Empowering women in Colombia

Judith Stella Robles Rivero learns how to speak up for herself and her community.

A close up photo of a yucca plant

In the middle of the night, flood waters from a nearby creek swept away almost everything in La Florida, a community in the Montes de María region of Colombia. Three hours later, Judith Stella Robles Rivero was taking action, securing aid and advocating for governmental assistance to help her community recover. 

Robles Rivero was able to secure food and clothes for her community after the May 1, 2022, flood because of the leadership skills and confidence that she developed in workshops with SembrandoPaz. This Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) partner organization works in nine rural communities in the Montes de Maria region.

A woman smiling for a photo
Judith Stella Robles RiveroSembrandopaz photo/Etelvina Salas

Before the training, she says, “I was very shy, and I was even embarrassed to introduce myself and speak in public. Now I feel more empowered to speak and give my opinion and participate in different workspaces... .”

Empowering women is part of the work of SembrandoPaz – which translates to “sowing peace.” The organization is active in nine rural areas of the Montes de Maria region, which has been deeply impacted by decades of armed conflict, beginning in the 1980s. Farmers also are experiencing unpredictable and extreme weather events due to climate change.

One of the ways Sembrandopaz is helping women deal with the economic fallout of these crises is to give them resources to start their own small businesses and make their own income.

The original rationale was that with their own income, women would be more empowered to speak up about issues of inequality and sexism in their home, which would, in turn, strengthen their communities, says Etelvina Isabel Salas Perez, an agricultural engineer who has been with SembrandoPaz since 2008.

A woman standing in a field holding a flower smiling
Etelvina Isabel Salas Perez, an agricultural engineer with SembrandoPaz.MCC photo/Annalee Giesbrecht

For Robles Rivero, this meant receiving a loan from SembrandoPaz to plant her own crops. The money she made selling her crops was enough to pay back the original loan, grow her farming operation and support her daughter’s education.

However, Salas Perez realized that, despite earning some income by working in the fields or selling eggs and homemade bread, most women didn’t have any say in their family’s finances. Whatever they earned went straight into their husbands’ pockets.

So along with providing women with loans to start their own small businesses, SembrandoPaz also hosts women’s groups. In these meetings, the women talk about their rights, self-esteem, political participation and machismo, and they organize projects to better their community, such as planting trees or digging wells. These groups empower women to handle their own money, challenge gender roles, and become leaders.

“I always tell my husband about what I have learned,” says Robles Rivero, “and what we can apply in our daily lives. We have learned together in this process, and we have strengthened each other.” 

A closeup photo of jewelry in a workshop
Handmade jewelry made out of discarded products in a workshop offered by MCC partner Sembrandopaz. MCC photo/Annalee Giesbrecht

The women also make handicrafts out of recycled materials, which they can sell for additional income. Plastic bags are weaved into purses and earrings, and empty plastic bottles are transformed into planters.

Johan Daza, an MCC representative in Colombia, says the work of SembrandoPaz clearly fits into MCC’s mission of “relief, development and peace in the name of Christ.” He says that SembrandoPaz is “building a culture of sustainable peace” by teaching participants how to connect with politicians to pursue social justice and develop holistic communities.

Robles Rivero likes that she can speak up for herself and her community.

“I have the ability to recognize my rights, and I can raise my voice to demand them, having the necessary tools to make them a reality,” she says.

“I hope that SembrandoPaz will be with us for much longer, so that we can continue to build the community we want, a prosperous community where food, solidarity and brotherhood abound. Now, I am sure of who I am and where I am going.”

MCC supports SembrandoPaz via Growing Hope Globally, a Christian nonprofit that works to combat hunger by building networks between farmers in the United States. and farmers in developing countries. Farmers in the Growing Hope network in the U.S. donate some of their profits to Growing Hope Globally, which invests in sustainable farming practices abroad.