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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.

Stella Duque with a young participant of Taller de Vida’s programs.
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.

Taller de Vida young participants during a MARE visit
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 performing an artistic protest on the International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers, or 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.

Taking the Lead Colombia