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In Colombia, women use new faith to gain equality

Pentecostal women are demanding more of their husbands and themselves as they move beyond civil war.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 19, 2007

Sincelejo, Colombia

Adelina Zuñiga, a farmer's wife, said nothing when her husband called her worthless. Even after she became a Pentecostal – and prayed that he would stop drinking and sleeping around – she didn't object when he forced her to go dancing, though he knew secular dancing is against her beliefs. She was uneducated and dependent and she let him.

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But not anymore. Today, she is the head pastor of the Remanso de Paz church and a point of reference for other peasants in her community who have been displaced by Colombia's decades-long armed conflict.

"We have to end this discrimination against women," she tells a group of women gathered in the palm-covered pavilion before a recent Wednesday night Bible class. "If I have an obligation to fix breakfast for my children in the morning, my husband has the exact same obligation."

In a country where machismo surfaces at all levels of interaction, Ms. Zuñiga attributes her personal transformation entirely to her Pentecostal convictions, which taught her that she is equal in her home, and later put her in a position to be a church leader and a community organizer for the tens of thousands of rural poor who have flocked to this city after fighting between leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries pushed them off their land.

Pentecostalism is often characterized by its socially conservative stances. But in Latin America – particularly in the poor areas where the movement grows fastest – religious conversion has brought a sense of liberation to women. It's a freedom based on biblical interpretations and moral codes, and that is empowering them in their homes, churches, and beyond. Pentecostal converts aren't necessarily any more effective at breaking down gender barriers than other women, but observers say their shift in mentality is giving them a tool to improve their own lives.

The trend is perhaps most dramatic in conflict-ridden areas of Colombia where whole villages have had to flee burned homes, land mines, and massacres. Of those displaced, women are overwhelmingly the victims and the survivors.

Here in Sincelejo, the population has ballooned by a third since 1995 as displaced people fill the shantytowns along the fringes of the city. And Pentecostal women, such as Zuñiga, are pursuing peace and justice.

"Pentecostal women have not been left behind; they have had to respond and carry the tragedy on their shoulders," says Ricardo Esquivia, a well-known activist in Sincelejo who collaborates with different religious groups working toward peace. "It is an example of how the [Pentecostal] churches can change and how they can impact the rest of the country."

Colombia is widely considered the most conservative "Catholic" country in the region. Separation of the Roman Catholic Church and the state was not mandated by the Constitution until 1991, and, according to the US State Department, the Catholic Church still "retains a de facto privileged status."

The Pentecostal movement has been slower to take root here than in Brazil or Guatemala, but Protestants now make up 12 percent of the population and the number of Pentecostals is growing rapidly, according to the Colombia Evangelical Council (CEDECOL).

Women fill the pews

Pentecostals throughout Latin America have been effective at reaching out to the region's poor, those most in need of solutions that conversion promises to provide, and women are no small part of that, making up the majority of membership from the smallest store-front houses of worship to the biggest megachurches.