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Colombia's City of Women rebuilds homes and hopes

"We had to fight to build our own homes. Some people said women weren't capable of doing this"

By Anastasia Moloney

TURBACO, Colombia, March 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When fighting in Colombia forced Everlides Almanza to abandon her farm, she ended up in a slum near the coastal city of Cartagena where with only some plastic tarpaulin to shelter her, she longed for a new home.

She dreamed of a brick building with a sturdy roof and a tiled porch - she just never expected to be the one to build it.

After arriving in the slum in 1992, Almanza and dozens of other destitute families who had also been uprooted by the conflict met human rights lawyer Patricia Guerrero, who helped organise them into a group.

The League of Displaced Women - many of them single mothers and war widows - went on to build a new neighbourhood of 102 houses on the once barren bushland in Turbaco, a municipality near Cartagena.

It became known as the City of Women.

"We learnt about construction, how to make bricks and mix cement," Almanza told the Thomson Reuters Foundation as she sat in a rocking chair under the shade of a mango tree.

"We had to fight to build our own homes. Some people said women weren't capable of doing this," the 60-year-old said.

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Since the first house was built in 2004, the neighbourhood of brightly painted green and pink facades and tree-lined streets has been cited as an example of rebuilding that other communities emerging from conflict could emulate.

While men live in the City of Women, it's the women who are in charge, bolstered by property deeds in their own names.

"Here women call the shots," said Maritza Marimon, another league member. "We fought tooth and nail to build our homes. Men can't come here and say this is mine. It's ours."

A playground in Colombia’s City of Women, in the municipality of Turbaco, near the city of Cartagena in northern Colombia. February 14, 2017 Thomson Reuters Foundation/Anastasia Moloney


A peace deal signed in December between the government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has raised hopes the 7 million Colombians displaced by war can return home or put down permanent roots.

Yet roughly half of all the displaced live in cities, many settling in makeshift shelters in hillside slums, often with no land tenure rights and no running water.

How Colombia ensures its displaced population has access to housing is key to forging lasting peace and rebuilding their lives, political analysts say.

For many, the City of Women - where residents joined forces to build houses together and petition for title deeds - could prove the model to follow.

Back in the 1990s when the women lived in Cartagena's slums, Guerrero vowed to help the women lift themselves out of poverty.

When she asked them about their most urgent need, most replied they wanted a house they could call their own.

"With a house, your rights are restored," said Guerrero, who founded the League of Displaced Women.

Guerrero eventually secured funding, most of it from a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development, to buy a plot of land on which the City of Women was built.

But as the women tried to get it off the ground, they were met with violence.

Drug-running criminal gangs issued death threats against the league, a community centre built by the women was set on fire and burnt to ashes, and one of women's husbands was murdered.

Ana Luz Ortega (R) and Maritza Marimon, members of the League of Displaced Women chat in the City of Women, Municipality of Turbaco, near the city of Cartagena in northern Colombia on February 14, 2017. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Anastasia Moloney


Despite such sacrifices, the women say the struggle was worth it.

"No one can take this away from me. And no one can chuck me out of my own house," said Ana Luz Ortega, standing on the porch of her home with fuchsia pink walls where she lives with her husband and children.

"I've seen many cases where husbands have left their wives and children on the street after going off with another women who then comes in to live in the house," she said.

Like other countries in Latin America, property rights are unequal between men and women in Colombia. Widows especially find it difficult to inherit from their husbands with land usually handed down to sons and the husband's family.

Yet property titles give women greater control and financial say over their homes, and are crucial to accessing secure bank loans.

"It was very important that the women had the properties registered in their names ... It gives women a sense of freedom and self-esteem," Guerrero said.

Since it was built, the City of Women has led to the creation of a tight-knit network of activists who continue to fight for other rights.

"These women are warriors," said Jose Enrique Zafra, who lives in the City of Women. "They're united, they fight for what's best for their community."

Over the years, the women have successfully lobbied government authorities to provide the City of Women with services, including running water and a local school.

Now the league is demanding bus routes that serve the neighourhood after dark, street lighting and a school that teaches children aged up to 18.

For Ortega, who was raised in the countryside where women are still largely expected to stay at home and look after the children, joining the league was an awakening.

"Before the league, I didn't even know I had any rights," said the soft-spoken Ortega.

"I now know that as a woman I have the right to choose what I want and to be respected. Before I was submissive, now I feel liberated," she said.