The 2014 winner of UNHCR's Nansen Refugee Award is the Colombian women’s rights group, Red Mariposas de Alas Nuevas Construyendo Futuro – or Butterflies with New Wings Building a Future (Butterflies), whose members risk their lives to help survivors of forced displacement and sexual abuse.
Based in the Pacific coastal city of Buenaventura, Butterflies, who are all volunteers, have so far helped over 1000 women and their families.
UNHCR’s special envoy Actress Angelina Jolie has praised the work of the winners. As a staunch advocate for ending impunity for sexual violence in conflict, Jolie says Butterflies’ work is life-saving.
“The Mariposas draw on their strengths as women to help thousands of vulnerable people who would otherwise have no rights and no protection,” said Angelina. “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.”
Colombia is second only to Syria in the number of internally displaced people globally. Nowhere in the country is the devastation of the five decade armed conflict felt as acutely as in Buenaventura. This industrial port city has some of the highest rates of violence and displacement due to escalating rivalries between illegal armed groups and women are often their targets. The groups violate women and children to demonstrate their power and strength and frequently torture, rape or kill to exact revenge.
“These women are doing extraordinary work in the most challenging of contexts,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees 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".
High Commissioner Guterres said, “The situation in Buenaventura illustrates the devastating impact of conflict on families and how essential the work of Butterflies is”.
“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.
Drawing on only the most modest of resources, the women go about their work on foot or by bus or bicycle. As cautiously as they can, they move through the most dangerous neighbourhoods to help women access medical care and report crimes. It is this work deep inside the communities that helps them reach the most vulnerable women, but also brings with it danger and threats from the illegal armed groups.
Women in the poorest areas of Buenaventura are often afraid to report sexual violence and the few women who do so remain unprotected because they often live alongside their aggressors. Building trust in this kind of environment is a slow and challenging process. Butterflies operates on the principal of “comadreo”, which has special significance in Afro-Colombian culture, uniting respect, trust solidarity and confidentiality.
The cornerstone of the assistance Butterflies provides is the life skills and rights training workshops they organize. Here women come together, and realizing they are not alone in their suffering- slowly regain their self-esteem and strength.
Butterflies will receive the Nansen Refugee Award Medal at a ceremony in Geneva, Switzerland on 29 September. The group will be represented by three women; Gloria Amparo, Maritza Asprilla Cruz and Mery Medina.
The Award ceremony will feature a keynote speech from UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie (on video) and musical performances by UNHCR supporters, Swedish-Lebanese singer-songwriter Maher Zain and Malian singer-songwriter Rokia Traorè. Acoustic guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela from Mexico will also perform at the ceremony.