Asylum Access Ecuador (AAE) began organizing its Encuentros de Mujeres (Women’s Empowerment Groups) in 2010. Offered on a bi-weekly basis at AAE offices across the country, these meetings provide a safe space for refugee women to overcome trauma and work through conflicts that they are facing, as well as promote women’s empowerment through activities that increase their confidence, emotional security and mutual support.
One of the main reasons I applied to be a Volunteer Legal Advocate (VLA) at AAE was to support its women’s empowerment initiatives. During the week, when I wasn’t providing legal assistance to refugee clients, I was supporting Community Outreach Coordinator Esther Mamadou and Comprehensive Justice Assistant Sayra de Jesus in the coordination of Quito’s Encuentros de Mujeres, which took place every other Sunday afternoon.
During my first month at AAE, I had the opportunity to join the women’s group from Santo Domingo (another nearby city) on a two day retreat. Leading the workshop were facilitators Monica Maher and Michele O. Fried, trained through the Alternatives to Violence Project (PAV) and members of the Lutheran Church. During the workshop they helped address strategies for non-violence, self-esteem, spirituality and accomplishment of personal goals with a group of approximately 15 refugee women.
Over the course of those two days, the women grew together as a group and were able to learn how violence impacts their lives but does not need to control them. The facilitators skillfully guided the women through this process and many women left the retreat liberated of their internal conflicts.
Similarly, in Quito, the Encuentros de Mujeres focused on empowerment and education. We sought to give refugee and immigrant women an outlet to share their experiences with others that have lived through similar hardship, while also providing training and educational opportunities.
From August 2014 to June 2015, our team worked with local facilitators to plan and lead workshops dedicated to the women’s skills, interests and personal growth. While some of the Encuentros focused on women’s health, gender-based violence, and worker’s rights, other sessions were dedicated to yoga, stress management, and the arts. We also held celebrations for Mother’s Day and New Year’s, reflecting on their past accomplishments and setting goals for the future.
“Thank you for such a valuable day, I hope that next year has such life” – Encuentros de Mujeres participant after our Mother’s Day & Theater workshop.
Through the Encuentros de Mujeres, the women developed new interests and were informed of their rights as refugees in Ecuador. Those that were new to yoga learned how they could use meditation and relaxation outside of the group. Meanwhile, many women began to use theater and art as an outlet and alternative to speaking out. In fact, our theatre and art workshops became surprising group favorites.
One of the most gratifying workshops I led addressed refugee worker´s rights. During the workshop, we discussed the women’s rights to employment, surveyed their individual socio-economic needs, and the ways they could defend their rights. As always, the workshop led to an animated discussion about their livelihoods in Ecuador and even gave way to a conversation about their perceptions of homosexuality. It was inspiring to see how comfortable they felt in the space we provided, openly expressing their opinions and even challenging one another without fear.
When AAE was approached by Jennifer Rosenberg and Anna Myers of the U.S.-based Women’s Refugee Commission to support their research on gender-based violence in the region, we summoned our group of refugee women to take part in the study. Focus groups were carried out with different women’s groups in Quito and in other provinces and the resulting data was used in the report, “Gender-Based Violence Prevention & Response: Opportunities & Challenges for Serving Urban Refugees in Ecuador.”
After ten incredible months, my time with Asylum Access Ecuador was coming to a close. As I said my farewells, I was overcome with pride at the group’s accomplishments and excited to see the outcome of their new projects, which included an Economic Empowerment initiative to support each other’s small business endeavors and a partnership with the Municipality of Quito to sell their home-made products.
While the group gained valuable skills from the workshops and its facilitators, as well as Asylum Access staff, I believe they learned the most valuable lessons from each other. By working together, they developed their personal strengths and grew as leaders among refugee women in the community. They also developed personal connections and trust with staff and volunteers, enabling a safe and supportive environment to ask questions and seek legal support. This by far was the most rewarding part of my experience: witnessing refugee women in extremely precarious conditions seek justice and become empowered about the rights they deserve.
Read more about Sarah Lundy’s VLA experience in this interview.
By Volunteer Legal Advocate alumna Sarah Lundy