Updated 5 months, 3 weeks ago

City of Women built by displaced Colombian women

The nondescript neighborhood on the outskirts of the port city of Cartagena doesn’t look like much to outsiders: rows of orderly, small, colorful houses with tin roofs, joined by garden courtyards.

And yet this neighborhood of 100 homes called La Ciudad de las Mujeres, or the City of Women, is a rarity, and a model, in a country that’s trying to recover after decades of conflict.

The neighborhood was founded and built entirely by women fleeing Colombia’s violence. And while men do live here, it’s the women who hold the property titles, call the shots and keep the neighborhood thriving.

“We have problems but we’ve made this work,” said Eidanis Lamadrid, 43, one of the founders of the community, as she corralled a group of children who were rehearsing a play. “We have the experience and the capacity to make this a model for other female victims in the country. But we need support.”

As this Andean nation lurches toward a peace deal with its two largest guerrilla groups, the fate of the country’s vast number of displaced is increasingly in the spotlight.

More people have had to flee their homes due to violence in Colombia than anywhere else in the world, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. According to their 2016 estimate, 6.4 million people have been forced from their homes due to violence. That’s higher than Syria (6.1 million) and Sudan (3.4 million).

Many of Colombia’s displaced are long-term victims who moved during the height of the conflict in the 1990s and 2000s. But finding long-term solutions for them is one of the keys to the country’s future, said Jozef Merkx, the Colombia representative of the U.N. High Commission for Refugees.

“The construction of durable peace in Colombia will depend on the reintegration of more than 7 million people displaced by the violence,” he said in a statement.

And few projects have been as successful reintegrating victims as the City of Women.

Lamadrid’s experience is depressingly commonplace among the residents. She fled her village of El Salado in 1998 as it was caught in a turf war between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the right-wing AUC paramilitaries. The violence came to a head in 2000, when the AUC killed between 30 and 60 residents, including Lamadrid’s husband.

“We lost the entire village,” she said. “So many people died because they didn’t leave in time.”

Slum City

Like many others fleeing violence in northern Colombia, Lamadrid ended up in the gritty slum of El Pozón. The neighborhood is on the outskirts of Cartagena — the crown jewel of Colombia’s tourism industry and home to some of its most luxurious hotels — but it’s worlds away.

Built on a muddy swath with no water or electricity and an open-air sewer system, El Pozón is a place for those who have nowhere else to go. It’s a hive of makeshift shacks that are periodically washed away by rains and overrun by disease. The seminal moment for the group came in 1998 when one of the displaced women, Olivia Palacios, died penniless and far from her family.

“We didn’t have enough money to give her a burial and that’s when we realized the situation we were in,” Lamadrid said.

Palacios’ death helped forge a community around the same time that Patricia Guerrero, a Colombian lawyer and human rights activist who had been living in the United States, became involved with the group.

Guerrero said El Pozón was a distillation of the nation’s problems. There was grinding poverty, sexual violence, lack of basic goods and services and rampant crime. But the most pressing issue was the lack of housing. In 1999, she helped the women establish the League of Displaced Women and in 2003 they started building the City of Women with financing from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Colombia government and others.

Women builders

“The success of this project has been that it changed the women’s perception of themselves,” Guerrero said. “It wasn’t a matter of people taking pity on them, it was them fighting for their rights.”

There is a great deal of community pride in the neighborhood. The women learned how to dig trenches, survey and pour cement.

As she pointed around the neighborhood, Luz Nely Orozco, 49, recalled how she worked at the brick factory in the village.

“My work went into the walls of every one of these homes,” she said.

While the project won recognition from human rights and development groups, it raised the ire of armed groups in the area that saw — and still see — the women as a threat.

“This is an area that they’ve lost control of,” explained Guerrero. “And they’re always trying to re-exert control.”

During construction, bodies were dumped near the site, pamphlets circulated with death threats, the community center was burned down and one of their husbands was murdered as he watched over the brick factory.

“The City of Women has always been under siege,” said Lamadrid. But that siege is taking place amid the backdrop of national impunity. Of the 144 cases they’ve reported to authorities about forced displacement and sexual violence, none have been resolved, she said.

And then there are the more subtle conflicts, like deeply rooted chauvinism.

“Initially, some of the men disliked living in a place called the City of Women,” Lamadrid said. “But then they realized that we were the ones giving them homes.”

Peace prospects?

The women see their future tied into the country’s twin peace deals, particularly the one with the FARC guerrillas. During four years of negotiations with the FARC, representatives from the League of Displaced Women worked to have gender issues included in the final agreement.

But Colombian voters narrowly voted against the deal Oct. 2 in a national plebiscite that rattled the nation, and this community. Negotiators are trying to salvage the deal, and President Juan Manuel Santos has said a new version might be ready by Christmas.

“It was terrible for us,” said Guerrero, “because we had spent so long on this agreement.”

And while the City of Women is often heralded as a success, Guerrero says there’s still too much to do to bask in the praise. There are 69 women on the waiting list for houses and the community is constantly struggling to stay afloat, she said.

“We’re still facing social problems and cycles of violence,” she said. “And that doesn’t stop just because we’ve built some homes.”