This guest blog was contributed by Susi Taylor, Programme Director for Colombia, HelpAge International, to mark Human Rights Day on 10 December.
“We lived well there,” says Gregoria, a lively 68 year-old Afro-Colombian woman, who is telling me about her home. “I had nine children. I had my animals. I cultivated many kinds of fruit. I only had to buy small things from the local town. I had everything else right there. We had our own water system, which we had constructed. That was a reason for their arrival [illegal armed groups] and why they didn’t want to go. The displacement was terrible. When we
arrived [in Cali]… I heard about the Fundación Paz y Bien (Peace and Wellbing Foundation) and the project with HelpAge. They advised me to present a claim for inclusion [as an IDP in the state register] and I am now registered as displaced. I enjoy the project meetings, because they guide us, teach us, share legal knowledge and we are learning to knit. I can sing, embroider, and I like to write.”
Gregoria is just one of the millions of people, who have been forcibly displaced by the decades-long internal armed conflict in Colombia due to threats against their life and personal security, a basic universal human right. Gregoria is over 60 years of age, the group that makes up over 10% of internally displaced people (IDPs). Older people are affected by displacement differently from other age groups, because of their particular characteristics. They therefore need special protection. They are the most likely to resist displacement. Many have lived all their lives on the land as farmers, so they suffer greatly having to flee to cities like Cali where they are bewildered by their new urban surroundings and cannot use any of their agricultural skills to access employment. Their loss of status as family providers causes deep depression in many older IDPs, exacerbated by the daily violence of the inner city areas where they end up. Many older IDPs cannot read or write and do not know about what kind of help they can get when they’ve been displaced – for themselves and for their grandchildren, who are often left in their care.
Luckily for Gregoria and others, there are organizations like Fundación Paz y Bien which is based in Aguablanca, Cali, which provide services for the displaced when the state system is overwhelmed. HelpAge International has been supporting a dedicated team of local community workers at Paz y Bien for two years to provide legal advice to the recently displaced, so that they can register with the appropriate state services and receive the government’s aid package, as well as longer-term support to help them claim their rights and get back on their feet. Paz y Bien also provides much-needed psycho-social support for older IDPs and their grandchildren, a state service which is almost absent throughout the country.
Fundación Paz y Bien was founded by the dynamic Sister Alba Stella, a Human Rights Defender who, together with the women of the community, started work to tackle the many needs facing the district of Aguablanca. In collaboration with local state services, they provide a myriad of community-based support programmes, including shelter for pregnant teenagers who have difficulties with their families; refuge and support for youth at risk of recruitment by local delinquent gangs; a crèche and kindergarten for hundreds of children whose mothers have to work; a programme to train local women for domestic employment, so that they know their rights and duties; and the protection programme with a specific focus on older IDPs for response to the internally displaced population, which arrives mainly from the Southern Pacific Coast, one of the current hot spots of the internal armed conflict.
On this Human Rights Day, I would like to pay homage to Sister Alba Stella and her dedicated team of community members, who work tirelessly with the local people of their community to live free of fear and want, and to achieve a dignified standard of living adequate for their health and well-being, and that of their families, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.