Gina Reales: "In Chocó, Colombia, COVID-19 is a humanitarian crisis"
Gina Reales, a social leader from Quibdó (department of Chocó, Colombia), fights day in and day out to improve the harsh reality of her community. This is her testimony.
My life, my childhood, began in Chocó. I was born in Quibdó, but since my father is a teacher, I lived in different places, including Antioquia, Atlántico, and Apartadó departments, where I was able to interact with and learn from different cultures. It is easier for me to relate to people, to be more empathetic, because I understand different cultures.
My mother did not study; my father did, so I got the urge to study from him, someone committed to training himself and to being the best teacher. He studied chemistry and biology and was one of the best teachers at El Carrasquilla, one of the best known centers in Quibdó.
Although my mother did not study, she always instilled in me the desire to study. If I didn't do my homework, she would spank me, and I couldn't get up from the table until I finished it. Even if she couldn't understand anything, she always pushed me to study.
On my mother's side, my childhood was always surrounded by scarcity. My mother lived off what my stepfather gave her. Although we always lived with very little – there were times when we ate once a day –, it became normal. Today, when I forget to eat for whatever reason, I don't feel like “I'm going to die”; it's normal. And it's because my body adapted to that. However, I know that I must eat and that it is unhealthy not to eat properly. Although I had many material needs, I always knew that I had to study and get ahead.
I knew I had to attend university, and I studied social sciences. I paid for it, because my parents didn't have the means. In addition to studying, I did writing jobs for my classmates and sold magazines, clothes, watches, which is how I managed to pay for my studies until I graduated. This is where I started doing social work, during my last undergraduate years.
Leading to move forward
From a very young age, I participated in social issues to help my community. When I was finishing university, I came across a foundation called "Chocó Joven" in Quibdó, where I officially started this career in social work. I volunteered in a project in which we worked with kids from the outskirts of the city in dangerous and violent neighborhoods, giving them training in good values and life projects that would give them a chance a at successful life.
Then I went on to work in a government program called "United Strategy", whose focus was to work to help improve the quality of life of families in Quibdó and in the Chocó townships, where we had to spent 12 or 14 hours on boat to reach the families. The program's goal was to help them meet 45 objectives, ranging from education, access to health, food and things like that. We also gave them groceries and made sure that the children could go to school.
After that, I finished my undergraduate degree and came to Medellín. With some savings I had from my work, I earned my master's degree in international relations, and I started working at the Center for Science and Technology, where I was an advisor to the Ondas program, which advised research on educational projects. Then I worked at Metrosalud, in a project on schools to train young people on healthy lifestyles, planning, life projects; everything you need to know to have a healthy and successful life.
When I finished my master's degree, I returned to Quibdó. The conditions in which I lived as a child stayed with me. If I hadn't had in mind what I wanted to be, I couldn't have done it. I was the first professional in my family because I wanted to, because the context of my childhood was not enough for that. It was adverse. But education is the way out.
Where there is hunger, there is violence
In Chocó, I became the leader of alliances for the management of financing sources for educational projects in the Ministry of Education and then I went to the Governors Office to do the same. I have always changed jobs because I want to dedicate my life to social issues. I want to articulate ideas, actors, and local initiatives because in Chocó we stuck in the rhetoric of "we have to, we have to, we have to...", but we do not act.
Now I am at the United Nations as a territorial advisor for the SAM Strategy, where I work to offer food and nutritional security for Chocó. This is a huge issue with the pandemic. It was recently understood that where there is conflict, there is hunger, and vice versa. So, if we want to fight the conflict, we have to fight hunger, but by helping people do it by their own means.
As a woman, I have faced many types of violence. During my studies all over Colombia, I lived in a municipality called Valdivia, where clashes between armed groups were daily occurrences. When we heard the bullets, we threw ourselves on the ground and waited. Nobody came to help us. In my innocence, I did not understand the magnitude of these situations. I normalized them. I thought that violence was normal, which is not the case.
Later, in the municipality of Ciudad Bolívar, township of Alfonso López San Gregorio district in Antioquia, I also lived with the paramilitaries. We literally lived with them and saw how people disappeared, we had a curfew and they shot someone every day: neighbor, friend, relative. When you live like this, a piece of you dies, goes out. The tool to combat this is, again, education.
Chocó, no man's land
In my life, because of my community work, I have been threatened several times. I think my job is not even halfway done. I think that many people in Chocó live with the same needs that I lived with as a child: I had to carry buckets of water or bathe in the rain. I didn't have a bathroom or a toilet in my house and that's how more than 70% of the population lives here.
Sometimes we feel that, in Chocó, due to the abysmal differences compared to other parts of the country, we are not even part of Colombia. Here, the Peace Agreement did not mean much. So far in 2020, there have been more than 100 deaths in Quibdó, and in the lower Baudó, they are displacing and threatening people. And if people can't go out to farm, they can't eat. It is tremendous. The issue of COVID-19 is not experienced as a public health crisis, but as a humanitarian crisis, because people are at home, locked up, with nothing to eat.
Here, more than 70% of the jobs are informal. Quarantining means not being able to survive. And the government has not provided anything. The truth is, it is as if we were in a different Colombia. It is the same problem with the Peace Agreement: it works in the urban center, in the government, but not in the territories.
Now everything is worse. There is the issue of reintegrating ex-combatants. They are being brought back to "normal life", but they are given no guarantees as they attempt to return to civil life. They are getting killed. The Pacific is where more slayings of social leaders have occurred because of the drug trafficking routes. It is time to review the guarantees because they have remained on paper.
For now, I continue to educate myself and work – hidden from sight, yes – so that no one has to live like I did.
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