Diakonia - People change the world
María Eugenia is constantly living under great risk; her children and grand-children have several times been kidnapped and threatened because of her work. "But I can't stay quiet", says María Eugenia. Photo: Felipe Abondano

María Eugenia – teaching IDP's their rights

María Eugenia Cruz Alarcon is a passionate change maker who is working courageously alongside others so that people living in poverty can gain power over their own lives.

11/5/2013 Publisher: Lena Hansson

Unaware of their rights

María Eugenia's message may seem obvious and inoffensive: that everyone is entitled to a dignified life. But this is news to many of Colombia's internally displaced persons (IDP's). Being entitled to go to school, domestic violence being illegal, the state having certain obligations – these are things they’ve never heard of.

But working directly with IDP's is not enough.

"We want to create a better Colombia. We talk to politicians, helping them learn what is required if the situation of women and IDP's is to improve," she says.

Inspiration from Sisma Mujer

In 2007, María Eugenia came into contact with Diakonia's partner organization, Sisma Mujer. Since then she has spent most of her time helping other IDP's. She provides them with information on their rights and on the laws they should be aware of. She tries to persuade families to not only send their boys to school but also the girls.

"I meet many 15 to 16-year-old girls who have only attended school for a couple of years – after that, they have been forced to stay at home and look after their siblings and the home," says María Eugenía.

Attempted murder, kidnappings and threats

Fighting for human rights is a life-threatening activity in Colombia. Just a year or so after María Eugenia started working with Sisma Mujer, she started receiving threats from criminal groups. Recently, three people forced their way into her home in an impoverished district in the capital, Bogotá.

The intruders pushed her daughter up against the wall with a knife to her throat. They also threatened to kill her baby. They took María Eugenia's work computer, which contained sensitive material. A week or so later, three men kidnapped her 13-year-old daughter. They blindfolded her, drove her away and forced her to walk for half an hour with a gun at her back while pulling her hair and groping her.

Refuses to be silenced

"They want to silence me by attacking my children," says María Eugenia.

"But I can't stay quiet. There’s a hidden reality that needs to be exposed. Fear is part of my job. But the support from Sisma Mujer and Diakonia gives me strength. It's essential for us to feel that the world knows what’s going on here. That we are not alone."

Women's liberation worth all the effort

She can see how women are becoming stronger, how they are plucking up the courage to report abuse, and how they are growing and opposing violence. How they are standing up for their rights and deciding to get involved in creating a better future. "And when the women say, ‘I didn't know about my rights. I thought my job was to stay at home and look after the children. I didn't know that my husband isn't allowed to hit me, that sexual violence is a criminal offence. That I'm entitled to get back the land that the paramilitaries took away from me,’ – that is when I know that something big is happening," says María Eugenia. "That women are being liberated. And that's worth all the effort."