Stella Duque: Transforming Trauma into Activism

To learn more about Stella and other brave ‪‎Colombian women human rights defenders, scroll to the bottom of this post to watch the new mini-documentary “Taking the Lead: Sexual Violence Survivors Forging Hope in Colombia.”

What does it take to create peace in a place where generations have known only war? Stella Duque, a Colombian human rights activists and MADRE partner, has an answer.

Taller de Vida (c) Maureen Drennan
Stella with a young participant of Taller de Vida’s programs. (c) Maureen Drennan

After five decades of violence that has taken some 220,000 lives and uprooted millions, a deadline for a final peace accord has now been set for March 23, 2016. For years, the government and other armed groups have cycled through rounds of negotiations, but finally there is some traction.

Stella is a leading voice among those demanding that the peace agreement prioritize accountability and justice for survivors. What’s more, she knows that true peace will not come just through signatures on any agreement. It lies in hard work by activists like her, to make sure that the experiences of survivors are centered and that the seeds of peace are planted, community by community.

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Young participants performing during a MADRE visit.

For Stella, the trauma of Colombia’s armed conflict is personal. In 1988, her father, a teacher and unionist, was murdered. Inspired by his activism, Stella continued her studies as a clinical psychologist and with her sister, created the organization Taller de Vida, meaning “Workshop of Life” in Spanish.

Taller de Vida provides critical services for displaced women and youth. The organization offers healing art therapy and trauma counseling for young girls and former child soldiers. Through these programs, survivors of the conflict are able to share their experiences and build the friendships that sustain them.

Put simply, Stella heals the invisible wounds of this war. And she knows that healing is powerful, that survivors emerge as veritable, indispensable forces for peace. That’s why she seizes the role of connecting the realities of people’s lives to the faraway peace negotiations.

Taller de Vida participating in an artistic protest on the International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers, also known as Red Hand Day
Taller de Vida performing an artistic protest on the International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers, also known as Red Hand Day.

For instance, she made it possible for a young woman, a member of Taller de Vida, to travel all the way to Havana, Cuba to testify at the peace negotiations about the brutality she endured as a girl child soldier. This kind of intervention is vital. It forces peace negotiators to confront and consider the needs of people on the frontlines of war. With the right advocacy strategy, it can even shift the terms of a political agreement.

One issue Stella knows must be addressed at the negotiating table is the use of rape as weapon of war. Led by young survivors, Taller de Vida has mobilized “Saquen mi cuerpo de la guerra (“Take my body out of the war”), a national and international advocacy campaign calling for zero tolerance of sexual violence and the enforcement of laws to protect women and girls.

Through the campaign, Taller de Vida gathers testimonies and evidence of sexual violence to put pressure on Colombia’s leaders to act. Also, with MADRE support, Stella has shared Taller de Vida’s documentation with national and international policymakers at key convenings, including the United Nations’ annual Commission on the Status of Women. Once again, it shifts the terms of debate. After meeting with Stella and other activists earlier this year, the UN Special Rapporteur on Sexual Violence in Conflict used her platform to reinforce their advocacy demands.

The campaign also presses the country’s government to address the new battles that girl child soldiers face when returning to civilian life. Colombia’s disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) programs are ill-equipped to meet the specific needs of girls, especially survivors of sexual violence. What’s more, Stella emphasizes that these programs must partner with communities to transform stigma surrounding sexual violence and shift the blame onto perpetrators.

“The community should not view women as passive victims,” she explains. “These women are working to change their situation, and they need help to be reintegrated into society.”

Watch the new mini-documentary, “Taking the Lead: Sexual Violence Survivors Forging Hope in Colombia,” for an intimate portrait of Colombia’s powerful women-led movement for peace and justice. The film is produced  in partnership between the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict, Nobel Women’s Initiative, and MADRE.

Two Powerful Women Standing Up for You

I’d like to introduce you to Cynthia Wechabe and Edna Kaptoyo. These bold and brilliant women are in the middle of a fight — for you and for all of us.

(left to right: Cynthia Wechabe and Edna Kaptoyo)
Left to right: Cynthia Wechabe and Edna Kaptoyo

I was with them in Paris, where we gathered at the United Nations climate talks to push for sustainable, rights-based solutions to climate change.

Our planet’s chance for a healthy future lies in the hands of advocates like Cynthia and Edna. They are women leaders in Kenya, part of MADRE’s partner organization, the Indigenous Information Network (IIN).

Together, and through your support of MADRE, they combat climate threats in their communities. They bring clean water to villages plagued by drought. They plant tree nurseries to fight soil erosion. And they demand that Indigenous women’s solutions be heard by policymakers, from local government to world leaders.

Click here to listen to Edna’s interview with Democracy Now! She speaks on the climate challenges her community faces and about women’s innovative solutions.

“We are here to make sure that gender is included in the final climate change agreement,” Cynthia said to me. “Because as women, we are at the forefront of this crisis.”

We’ve seen too many steps backwards. The US and other policymakers have tried to remove language on human rights, Indigenous Peoples’ rights and gender equality from the agreement. But we know that these voices and solutions are essential to put us on a path towards a more sustainable future.

Want to help make sure that women’s voices like Cynthia’s and Edna’s are heard? Our policymakers won’t move unless we make them. So let’s make them! Visit www.womenclimatejustice.org to learn how you can join the global call for women’s full and equal participation.

Interested to learn more about women’s innovative solutions to climate change? Watch this video to see Lucy Mulenkei, director of IIN, describe how we bring clean water to drought-ravaged villages in rural Kenya.

You Are the Key: Nadia’s Story

Meet inspiring young women who transformed from survivors into empowered activists – thanks to you!

unnamed(1)As a refugee in Turkey, Nadia* had no job, no money and no home. All that was left behind when she fled war-torn Syria.

She tried to start a new life. She married a Turkish man, and a year later, she gave birth to her first child, a boy.

As a woman, Nadia can’t pass on her nationality to her own son, because he was born outside of Syria to a non-Syrian father. Her marriage wasn’t registered, and she faced barriers to securing legal status for her son in Turkey. Her son became stateless, a boy with no country.

“Now I feel like I am in jail,” Nadia told us. “Because I am afraid to even take my son out of this town because he does not have a passport or any legal status.”

It gets worse. Refugees with no legal status can be denied health care, education, social security and other basic rights.

How You Helped Unlock the Door to Change

Nadia’s story is far from unique. As the brutal Syrian civil war nears five years, the number of stateless children is skyrocketing.

Many refugees lack basic information on how to legally register marriages and births. But through MADRE, you help do something about it — with a simple yet powerful solution.

unnamed(2)With your support, we created illustrated pamphlets, an easy step-by-step guide to refugees’ legal rights. Partnering with local Syrian women’s groups, we’ve already distributed hundreds of these pamphlets to women refugees in Turkey and Lebanon.

And we don’t stop there. We bring vital humanitarian aid, medical care, schooling and counseling to refugee women and families.

Thanks to you, mothers now have what they need to protect themselves and see their families through war.

You make this life-sustaining work possible — thank you!

*Nadia’s name has been changed and she does not appear in photos here.

You Are the Key to Change!: Clara’s Story

Meet inspiring young women who transformed from survivors into empowered activists – thanks to you!

Clara is not her real name, and she obscures her face in photos to protect her safety. © Maureen Drennan
Clara is not her real name, and she obscures her face in photos to protect her safety. © Maureen Drennan

Thousands of young women have been caught in the crosshairs of Colombia’s 50-year war. They’ve been uprooted from their homes, conscripted as child soldiers and targeted with sexual violence.

Clara was only eight years old when she was abandoned by her mother and forced to live on the street. Then, a paramilitary group took over her village. They told her she had a decision to make: work for us, or we’ll leave you to starve.

Theater classes help children of war to heal and grow. © Natalia Caruso
Theater classes help children of war to heal and grow. © Natalia Caruso

Thanks to you, MADRE and our local partners Taller de Vida provide trauma counseling and healing art therapy to former girl child soldiers and survivors of sexual violence.

Clara managed to escape after two years in the armed group, and she found her way to Taller de Vida. With your support, Clara attended dance and theater classes, giving her a vital, creative outlet to express and heal from her traumas.

“I still have a long way to go,” she told us. “But I freed myself through theater.”

Yifat visiting a dance class at Taller de Vida. © MADRE
Yifat Susskind, MADRE Executive Director, visiting a dance class at Taller de Vida. © MADRE

Today, Clara is a bright, confident young woman committed to helping young girls like herself. She works as a theater instructor with Taller de Vida, teaching children the same exercises she learned to help her heal from her own pain.

Now, she says, “I’m a survivor, and I will keep moving forward.”

Thanks to you, Clara and other young women war survivors are transforming their lives from one of violence to one of peace. Thank you!

You Are the Key to Change!: Samira’s Story

Meet inspiring young women who transformed from survivors into empowered activists – thanks to you!

Women in Iraq face life-threatening violence. Your support brings them hope and healing.  © Daniel Smith
Women in Iraq face life-threatening violence. Your support brings them hope and healing.
© Daniel Smith

Eight years ago, Samira* was a young college student in Iraq, excited for what the future had to offer.

But her life changed when a trusted family friend raped her. Instead of love and support from her parents, they rejected her and told her that she should be killed for the shame she brought on her family.

Like all too many rape survivors in Iraq, Samira faced an unthinkable choice: run away or be murdered to restore her family’s “honor.”

How You Helped Unlock a Door to Change

But thanks to you, Samira was not alone.

Yanar Mohammed, leader of OWFI, counsels a woman at a MADRE-supported shelter in Iraq.
Yanar Mohammed, leader of OWFI, counsels a woman at a MADRE-supported shelter in Iraq.  © Daniel Smith

With your support, MADRE and the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI) help women and girls threatened with deadly violence find safety. We offer emergency transportation to our shelters, food, clothing, counseling and community.

When Samira escaped to the OWFI shelter in Baghdad, she found safe haven and the support she needed to heal from her trauma. She received trainings about her human rights. Slowly but surely, she felt her power growing.

Your Impact: Turning Survivors into Activists

“It’s been a really long journey to get where I am today,” Samira told us. “But now, I am conquering the world. If you asked me today about the most important decision I’ve made, it was opening the door and escaping my house.”  © Daniel Smith
“It’s been a really long journey to get where I am today,” Samira told us. “But now, I am conquering the world. If you asked me today about the most important decision I’ve made, it was opening the door and escaping my house.” © Daniel Smith

At OWFI, Samira gained the confidence to rebuild her life. Now an OWFI leader, she reaches out to young women whose devastating stories mirror her own. And she finds comfort in helping them to heal and transform.

Thanks to you, threatened women like Samira find escape, protection, and friends to lean on. What’s more, they reimagine their lives as empowered activists—together. Thank you!

*Samira’s name has been changed and she does not appear in photos here.