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Gangs Can't Stop Colombia's Butterflies From Rescuing Women In Need

Three Butterflies flew to Geneva to accept a humanitarian award: Maritza Asprilla Cruz (from left), Gloria Amparo, Mery Medina. Juan Arredondo/Courtesy of UNHCR hide caption

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Juan Arredondo/Courtesy of UNHCR

Three Butterflies flew to Geneva to accept a humanitarian award: Maritza Asprilla Cruz (from left), Gloria Amparo, Mery Medina.

Juan Arredondo/Courtesy of UNHCR

Neighbors come and listen as Maritza Yaneth Asprilla gives a workshop on women's health at her home in Buenaventura, Colombia. Juan Arredondo/Courtesy of UNHCR hide caption

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Juan Arredondo/Courtesy of UNHCR

Neighbors come and listen as Maritza Yaneth Asprilla gives a workshop on women's health at her home in Buenaventura, Colombia.

Juan Arredondo/Courtesy of UNHCR

They call themselves "the Butterflies."

And that's not just wishful thinking.

When Gloria Amparo, Maritza Asprilla Cruz and Mery Medina sweep into NPR's bureau in central London, they are indeed as beautiful as butterflies: bright clothing, big beaming smiles. They look around in wonder at the newsroom spread out before them, laughing and joking as I make them a cup of tea.

Yet these are women who've led tough lives — born into Colombian society, where violence and abuse are commonplace.

In 2010, they started a group they call "Red Mariposas de Alas Nuevas Construyendo Futuro" — "Butterflies with New Wings Building a Future." Their goal is to support women who are victims of abuse, educating them about their rights and helping them report sexual crimes to the police.

Now they have been recognized for their activism. In Geneva last week, the Nansen Refugee Award — honoring humanitarian efforts for refugees and displaced people — was presented to the Butterflies. "These women are doing extraordinary work in the most challenging of contexts," said U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres. "Their bravery goes beyond words."

The Butterflies are based in Buenaventura, the country's main Pacific port, home to about 340,000 people. Although the port is an important part of Colombian industry, 80 percent of its population lives below the poverty line. Of those, 20 percent live in extreme poverty. Social services are either scarce or nonexistent. Violence is part of the daily scene. Illegal armed groups battle against each other.

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Since 1997, turf wars between gangs throughout Colombia have forced 5.7 million people to flee their homes. Eighty percent of the displaced are women.

The group is run entirely by volunteers, led by Amparo, Cruz and Medina. There are 120 Butterflies throughout the city's urban and rural areas. All of them are part of Buenaventura's Afro-Colombian population — those of African descent. So far, they've helped more than 1,000 women and their families. In some cases, vulnerable women are sheltered in a Butterfly's own home.

As is all too common in conflict zones, women and children are the targets of armed gangs, who recruit children as members and who also murder, torture and kidnap. More than half of all displaced women have experienced a sexual or gender-related crime, with rape, often by several men, the most common. In the first half of 2014, 11 women were killed as a result of gang activity. They were all found dismembered.

Amparo is one of the Butterflies' founding members. Through an interpreter, she told me how the group was born.

"In 2008, the state issued a law," she says. "A law tackling violence against women." This law inspired Amparo and other activists to work together. Nine groups joined forces to found Butterflies, bringing over 100 volunteers and 20 coordinators together.

"The organization works on camaraderie," Amparo tells me. The spirit of solidarity runs very deep. There's a strong sense of looking out for one another.

I ask Medina what life is like for the women of Buenaventura. "Not easy," she says, with a heavy sigh. "There are very few opportunities for women, and the culture is that women should stay at home."

Despite attracting negative attention from the armed gangs, Butterflies march through the city's streets and speak publicly for women's rights. They organize meetings between politicians, victims and activists, pressing for more government action on women's rights. They travel by foot, bike or bus, through dangerous neighborhoods, helping women whose cases have come to their attention.

And they can reach into just about any neighborhood. There's "a Butterfly flying in every area," Medina tells me proudly. That way, the group has an idea of what's happening across the city.

The women tell me about a recent case: a young woman in a rural area, a victim of abuse, raped on a daily basis. Amparo called on her network to help this woman escape to the safety of a Butterfly's home.

Luz is another case study. Forced from her village by fighting, she settled in Buenaventura, where she became a community leader. Gangs threatened to rape her 10-year-old daughter. When Luz intervened, the men gang-raped her instead. She is still traumatized and told the Butterflies: "You never forget that moment, the rape and what happened. I've never felt the same again. My big smile has gone."

The Butterflies helped Luz report her rape to the authorities. She now works with them, sharing her advice and support with other rape survivors.

The Nansen Refuge award means a lot to the Butterflies. "It's a big opportunity to show the world the situation of Afro-Colombian women and victims of violence in Colombia," Amparo says.

So where do they go from here? "Now is the time to build up," says Cruz. The Butterflies want to create a permanent safe house for victims of violence and sexual abuse.

They want to add education to their agenda, too. "It's important to change the mentality of the young people," Amparo tells me. "If you educate the young children, you will have happy men and happy women who respect each other's rights." The $100,000 prize that comes with their award will doubtless help with this dream.

"Will there ever be a time when the Butterflies won't be needed?" I ask.

She smiles and says, "This would be a glorious moment. There would be peace for everybody!" She concedes, "We're not confident that the armed conflict and violence will end soon. But in a peaceful world, we can still work for the women because there will still be a lot to do. There will still be Butterflies around."