Quibdó, the capital of Chocó, located in the northwest region of Colombia.
“They caught me because they wanted to harm him, they wanted to hurt my son, the people that kidnapped me just wanted to hurt him.”
Juana Padilla, a local community leader, was kidnapped in 2007 after her son was elected mayor of Tanguí, a town in the province of Chocó.
"Being a community leader means paying attention to the community interests, attending the meetings and organizational gatherings but nowadays, being as old as we are, youngsters are the ones in charge of being leaders, but people still come looking for me so here I am...
When my mom was around there was no community organization, we lived and worked together but we didn't have the Organización Campesina Integral del Atrato yet."
Juana in her home.
A church in Tanguí, where Juana lives.
“The Memory Work I did was with the Ruta Pacífica [Peaceful Route]. We worked with 100 women here in Chocó telling their stories. When I did that work, I cried a lot because I thought no one else went through what happened to me and I realized that some other women had gone through worse things.”
Juana, originally from Bojayá, now lives in Quibdó. Juana and her daughter are survivors of sexual assault and she lost two sons to violence stemming from the conflict.
A map in the hallway where Juana works. The area where Chocó should be indicated is torn.
Nuns helped provide a space for displaced women to make and sell crafts.
“With the support of these dolls, we educate our kids, some have gone to high school but we haven’t been able to give them university. We maintain our families with the dolls and we also pay our services with it.”
Luz Romaña Cuesta, originally from Carmen del Darién, now lives in Quibdó and makes Afro-Colombian and Indigenous dolls.
"Here, teaching is nurturing struggle. For example, if you focus nowadays on the Civic Strike and pay attention you will notice that the majority of the activists and leaders are teachers still in service, so the majority of us involved are teachers, and we train people both in the houses and the communities."
Ana Julia Hidalgo, a social worker and professor.
“We [women] get caught in roles as mothers, employees, housewives and wives, and forget our role as a woman. So, why do we want to work with women? For them to be autonomous about their thinking, culture, political opinions, but to be women over all.”
Ana Julia [right], a social worker and professor.
"The State doesn't have a training policy for teachers, the ones that have higher education did them with their own resources, with their own effort. But on top of all that, we do it because we have the calling, being a teacher is a mission, it's a life philosophy to contribute and improve the society and we have faith and we believe that society actually improves with our work, but if it were just for the money the government gives us we wouldn't do it. In a State that doesn't provide job opportunities, teaching is also a source of employment and to improve the quality of life."
Ana Julia Hidalgo, a social worker and professor.
“Because I pass all my power to others and I see how those others empower themselves and that is an amazing mirror—looking at myself reflected on those stories, in other lives, in their bodies, their movements.”
Carmenza Rojas, teaching a dance class at the local university. A survivor of sexual violence, she also teaches dance to young girls who have suffered abuse, using dance as a form of healing.
"I studied social work and I am a dancer too. When I was a girl, I was the target of sexual violence and when I discovered dancing it changed the way I interact with my body, and with the passing of time I noticed that scenic arts could be a great channel for me to express my pain and find the freedom of my spirit."
“She wanted us to create a ‘women area’ because, until that point, the ones that worked were always the men—the men and not us. So she said we have to claim what belongs to us, our rights as women to live here.”
Ana Rosa Heredia is an activist and part of Cocomacia, the community council for the Atrata region, and works at a restaurant which belongs to Cocomacia. The restaurant is managed by the Gender Committee. Heredia relocated to Quibdó with her two children after the Bojayá massacre in 2002. Her partner is still unaccounted for.
"Nowadays...we are talking about peace, so the guerrilla did the agreement and now you can go everywhere, but there are some people saying things about new groups entering the region so it's really hard to know. But we go there and it's part of our route—the other Saturday some came from Tagachí where we did some workshops about how to handle fear, we did it with Miguel and like 30 people from the communities went to assist the class.
We talked about fear and how we are going to survive with the women that were in the war that now are part of the peace agreement. We talked about what are we going to do with them because we have to help them and we, as women, have to help them because they have lost this customs a long time ago, they now have new customs because I think in the war women don't cook, they took turns to cook so the men do it more and they disappeared from that. They have to recover their families and learn how they will go forward with their families and give them the love and the support they want so much."
“Thing is that literature has been a place of segregation, right? The western world is made up of writing, the knowledge is in the books, the history is in the books but us—Afro and Indigenous people—have been caged in oral history. That oral history is really important but it’s been a way of taking us out of the texts.”
Velia Vidal Romero, a communicator who travels throughout the Chocó region promoting literacy through reading clubs and workshops for women and children.
"I believe that through reading and culture you can fulfill the soul and develop critical thinking that allows yourself to question your development or your life and your view of the world and it's what will allow us to transform ourselves."
“I am 72 years old. When I was a girl I liked it when midwives came to attend women in labor, I was attentive and I learned from that. Until now I have delivered 56 children and none of them have died in my hands, not even one child.”
Berta María, a midwife in Quibdó.
“I realized more than doing the work for the girls to be beauty queens and to be proud of their physical characteristics, that there was an underlying structural problem and that was the poverty situation here which didn’t necessarily come out of the general conflict, but it came out of us being discriminated against throughout history. Plus the corruption that doesn’t allow us the space for jobs, development or entrepreneurship, so the girls started in prostitution.”
Yirleiny Moreno Valoyes, a former model and the Director of the Corporación para la Belleza Integral de la Mujer Chocoana [Corporation for Integral Beauty of the Woman from Chocó].
"Thing is, black women have to learn about having an aesthetic identity because we have lost it. Recently in a popular tv station they had a black woman with an afro presenting the news but they changed her for a black woman with straight hair that looks more like what the audience prefers to see in a black woman, whitewashed even when the only thing left to be whitewashed is her skin.
So we taught them to strengthen their self-esteem which is important because when you start to feel beautiful and to—oh, we also taught them how to walk and have nice posture—so when you start to feel beautiful, you feel that you don't deserve less than what you are projecting, that you don't deserve to be some governor's girl, that you don't deserve to have sex with a teacher for a grade in a subject, that you don't deserve that your mom—even being your mom—sends you to be a prostitute."
"I started to work with girls from 5 to 12 years old, why? Because [it] is in that age when mentality starts to change and they try to transform their world—a new generation of beautiful women is being born, women with aesthetics from Chocó and black identities. So I started to work 3 years ago with girls and teenagers from 5 to 12 years old and it was a success."
Yirleiny switched to younger girls after learning that some of her older students were using the lessons as a way to justify higher rates as prostitutes.
"When you are not sure about your identity and you don't know where you come from and where you are going you are in an emotional and intellectual limbo, and you are lost as a person. It’s like a historical umbilical cord was cut from kids and youngsters, they got cut off from our history - which in the educational institutions is very skewed and short - and there are some words that they repeat year after year - slave, for example, chained, forced, and where are our leaders? Who fought for us? We never said anything? There wasn't a female role model that did something amazing? Where are they?"
Ifigenia Garcés Urrutia, an actress who offers a safe space in the form of an after-school theater group for children and young adults in Quibdó. Many of her students come from violent neighborhoods.
"It's our task in these Pacific regions—as the ones that put more bodies in the conflict to teach—to teach our kids that we have a story of love, beautiful and interesting, with male and female leaders, writers, we have it. They have to know about it so they can get up and think that someday they can run the country, they can be mayors, ministers."
"A lot of places in the world live in conflict, a lot of women, men and children die, only the people that get stronger spiritually and mentally since childhood survive and resist."
"In theater, we have a very real and strong play that is called "RR y R vs RR y R." Respirar, rezar, resistir, reparar, reconciliar y no repetir [breath, pray, resist, repair, reconcile and not repeat]. These are the most used words in Colombia in the last 10 years."
"I want to talk about the women artists that understand the female body in the territory and in the conflict. There are too many abuses in all senses... About the female body, psychologically, the continuous threats to their kids. So when an artist understands that, she has a responsibility to the territory of healing the female body. No matter how hurt she is physically or emotionally a woman has to be taken care of as a flower that needs to be watered again, that needs new soil and kisses in her soul..."
While Colombia continues navigating the path to peace after over 50 years of conflict, the consequences of war and lack of government resources continue to disproportionately affect Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities, many of whom reside in Chocó. Over 50% of the population is internally displaced and remains one of the poorest and most dangerous pockets of Colombia. The challenges that Afro-Colombian women face are unique in that they span from sexual violence and high unemployment rates to lack of opportunities for youth advancement and representation in the mainstream media.
Among these women are individuals looking to embrace roles beyond those specified in the peace accord with FARC—roles that promote resilience through healing, growth and nourishing a positive, collective identity within their own communities.