A courageous campaign for indigenous women in Colombia: Maria Elena Unigarro Coral
Peace Award 2017: Shortlist Persons
A bloody conflict raged in Colombia for five centuries: the Colombian army, paramilitary forces and guerrilla troops fought for supremacy in many regions of the country. A peace treaty was negotiated, raising hopes of an end to the violence – but this has become a part of the daily life in many parts of Colombia.
Those who suffer most are very often women of indigenous and Afro-Colombian descent – two ethnic groups which are still strongly marginalized in Colombia. The families often have to bear the consequences of the resulting frustration. Thus many women suffer on two accounts: on the one hand from poverty and discrimination in society, and on the other from the violence of their husbands.
This is where Maria Elena Unigarro Coral's work ties in. For approximately the last four decades, she has been tirelessly and passionately committed to peace work in Colombia. She grew up as one of seven children in Ipiales, a small town in the province of Narino. Even as a child, she feels the growing wish to do something to combat the severe poverty suffered by the indigenous population. After moving to the city of Cali, she gets to know further facets of her native country: the gulf between poor and rich, and the omnipresent violence which has become the breeding ground for both discrimination in everyday life and drug dealing.
She studies child psychology and also takes part in theatre courses. She uses her insights to become involved in projects for children and adults from disadvantaged quarters of the town. She offers theatre workshops on a voluntary basis, where participants can put the problems they experience in their daily lives on stage. Their stories make Maria Elena Unigarro Coral realise just how much the armed conflict has traumatised many people, how very much the state system favours the privileged and neglects the poor – and how severely women in particular suffer as there is a lack of lobby work for their rights.
A commitment full of risks
She begins to become involved in feminist women’s rights groups. This is very risky as many political groups are brutally crushed at this time. In articles and studies, she deals with the subject of violence against women and girls in Colombia. In 1992 she founds "Taller Abierto", an organisation she still runs today. She and her team support people in desperate need of help such as women and girls who have been beaten and humiliated or driven out of their region during the armed conflict.
Those affected can find legal and psychosocial help in a trusting environment. In cooperation with the German aid organisation "action medeor", "Taller Abierto" organises workshops on violence prevention, gender justice as well as sexual health and self-determination. As a representative of her organisation, Maria Elena Unigarro Coral recently accompanied the peace negotiations in Colombia. A sign of hope – and yet she also knows that, on the path to a more just and peaceful society in Colombia, there are still many challenges to overcome.
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