How conversation and cartography are helping redefine attitudes toward women and LGBTI people in step with the national peace process

COLOMBIA HAS BEEN WRACKED by armed conflict between government forces, leftist guerrillas and paramilitary splinter groups for generations. The peace process ratified at the end of 2016, marking an official end to the conflict, was itself decades in the making.

So when a wave of shootings targeting women and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) communities flared up in early 2017 in Tumaco, a municipality bordering Ecuador, it underscored a grim reality — that curtailing gender-based violence would be neither quick nor easy in the post-conflict era.

Above image: A perception map of Tumaco, Colombia. The map uses wildlife symbols to show points where women can be attacked (wasps) or face danger from criminal gangs that control or fight over particular territory (snakes)

It’s also a reality that Génica Mazzoldi Díaz, a senior researcher at Fundación Ideas para la Paz, or FIP, a Bogotá-based think tank that works to build a stable and lasting peace in Colombia, was by then working to address. In February 2017, she and her team began a two-year IDRC project in Tumaco and two other border regions, Apartadó in the north and Putumayo in the south. Their goals were threefold: to evaluate the problem of gender-based violence through the eyes of its victims; assess the effectiveness and limitations of existing security policies; and work with key local stakeholders to present and apply their results to improve the situation.

“Historically, there has been a high level of impunity and limited access to justice in the territories, especially for women and LGBTI populations,” says Mazzoldi Díaz. “In addition, Colombian public policy does not have a comprehensive understanding of security and gender-based violence.”


A single program in three small areas won’t change Colombian society overnight. But now that the project is complete, Mazzoldi Díaz says their findings are having a positive effect, generating significant interest and uptake from local officials, community leaders and the private sector. “We have been able to deepen the understanding of the relationship between the types of violence and the security perception of women and LGBTI populations,” she says.

From the outset, researchers recognized that the subject matter and vulnerability of the people they wanted to reach dictated a safe, interactive approach. Teams conducted 10-day survey visits to local communities in the three territories, reaching about 1,000 people.

Génica Mazzoldi Díaz

“We developed two key exercises in this stage. The first was a survey regarding gender-based violence and security perceptions,” Mazzoldi Díaz says. “The second was a mapping process. It allowed us to identify different types of violence and to determine safe zones and unsafe zones according to the perception of women and LGBTI communities.”

The work revealed complicated landscapes where sources of violence include armed groups, domestic abuse, local institutions and the workplace. For women, gender stereotyping that gives men licence to act violently is a major problem at home and where criminal groups use it to assert control over territory. In local economies that depend on drug trafficking, women feel more secure when they can find other, legitimate work. The research also showed that state security measures aren’t effectively addressing women’s risks.

For LGBTI populations, stereotyping and prejudice are major threats. Adding to the problem is a lack of any official recognition or data collection on violence against LGBTI individuals, which limits institutional response.

After their surveys, the FIP team took the unusual step of returning to the regions to share and refine the results. This fortified both their data and the local buy-in. “They’re not used to having this type of information shared with them and validated,” says Mazzoldi Díaz.

This unique approach is also evident in perception maps created to communicate findings in follow-up meetings with local officials, businesses and international aid organizations. Instead of using dots to mark problem areas, women were encouraged to create their own symbols. Those chosen include wasps and snakes, which correspond to areas of likely attack or zones of criminal control. “Using their own symbols allows them to talk from their own experience, from their own knowledge,” says Mazzoldi Díaz.

The messaging has proved effective. In Apartadó, a banana-producing region, Mazzoldi Díaz says one company requested FIP’s help in conducting a workshop to sensitize men to women’s concerns and discuss ways to make a male-dominated workspace more women-friendly.

With her team’s work complete, Mazzoldi Díaz hopes to take their insights to a wider audience. “A main goal of our organization is to be able to position these kinds of topics in the national agenda and also in the public policy that’s being elaborated.”

This article was originally published in August 2019 on the Charting Change website, published jointly by Canadian Geographic and Canada’s International Development Research Centre. Infographic and illustration courtesy of Fundación Ideas para la Paz (FIP)/Christian Benito Rebollo, IDRC and Canadian Geographic.