This post was cross-posted on Medium.
Paloma* is a survivor. Since early childhood, she witnessed and experienced violence and abuse at home and at work. She has had to flee from country to country in search of safety. Throughout it all, she has managed to eke out a living, but continued to experience violence.
Last year, Paloma was selected to participate in a pilot project for migrant women in Ecuador, run by the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC), along with the international development and humanitarian agency CARE and the local organizations Fundación Quimera (FQ) and The Latin American Platform of Sex Workers (PLAPERTS).
Paloma received a small cash grant and worked one-on-one with a gender-based violence (GBV) case worker to develop strategies for recovering from GBV and mitigating future risks. With the cash, she has started a jewelry-making business, and has been able to access psychological and mental health services. Her exposure to sexual exploitation and abuse is reduced because of her strengthened livelihood.
A life marked by violence
Like many women around the world, Paloma has experienced GBV throughout her life. Growing up in Venezuela, she witnessed and experienced violence and abuse time and again. When she was seven, she and her mother fled her abusive father. Sadly, her new stepfather hurt her and her mother on a regular basis. Again, they left.
As a teenager, Paloma learned the importance of economic independence. She and her mother not only put bread on the table, they managed to set some money aside; they saved enough that Paloma was able to go to university to study law. She began to thrive.
But when an economic crisis hit Venezuela, Paloma had to abandon her studies and went back to work. At 22, she met Alejandro,* with whom she thought she could make the home she never had. Early in the relationship she became pregnant and they decided to move in together. They were good partners at first, both contributing to the household. However, after their baby boy Juan* was born, a chasm opened and Paloma once more faced the type of violence she knew all too well.
With the economic crisis growing in Venezuela and feeling in danger, she left her baby son with her mother and fled to Peru, where she survived for a time as a street vendor selling candles. But life on the streets wasn’t safe, and Paloma joined hundreds of thousands of migrants on the move through South America, ending up in Ecuador.
Once again, she had to find a way to support herself, while also trying to protect herself from sexual violence and exploitation. Despite encountering the many challenges refugees face in host countries, including xenophobia, insecurity, harassment, and lack of documentation, Paloma did well and was able to send remittances home. After a while, her eight-year-old son, as well as her mother and sister, were able to join her. However, Paloma could only find informal work, where she was subject to exploitation and abuse.
But Paloma’s life took a turn for the better when she was selected to participate in WRC and CARE’s innovative project to provide cash along with GBV programming.
A project looks at whether cash can help migrants recover from GBV
In September 2019, Paloma was one of 100 women selected to participate in a pilot project for migrant women in El Oro, Ecuador, run by WRC and three partner organizations.
The goal of the project was to see whether providing cash and voucher assistance (CVA) as part of a program to respond to GBV would help reduce the impact of incidents of GBV. CVA, given as an alternative to in-kind assistance such as food and blankets, enables people to make their own choices about what goods they buy and what services they access. CVA can play an important role in responding to GBV, for example, by helping GBV survivors afford essential health or legal services.
Over the course of three months, 100 Venezuelan migrants participated in the project. WRC and CARE provided technical support, and the project was implemented by CARE Ecuador and local partners FQ and PLAPERTS.
Through a one-on-one, confidential process, Paloma collaborated with a case worker to identify how a cash transfer could support her recovery from cycles of violence and multiple GBV incidents. She received a transfer of US$100 via a cardless ATM, which she used to start her own business making and selling jewelry. She now has more assets, greater control over her income and how to spend it, and has been able to access psychological and mental health services. She is less exposed to sexual exploitation and abuse because of her strengthened livelihood.
“I always liked to manage my own money… I used to feel invisible, but I do not anymore,” says Paloma.
Three months isn’t enough to assess the long-term impact of a program like this. And US$100 isn’t enough to cover all the required business start-up costs or to access sufficient mental health services for displaced women like Paloma. Yet from what we have learned from the pilot, the impact of this intervention is positive.
WRC and CARE are committed to integrating cash and GBV programming in humanitarian settings and are advocating with donors and other service providers to better support refugees, like Paloma. Based on pilot learning, CARE Ecuador and local partners are currently distributing cash transfers to displaced women affected by social isolation and quarantine measures implemented in Ecuador against the COVID-19 pandemic to meet their basic needs.
Moving forward, if we can secure additional funding, WRC and CARE will be able to scale successful approaches so that women like Paloma can become self-reliant, without facing the constant threat of GBV, support their families, and contribute to the societies that host them.
*Names have been changed.
The Ecuador pilot was funded by Sweden’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs under the Call to Action on Protection from GBV in Emergencies.
For more information on the pilot, see the learning brief (available in English, Spanish, French, and Arabic) and practical field guidance and tools on integrating CVA and GBV in our research and resources library.