CARTAGENA, COLOMBIA –
CARTAGENA, Colombia (Nov. 18, 2022) The sunbeams boldly reflected off the warm, nurturing statue of the Mother Mary and the orange and yellow flowers that surrounded her. As the young mothers at the Juanfe Foundation waited in the courtyard with their children, the jubilant sounds of their laughter echoed through the halls as they played. This sight greeted the hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) Continuing Promise team as their buses pulled slowly into the small, bricked parking lot of the facility in support of the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) event.
WPS is a United Nations initiative supporting the increased participation of women at all levels of decision-making and applying a gendered perspective in relief and recovery efforts, contributing to an overall increase in regional security. For the first time since the initiation of this mission in 2007, WPS has been named as an official line of effort of Continuing Promise 2022.
Juanfe is a sanctuary and institution that serves women between the ages of 15-20 who have children through unfortunate circumstances such as rape, incest or prostitution. These single mothers are striving to improve their situations through learning and receiving assistance in procuring a job, as well as the provision of meals and free child care while at the institution.
For the women and children at the Juanfe Foundation, the support of Continuing Promise 2022 through WPS meant increased optometry, dental, nutritional care, and support through mindfulness discussions and women’s health seminars.
“It’s basically a strategy that recognizes that conflict-armed conflict-has a disproportionate effect on women and children and is looking at those effects and looking at ways to integrate women into the decision-making process and also the peace process.” said Cmdr. Angela Roldan-Whitaker, the chief of public private cooperation at U.S. Southern Command.
The planning process for Continuing Promise 2022 began in February of this year, and a main focus this time around was a high request for WPS topics. Cmdr. Julie Shuab, the health security cooperation officer at U.S. Navy Southern Command/U.S. 4th Fleet, joined the WPS planning process in May and chose Juanfe as the focal point for WPS in Colombia.
“What they bring to the community and these women was very impressive, and how they deliver—that was very impressive when we visited them several months ago,” said Schaub. “We saw how hard they’re working, and we wanted to be right there to help and assist them, not to push our agenda, but just to help them with any of the needs they had identified. They’re doing a tremendous job on their own, so we’re just trying to enhance that a little bit with them.”
During the Comfort’s mission stop to Colombia, in support of Continuing Promise 2022, discussions were held around the four pillars of WPS; participation, protection, prevention, and relief and recovery, as agreed upon by UN member countries.
The purpose of these discussions and seminars were to provide a safe space to bring women from all walks of life to the table and give them a podium to share their opinions and be heard. Although many countries have made strides to integrate women into the governmental decision-making process and treat them as equals, in many countries, men still make decisions on behalf of their female counterparts, including those involving relationships and health care options.
“One of the reasons that women are not fully able to participate at the table is inequitable access to health care,” said Capt. Carolyn Currie, the WPS lead for Continuing Promise 2022. “There are many reasons as to why this is, but one of the main reasons is their exposure to gender-based violence.”
According to UN Women, gender-based violence in Colombia for women between the ages of 15-49 is at 33.3%, with child marriages at 23.4%. Colombia ranks 101 out of 193 on the inequality index of countries in the U.N. These figures showcase that Colombia’s female population is highly susceptible to gender-based violence, making WPS seminars, such as the one conducted at Juanfe, extremely important.
“In Colombia, specifically, gender-based violence was identified as a significant problem,” said Currie. “So we are working with locals to help them identify some of the root causes and some of the ways they can work towards responding and preventing further cases.”
Many of the women at Juanfe were victims of gender-based violence. In line with the fourth pillar of WPS, relief and recovery, Connected Warriors donated 40 yoga matts and conducted trauma conscious yoga and mindfulness classes.
“Connected Warriors is an organization that works primarily with veterans, focusing on post-traumatic growth, and many of these principles that we use transcend the military community,” said retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Duilia Turner, assistant yoga instructor with Connected Warriors and former lead of WPS. “Here, on this very special mission, to be able to work with different women, with young women, and sharing those principals is really wonderful. Some of the poses improve self-esteem, growth, and posture. Our goal was to support them, so they can feel the sensations of the body and be more present.”
In addition to assisting the women of Juanfe, a military-to-military roundtable session was conducted aboard Comfort to promote discussion of differences and expectations in how women are treated. Male participants were also encouraged to attend, as change can only be brought about by both genders calling attention to the problem.
“We’ve worked to bring some of the military professionals aboard and work with our military folks to have these open discussions about inequitable access to health care and how that impacts the readiness of our military missions,” said Currie. “Talking to young folks in the military, they’re the ones that are going to be empowered to gap those inequities, and the discussions we’ve had so far have been very beneficial to both parties.”
Between the discussions, seminars, and medical care provided by the Comfort Continuing Promise team in line with WPS, both civilian and military women were offered a place at the table where their voices, concerns and issues were heard and listened to.
“What we are doing with the Comfort mission and with Connected Warriors is really connecting at the very human level,” said Turner. “It goes back to trust, to creating partnerships that are long lasting and create positive impacts in the small communities and in individuals’ lives. That really can create a ripple effect, and the more that we do that, the more stable world, societies, and stronger partnerships we will have.”
As the Continuing Promise team loaded the last of the medical equipment into the buses, the team reflected on their experiences over the past two days. As Mother Mary faded from view through the rearview mirror, surrounded by her orange and yellow flowers, the team was confident that new seeds of hope had been planted and would bloom into better experiences for these women.
“I think it’s wonderful to put into perspective that the Comfort mission is huge and so strategic in nature, and the impact is enormous,” said Turner. “But at the core of it are single human beings, individuals, working together at very small scales that grow exponentially in impact.”