Student Voices Sep. 17 2017

Weathering The Storm

There are thunderstorms every night. They are big and beautiful, occupying the entire sky with rolling thunder and streaks of lightning, blowing off steam from the hot and humid days. It’s not just the heat that makes our days near the Colombian coast intense. I am part of a research team seeking to understand how 50 years of conflict have impacted family dynamics, particularly household violence, now that the peace process is underway. 

Colombia, The Earth Institute, Capstone Project, Unicef, violence prevention

I'm here on my summer practicum through a collaboration between UNICEF and the CPC Learning Network, a global group led by Mailman School faculty that does research and advocacy on behalf of children. The first goal of our research is establishing trust with participants, but it takes several interviews before people open up about difficult experiences that they often consider taboo. 

There is a common saying in Spanish, “La ropa sucia se lava en casa.” In other words, one’s dirty laundry is family business, not to be discussed in front of outsiders. The adolescents are particularly elusive, hinting at dynamics that could provide insight into the inner world of Colombian households, but few are willing to air their family’s dirty laundry. Participants either focus on positive aspects of life here or they close up when probed further on issues they raise. 

“It’s just normal,” some reply. Others are more talkative, like the 17-year-old boy whose younger brother was bullied and robbed by kids at school, so he beat on him to teach him how to fight back. He said fighting was the only way to survive in their neighborhood. This same boy, at 10 years-old, kicked his dad out of his house while holding a kitchen knife for beating his mom. He shared these stories in a matter-of-fact tone, as if to imply that these things were normal. 

Between the heat, humidity, and the soothing whir of the ceiling fans, it takes more energy to hear participants, many of whom speak softly, as if speaking to themselves and not in conversation.

How many boys we’ve spoken to have had to grow up quickly?

How long does childhood really last here? 

As the silhouette of the rolling, green mountains flashes to the south, I reflect on these stories of love, violence, and loss. I hear the participants speaking about the difficult choices they've made when one of the various armed groups arrived on their doorstep, the violence they’ve experienced within their own family, and the pain of separation and abandonment by loved ones.

Economic and emotional stressors come up constantly in our conversations. Some participants have had to start over more than once because of displacement. Reparations have not come easily, if at all, and many people are disillusioned by government programs and “trickle-down” initiatives where funds for benefits never seem to make it all the way down to vulnerable communities. One man was displaced eight times because different armed groups threatened his life and the lives of his family members. He hasn’t been able to get onto any of the registries for assistance and stable jobs are hard to come by, so he often scavenges for fruit or fish in the river to provide food for his family.

Colombia, The Earth Institute, Capstone Project, Unicef, violence prevention Every day there are more stories of resilience and survival in the face of death, rape, and violence in Colombia. Many youth we spoke with are focusing on education and community organizations as a means to a more peaceful, fruitful life. Fighting off tears, one boy described the love and pride he had for his hard-working mother and father, who get up at dawn to sell food or work long days in the fields so they can provide for him and his siblings. His dream is to go to the university and get a career so that his parents won’t have to sacrifice so much.

As the storm drifts further away, the heaviness clears from the air. The idea steering us through all of these stories is that this analysis can build on existing strengths to inform programs and interventions that will improve family well-being and reduce the incidence of household violence here. My experience in Colombia is reinforcing the need to place communities and families at the forefront of designing programs. While I continue my career in violence prevention, I hope that this work will yield something that can honor that value along with all of those who entrusted us with their stories.

Amanda Browne is a dual MSW/MPH student specializing in international social work and violence prevention. She received funding as a 2017 Graduate Student Fellow with the Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity (AC4) at The Earth Institute to conduct her capstone thesis research with the CPC Learning Network. Amanda previously worked in Honduras, Tunisia, and Cameroon. She graduated from The George Washington University in 2009 with a BA in International Development and a minor in Cross-Cultural Communication.

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