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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.

(Page 4 of 4)

And as women have moved beyond the immediate emergency responses, they have found themselves reflecting on gender in a way they never had before.

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Many are members of the National Ecumenical Network of Women for Peace, a tiny not-for-profit established in 2000 at the height of the crisis in this part of the country. There they attend workshops on truth and reconciliation and the need to forgive, how to organize, and how to start small businesses.

Moving beyond victimhood

"At first the Pentecostals saw being displaced as God's will," says Ana Mercedes Pereira, who heads the non-profit. During a recent retreat in Tolu, on the Atlantic Coast, a group of 15 women from different religious affiliations participated in a seminar on how to assume political and public roles. "Now they see that God is there, but they have to play a role, too. We make it very clear that they have to move away from seeing themselves as victims."

Now Zuñiga, who had two years of elementary school education when she was displaced, has begun applying biblical equality beyond church walls.

Now, the mother of five has heart-to-hearts with her 11-year-old daughter. "I say to her, 'How great would it be if when you got married you already had your own home? You could invest your money, and if you have any problems with him, you have somewhere to go.' "

"Crisis gave us the opportunity to apply the equality that we already believed in," she says.

But it hasn't been an easy road.

Zuñiga has been criticized by other pastors who question her sermons dedicated to female equality. Some church members refused to accept a woman at the helm and left her congregation.

Mr. Pardo says the debate about whether women should be head pastors rages on. He himself is undecided.

"The topic of gender is hard in the church because many women believe you still have to ask men permission. I work to change their points of view," Zuñiga says. "Some in the church didn't like it when I started talking about women."

Resistance to change

Even in her own home, her new perspective and activist schedule causes friction. "Sometimes she doesn't make me food all day," says Rodriguez. "She says, 'I had to go to this meeting. I had to go to Bogotá.' She doesn't remember she has a husband."

Still, he says he accepts it. "I don't want her [to stop what she's doing now]. I don't have that privilege anymore," he says. "We are helping the community." Pentecostalism gives him the privilege, however, of a different viewpoint – one he says he probably wouldn't otherwise be strong enough to hold. "If I weren't a [Pentecostal], I would have separated from her long ago."

Women here speak almost incredulously of the changes that have taken place in their own marriages and partnerships.

Most still dream of returning to the fertile fields where life is determined less by rent and grocery bills and more by the sun and the seasons.

Zuñiga is one of them. "I always imagine returning to our land," she says reflectively. But she says she will not return until there is justice for the victims who have lost so much. "That day it is going to be even richer. We will return to the same land, but with much more knowledge."

And then adds under her breath, "Our husbands will be a lot better, too," and lets out a belly laugh.