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Addressing Gender-Based Violence in Communities Affected by Migration

This post is written by the Emergency Response in Arauca team.

Arauca is a city in northeastern Colombia. Those who have lived there for decades are no strangers to crisis. Previously, the crisis came in the form of Colombia’s decades-long armed conflict. Now, political turmoil in Venezuela has led to a mass influx of Venezuelan refugees to Colombia’s Arauca Department. With an already high unemployment rate of 12 percent and 70 percent of the population living in poverty, the stresses on this region show little sign of slowing.

To reduce the vulnerability of families living in the Brisas del Puente and El Refugio settlements there, the Emergency Response in Arauca Program II (funded by the USAID Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance) responds to needs for potable water, safer health conditions, and food security.

Another component of our program is protection. That means promoting resilience among individuals and groups to help them cope with current circumstances, care for their families, and restore social cohesion. These efforts ultimately aim to build stable communities and reduce incentives to migrate.

Uncovering the reality of gender-based violence

Since August 2018, we have carried out a series of workshops and psychosocial support visits aimed at helping community members acquire skills to improve their relationships and livelihoods. What we discovered during these visits was a hidden effect of the migration crisis — gender-based violence.

Women who become migrants or refugees often become victims of violence. After our visits, we knew there was a need to build awareness around the issue and prevent future cases of gender-based violence.

“I used to be a woman full of resentment; I hated everybody,” said Neudys Cedeño, who lives in El Refugio settlement. “When the [program] visit took place, I was very confused because I did not want to listen to anyone. I did not want to welcome anyone to my house. I behaved rudely with the team of professionals. But little-by-little, I opened up, reconciling with myself and creating spaces for transformation. … Only then did I start to understand what was happening to me.”

Surveying communities with the “Violence-O-Meter”

We began identifying and measuring violence in the communities using the Violence-O-Meter, a tool we developed based on findings of a study by the National Polytechnic Institute of Mexico in 2009. We considered the various levels of violence, as defined by the Presidential Council for Women’s Equity in Colombia, and established the following scale:

  • Alert: Violence will increase.
  • React: It is time to act.
  • Urgent: Your life and physical integrity are at risk, and femicide is a potential outcome.

Then, using this framework, we adjusted the Violence-O-Meter, shown below:

Using the Violence-O-Meter, we surveyed 213 households in Arauca’s El Refugio settlement. The survey focused on women and, when they requested, their spouses or partners. Of those surveyed, 31 percent reported experiencing up to three types of violence listed in the Violence-O-Meter, while only 31.5 percent reported experiencing no violence at all.


The surveys revealed that gender-based violence was a pressing issue in the communities where we worked. Without addressing it, our interventions to reduce the vulnerability of families living there would fail. So, we decided to adopt another tool — created by the USAID-funded Program of Alliances for Reconciliation in Colombia — called DecidoSer.

DecidoSer: A psychosocial tool for preventing future violence

DecidoSer is a methodology for providing psychosocial support. For people who have experienced trauma or violence, it is important to support their healing as a crucial aspect of achieving social and economic stability. These may be young people forced into illicit activities, victims of armed conflict, or, in this case, women affected by gender-based violence. We focused on solving the issue of violence against women, partly by promoting men’s involvement. We also provided special support to 29 cases of women who had reported the highest rates of gender-based violence, as measured by the Violence-O-Meter. The support focused on the key aspects of empowerment, action without harm, self-care, and gender and social inclusion as ways of reducing violence.

“My life has taken a significant turn thanks to the [program]. I'm not the same person as before. I learned a lot about life from the Violence-o-Meter, from the visits, and the workshops. You should not allow anyone to humiliate or mistreat you. No one is better than you, and you are not better than them.” – Woman participant in a workshop in the El Refugio settlement.

Prior to the DecidoSer workshops and interventions, many of the women — especially those from Venezuela or from other parts of Colombia — did not know about the pathways to care available to them. We worked with these women and those who required high-priority care to connect them with organizations specializing in gender inequality.

Transforming behaviors and attitudes

Arauca has a deep-rooted culture of machismo, or exaggerated masculinity, and a limited history of campaigns in the area to prevent or eradicate gender-based violence. Using tools like the Violence-O-Meter and DecidoSer, we helped break down the stereotypes of machismo and create safe spaces for engagement, where gender equity has a strong presence.

Men played an important part in the workshops. By the end, many women told us they had observed positive changes among the men, as reflected in their language, attitudes, and behaviors.

To learn more about the Emergency Response in Arauca (ERA) II please visit the ACDI/VOCA project page to access contacts, project results, and other resources.

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