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What does empowerment look like?

Colombia, September 20, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mercy Corps-supported community leaders and volunteers stand in front of Pasto's Casa de Justicia with visitors from Mercy Corps headquarters. These leaders and volunteers are helping raise awareness of gender-based and family violence and find solutions. Photo: Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Mary Tam/Mercy Corps  </span>
    "One woman crosses the room to a few large posters hanging on the wall. She walks us through the representative contents of an “Emergency Kit” to combat family violence." Photo: Mary Tam/Mercy Corps

What does empowerment look like? It’s difficult to accurately depict such an intangible subject. In a small building located in the heart of Pasto, Colombia, I found a tangible example. In fact, there was a whole group of them. They wore maroon sweatshirts and name badges...

In the Casa de Justicia, a group of women set up chairs in a large circle. These are community leaders, volunteers who have joined women’s networks that Mercy Corps’ gender programs have helped to form. We do a round of quick introductions and the women are eager to share with us what they have learned and accomplished.

One woman crosses the room to a few large posters hanging on the wall. She walks us through the representative contents of an “Emergency Kit” to combat family violence. Band-Aids to protect the wound. Cotton to smooth relationships. Hearing aids that allow us to truly hear others. Iodine to allow us to forgive and heal. Disposable towelettes so we are ready to help others at any moment. And most importantly, friends who will help us overcome the physical and emotional scars.

When she is done, another member describes a situation where the police beat and arrested a boy for no reason. Through the networks, the women have learned about law and their rights. She went to the police station to defend the child, stating they had no legal right to detain him. She wore her network uniform and badge, which she felt offered recognition and kept her from being thrown in, along with the boy. He was released.

The women charge forward with accrued momentum and collective support. Another woman points out that raising awareness about gender-based and family violence is good, but women need options in order to truly escape the violence. She explains that a group of them would like to take the next steps in helping women who are trapped in abusive relationships due to economic dependency. They want to start a bakery which would employ such women, offering a regular salary, an escape route and an abundance of emotional support.

This is what empowerment looks like. Not only are these women applying the knowledge they have acquired to daily situations, but they are analyzing challenges within their communities and identifying and pursuing solutions.

Yet another woman expresses herself in a poem. She speaks of land that was once arid and unwelcoming, but is now fertile. Of humiliation being replaced with friendship. She says this is where dreams may be planted.

While there is no funding currently available for the bakery, these women have planted their dream seed. When this plant sprouts and grows, it will bear the fruit of empowerment.