The city of Medellín throbs and pulsates in the warm sunshine. There is an endless cacophony of traffic noise and motorbikes, of car horns, of building work, of people shouting. Like the lively salsa music that can be heard throughout the city, the pace of life is fast and frantic. A visit to a beautiful rural spot near the town of La Ceja provided welcome relief. The greenery, the calming sounds of flowing water, of birds singing; together they offered an optimal reflective space and a different perspective.

La Ceja

During my time in Colombia, one point that has really stood out is the fact that many organizations are seeking precisely to give survivors of conflict-related sexual violence a new perspective and thereby enable them to emerge – like butterflies – from the pupae of their victimhood. One survivor, for example, who was raped by seven paramilitaries, described how she has participated in a number of writing workshops. In one of these workshops, she was asked to write her story from the point of view of her rapists. She focused on one of the men and portrayed him as someone who had himself experienced abuse – at the hands of his step-father. Every word that she wrote was painful; it was difficult to find a justification for her attacker’s existence and to try and find a reason for his actions. Ultimately, however, the process of writing his fictional story helped her and gave her a different perspective – from the vantage point of her role as master narrator. The story she wrote will be included in a book which will be published this year. 

The concept of perspective has similarly emerged in the context of reparations. As part of the reparations process, which is overseen by the Victims’ Unit, survivors of sexual violence have the opportunity to attend three workshops which cover, inter alia, women’s rights, empowerment and financial management in relation to monetary reparations. These workshops potentially enable survivors to acquire a new political consciousness. This consciousness is further strengthened and reinforced through the incredible work that many feminist and women’s organizations are doing in Colombia. One survivor explained that after becoming involved with these organizations, her life has completely changed and she has gained new awareness of her rights as a woman. Consequently, she is now beginning to question her relationship with her husband and to reflect critically on the state of her marriage.

The protracted nature of the armed conflict in Colombia has not only created a fertile terrain for the work of organizations like Ruta Pacífica de las Mujeres. It has also created a space for conveying the critical message that the widespread use of sexual violence is intrinsically linked to the armed conflict and its complex dynamics. This, in turn, has helped some survivors to understand that they are not to blame for what happened to them and that their bodies were abused and violated to serve broader political objectives. Harnessing this awareness and understanding, some survivors have now assumed new roles as women’s leaders and human rights activists, as a way of fighting against the political configurations that victimized them. Such developments help to illuminate the concept of resilience. Resilience, in short, is not only about refusing to give up. It is also, in a more proactive sense, about standing up and being counted.