Women's Empowerment in Contexts of Displacement: Formal and Informal Leaders in El Pozon, Colombia

Kellogg/Kroc Undergraduate Research Grants

Final Report:

This summer, I conducted virtual research in a neighborhood called El Pozon in Cartagena, Colombia. My research focused on female leaders of internally displaced communities within the neighborhood, which at present is not recognized by the city and is composed of 32 sectors. I used the term “bright spots” to define women who prevail by becoming leaders despite their vulnerabilities. The interviewees were divided into three groups of women that will be compared later in the capstone course: informal leaders, formal leaders, and non-participating community members.

 I will focus on two groups of women that are empowered within their community: formal and informal leaders. In my research, I defined informal leaders as women who regularly contribute and informally run programs or manage resources for the benefit of their communities, such as dining halls for children and disabled community members. Moreover, I defined formal leaders as presidents, vice-presidents, or officials of Juntas de Acción Comunal or Community Action Boards (JAC). JACs in Colombia are “units of social organization at the community and village levels” (UNHCR, 2001; Larratt-Smith, 2020, pp. 79). Both are cases of “bright spots,” but I wanted to understand how those women got to these positions of leadership, and what factors contributed to this trajectory in order to understand what can be emulated and taught to empower other women in similar situations. Furthermore, I studied women who have not participated in community programs or activities to compare amongst the groups.  

With the help of a local contact and her network of community leaders, I was able to interview 20 women out of the 30 I had originally intended. The local contact traveled on numerous occasions to nearby sectors in the community to speak to these leaders, and she contacted them via WhatsApp and phone calls. The local contact continually recruited women throughout the research.

After a preliminary introduction to the research, the local leader put me in contact with potential interviewees. I then provided additional information and details about the project, we scheduled times, and began the interviews. The interviews were focused on understanding backgrounds and trajectories of the women, type of community participation, feelings towards community participation, and feelings of empowerment.

One of the most challenging aspects of the research was getting some women to respond. Nonetheless, once they responded, another challenge was having the interviews and getting the women to connect to the calls, particularly non-participating members. Many of the women, for reasons either out of their control or personal, were unable to make it to many scheduled times or to join a stable internet connection. These challenges slightly delayed the interview process, as a result I requested an extension for the research to have more time to continue interviewing. After receiving the extension, the recruiter and I continued reaching out to women to increase the number of participants.

I learned that setting up the interviews, especially with women with limited access to the internet was a more difficult and time intensive process than I expected. These challenges taught me about the realities and difficulties of conducting research in the field. I learned that when conducting research on human subjects, the plans can and will likely deviate, but it is important to be persistent and continue looking and reaching out to people.

The interviews were very robust in terms of the questions asked regarding women’s participation in the community. The interviews were divided into sections that dove into detail about the topics of interest. I am currently in the process of transcribing the interviews to text and will soon begin analyzing the data to gather insights regarding the research question.

With this research, I hope to find the factors that empower women to participate and lead in their communities despite living in adverse circumstances. By doing so, I hope that these findings will inform future policies or programs in the community to teach other women how they can become leaders as well. I would like to send a summary of my findings to Techo, which is an organization that works with women in this community, as well as to the community itself. I would also like to submit my abstract to the Human Development Conference as I believe my topic of research is in congruence with the topic of the conference which is “Growth Amidst Widening Inequality”. I am also committed to this neighborhood, and therefore would also like to remain in contact with the women of the neighborhood and continue searching for ways to help and support them.