about the author
Mariangela Bizzarri is an international consultant with over 12 years of experience in development, humanitarian, academic and private sector work.
In Colombia, WFP assists many victims of sexual and gender-based violence, providing them with food assistance as they recover. As part of her work for WFP, Mariangela Bizzarri recently visited a town on Colombia's Pacific coast to meet some of these women and to assess the impact of the violence they have experienced. She sent us this personal account of one day of meetings.
TUMACO (Colombia's Pacific coast) -- I am here to meet with some of the people who WFP is assisting in Colombia, in particular the ones who have experienced gender-based violence. I have to assess the extent, nature and consequences of that violence.
As usual, I move from one group discussion to another, meeting with men and women of different ages and ethnicity, most of whom have been displaced by the conflict that has been devastating the country for the past 50 years.
As I talk to them, I monitor carefully their facial expressions, trying to see beyond their words. It is always difficult to know what exactly is going on in people’s minds, given what they went through and how their experience affected their lives. Some people talk more than others. They are willing to share and discuss. They openly ask for help and support. Others stay quiet. They look attentive, they listen, but they let the others talk.
I never ask personal questions, or encourage people to share their personal experience. The objective is to better understand the situation and see what WFP could do to protect and support them in their daily life.
Today's meeting is no different from others. After about an hour, I thank the women and I'm ready to move to another meeting. But a woman is waiting for me downstairs. I recognize her. She was in the group and she was particularly quiet. She wants to talk to me privately.
On a bench in the nearby park, she starts telling me what she went through, about the violence she experienced at the hands of a small group of armed rebels, the pain of having her children’s eyes on her while this was happening, and the disappearance of her husband, taken away by the rebels.
Since then, she has not heard from him, she does not even know whether he is still alive. Just a few months have passed. Since then, she has taken her children and moved to Tumaco, to find refuge and escape from the horror of that day. She looks at me and at WFP with hope.
In Colombia, WFP is among the lead agencies in nationwide efforts to address gender-based violence. Together with UNHCR, IOM and UNICEF, it works in areas affected by displacement and natural disasters to strengthen community-level response to this form of violence. The work includes sensitizing communities to issues surrounding it, and providing food assistance to its victims. Food assistance helps in the process of reintegration and is often provided while victims are receiving psycho-social support.
Recent studies show that in Colombia armed groups systematically employ sexual violence as a tactic of war to dominate, humiliate, silence, obtain information, punish, expropriate, exert control, or intimately bond victims, families and communities to an armed group. Between 2001-2009 the rate of sexual violence in areas with an active presence of armed groups was estimated at almost one in five. This means that a total of 498,687 women, 149 per day, and 6 every hour were victim of acts of sexual violence.