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.
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This is particularly true when they are marginalized. And Colombia's conflict has produced more internally displaced people than any nation in the world after Sudan, according to the Washington-based group Refugees International.Skip to next paragraph
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Forty-eight percent of displaced households are headed by women, and widows outnumber widowers 6 to 1, according to a new report by Refugees International. Many are also single mothers whose husbands had to relocate for safety or left them under the stresses of the conflict. Many have been abused or raped, and almost all at one point have been terrorized by violence inflicted by both sides of the conflict.
In Sincelejo, which, according to Mayor Jaime Merlano Fernandez, has received the third-largest number of displaced in the country, many have no idea what to do when they arrive. They look to their churches, or join new ones, for orientation.
The churches become zones of empowerment. Unlike the Catholic Church, where most faithful attend mass once a week, most Pentecostals take on a rigorous schedule that includes services several times a week, Bible studies, and committee meetings – all of which lend space to talk about problems.
"In general, in the Catholic Church, there are not a whole lot of places where people want to listen to your sob stories. But evangelical churches are all about that," says John Burdick, an anthropologist at Syracuse (N.Y.) University. "It's all domestic issues all the time."
The neatly swept dirt floor of the Remanso de Paz church was a garbage dump when Zuñiga and her family arrived in Sincelejo seven years ago, after one of the country's worst massacres hit her hometown. They cleared the debris bottle by bottle, and founded a congregation that today is almost entirely composed of the displaced. The church has become the community's meeting point. People stream in all day, every day. They come for training. For advice. For bus fare. Or just simply to talk.
"This community of women helps me get rid of my pain each time I come here," says Bienvenida Vuelva, whose adult son was killed as a result of fighting in 2003. She converted to Pentecostalism after being displaced; her husband and other children have not. "For me, the party has ended; this is what I have now."
Getting husbands to shape up
But Pentecostal churches are more than just support networks for women. Elizabeth Brusco, an anthropologist at Pacific Lutheran University in Washington State, published a pioneering book called the "The Reformation of Machismo: Evangelical Conversion and Gender in Colombia" in the mid-1990s, arguing that the strict moral code of Pentecostalism redirects a man's priorities to the domestic sphere, which in turn boosts women's status. When they no longer drink or cheat, the couple's goals align, which forms a type of "strategic women's movement."
"In and of itself, it is a transformative social movement," Ms. Brusco says.
Women are also able to hold prominent roles within the church. Unlike in the Catholic Church, women can serve as copastors with their husbands or even as head pastor, as in Zuñiga's case. It's the first time many women say they have ever held leadership positions or even felt comfortable talking in public.
Religious ideology is often viewed with suspicion by feminists, who see it as a way to institutionalize patriarchy. But Jasper Rodriguez, Zuñiga's husband, who has a dazzling smile and a flirt's ease with compliments, says he is proof that the faith can help fight against machismo, and all its chronic problems.