A woman presents to a room of other women

3 Questions with Angélica Medina: Breaking Social Inclusion Barriers in Colombia

| 3 Minute Read
Gender Equality and Social Inclusion
Gender Equality and Social Inclusion | LGBTQI+-Inclusive Development | Promoting the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and Minority Groups
As Colombia rebuilds its social fabric after more than 50 years of conflict, social inclusion is more important than ever as a precondition for reconciliation.

Angélica Medina is the gender and vulnerable populations expert for the USAID Human Rights Activity (HRA) in Colombia. HRA responds to a history of human rights violations in Colombia by promoting a culture of human rights.

Why is social inclusion important for the development of Colombia?

Inequality in Colombia has largely overshadowed women’s progress to fully exercise their rights. This phenomenon is mainly evidenced in inequalities that affect women with regard to access to basic services and rights, including access to dignified housing and potable water, and the right to education and health. In this light, social inclusion works to address gaps in service provision, and fulfill full promotion of rights through an equitable manner using a differential focus. For example, a differential focus can mean ensuring that information targeting marginalized populations, such as Colombia’s ethnic communities, is offered in their respective languages. The social inclusion lens permits us to analyze and evaluate situations of vulnerable populations in a contextualized manner to better understand the challenges associated with differentiated barriers in accessing rights and services.

Social inclusion with a gender focus is particularly important in the Colombian context because society is influenced by patriarchal structures and accordingly, many women are relegated to more traditional domestic roles such as family and home caretakers. Particularly in rural areas of Colombia, access to education and basic financial knowledge remains highly elusive for women. In these more remote regions, young women enter into marriages or intimate partnerships at the premature ages of 12 or 13, typically with much older men between the ages of 18 to 30, which often results in bearing three or four children by the ages of 17 or 18. The socioeconomic conditions of these areas further concentrate high levels of illiteracy and poverty, which also disproportionately affect women and significantly impede their personal, educational, and social development. Many of these women become victims of multiple forms of domestic violence and are economically dependent on their domestic partners. Power and control dynamics are defined by the men in these relationships, which extends to the exclusivity of property rights. For example, often women are not allowed to find employment outside their homes. Not surprisingly, because of these restrictive conditions the cycle of inequality and marginalization of women perpetuates throughout generations.

In short, social inclusion is a critical approach for analyzing and tackling some of Colombia’s toughest challenges that disproportionately affect vulnerable cross-sections of the population. Social inclusion is essential for implementing the key reconciliation principles and pillars of the peace accords, so that Colombian society can rebuild its social fabric after more than 50 years of internal armed conflict.

Particularly in rural areas of Colombia, access to education and basic financial knowledge remains highly elusive for women.

What are some of the main challenges you have encountered when implementing inclusive activities?

Among the greater challenges of implementing social inclusion I have faced are the low levels of institutional knowledge and institutional discourse. For example, many public officials may have limited knowledge on inclusion approaches due to lack of information on the issues, personal prejudices, cultural norms that normalize or validate different types of violence towards women, and lack of knowledge regarding noncompliance with laws and policies.

Within civil society, I have seen the same prejudices held by public officials also influence civil society perspectives. For this reason, it is critical to raise awareness among civil society organizations on the manner in which public officials identify, validate, or invalidate violence against women, and whether or not women are included in institutional mechanisms. Beyond increasing civil society actors’ awareness of inequalities, gaps, prejudices, and other societal barriers affecting women’s roles, it is necessary to strengthen their capacities to effectively participate in institutional mechanisms to advocate for social inclusion within public policy.

Despite significant advances in Colombia, such as establishing gender-focused mechanisms (roundtables or subcommittees) within policy protocols, other divisions and prejudices within society need to be considered. For example, the LGBTI community, sex workers, indigenous people, and Afro-Colombian women in particular still do not receive adequate differentiated approaches or sufficient institutional responses to respond to structural inequalities. Ultimately, by not appropriately addressing these sectors using a differential focus, socio-political barriers will continue to create difficulties for these groups to access their rights and public services.

What innovative approaches have you applied to include marginalized groups in your project?

The Human Rights Activity (HRA) has pursued significant efforts in helping establish and subsequently strengthen municipal women’s and LGBTI roundtables in the municipalities where the project operates. These roundtables serve as institutional mechanisms at the local level where women and LGBTI members can convene to increase their knowledge of institutional services, raise awareness of their needs, effectively advocate their position and perspectives, and increase their participation in other institutional decision-making mechanisms.

Another approach that HRA has applied is creating and supporting diploma courses concentrated on gender empowerment with a focus on prevention and response to gender-based violence. These courses engage primarily rural women, as well as women that have committed to replicating their learning and training with their communities, families, and schools, and through institutional mechanisms. Due to their participation in these courses, women have increased their knowledge of their rights and have been empowered to participate in institutional mechanisms dedicated to gender rights. Through their involvement in these mechanisms, these women are provided with a platform to promote social inclusion and improve institutional responses to issues facing women in Colombia.

About Angélica Medina

Angélica Medina is the gender and vulnerable populations expert for the USAID Human Rights Activity in Colombia.