be presented to Butterflies at a ceremony in Geneva on 29 September. The award comes with a commemorative medal and a $100,000 monetary prize donated by the Governments of Norway and Switzerland to support a project of the winner’s choice.

The Nansen Refugee Award is given annually to a person or group for outstanding work on behalf of the forcibly displaced.


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