In small-town Colombia, a group empowers girls one bike at a time
For Natalia Espitia, learning to ride a bike became a form of therapy after she survived an attempted sexual assault. Bike-riding, she said, helped her get over her fear of walking through public spaces.
“You need mental balance to ride the bike…the bicycle has allowed women to feel independent and mobilized,” Espitia said.
So, in March 2016, Espitia started Niñas sin Miedo, or Girls Without Fear, an organization that works to promote human rights by educating young girls on sexualized violence and offering conferences and workshops on teen pregnancy prevention, sexual abuse, and harassment. It also empowers the girls by teaching them to ride bikes together.
“I made the decision that the bike would do girls good as it did with me,” Espitia said.
On October 1, Niñas sin Miedo hosted its first Marathon Bike Ride in Bogotá in the runup to the International Day of the Girl Child, a day commemorated annually by the United Nations since 2012. Around 100 people joined the marathon, which was led by dozens of girls in pink T-shirts.
The event was significant, Espitia said, because it was the first time these girls had traveled to Bogotá. “We want to put on the world’s agenda the empowerment of women and girls through sports,” she said. “With the help of other international allies and the academia, we can help reduce sexualized violence against girls.”
Niñas sin Miedo works primarily in Soacha, a small town south of Bogotá, where nearly 40 percent of the residents are Colombians from other parts of the country who were forced to flee their homes, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The country’s decades-long war between the government, rebels, paramilitaries, and drug traffickers has displaced at least 7 million Colombians around the country, according to the United Nations.
Soacha is made up of multiple neighborhoods, once considered settlements. But its conditions are dire. Violence from crime continues to increase, and unemployment is high. There are dirt roads, no sewage system, and no running water. And at least 20 percent of the total population of Soacha are girls under the age of 14, the organization says. “We discovered that there are two main issues here: sexual abuse and teenage pregnancy,” Espitia said.
The organization offers classes on sexuality, self-esteem, personal care, and discussions on how to identify and prevent situations of abuse. It also helps the girls create healthy interpersonal and family relationships. The goal of its programs is to give girls and teenagers the confidence to use their voices. Of the at least 30 participants, some are university students who help achieve greater connection with the younger girls by offering them safe spaces for conversation about their experiences.
Since the organization was launched, Espitia has found that the “girls have improved their critical thinking in terms of gender violence and sexual violence.” Now, she said, “they know they can be discriminated [against] for their gender or for having their period.”
One 15-year-old, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her privacy, said the time she had spent with the organization’s volunteers had helped her open up more. “I feel that I can tell them my deepest problems and that they are going to listen,” she said. “They talk to us about what I can do in case someone does not respect me. I have understood that I have rights.”
“I have never told anyone what has happened to me,” the 15-year-old said. “They have helped me heal the past.” The program, she said, has helped her believe in her dreams.
Since the organization was launched in 2016, it has received massive support from local and international groups. In November, it received the Jaime Esparza Rhénals Award, which recognizes entrepreneurship projects that have a social impact in the country. Niñas sin Miedo also received 15 million pesos (about $786,000 USD), which will allow the organization to develop its programs on a larger scale.
Meanwhile, each weekend, dozens of girls and teenagers gather to attend workshops and ride bikes together. Sometimes they crack jokes with their friends, and sometimes they compete against each other. And while they all share the same sorrow in the end, they will now always have an outlet for joy.
More articles by Category: Gender-based violence, Girls, International, Violence against women
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