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Latin America

The needle revolution: why ex-combatants in Colombia are trading their guns for sewing machines

Now that the country has reached a historic peace accord, Colombia's fashion industry is full of opportunities for former female guerrillas and paramilitaries trying to reinvent themselves.
26 Ago 2016 – 01:17 PM EDT
In Colombia, former rebel fighters are becoming seamstresses. Crédito: Courtesy of Paloma y Angostura

In Bosa, a working-class neighborhood in Bogota, Colombia, Ederlidia Garziao runs a workshop with 20 sewing machines for various designers and clothing manufacturers. She's come a long way from her past as a paramilitary fighter, when she once received orders to make hundreds of camouflage uniforms in a single week. Now, she sews sophisticated designs for the Soy (I Am) brand by Maria Luisa Ortiz and Diego Guarnizo, or basic cotton shirts for Paul Restrepo's online brand Paloma and Angostura.

Garziao spent many rough nights as a seamstress for the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC) paramilitary group. Now she sews quietly, far from fear and the jungle's unforgiving humidity. In her workshop, she welcomes former combatants who no longer identify one another by rank or armed group. Now, they're just women. Most are single mothers.

"In 2006 during the demobilization process I tried to leave the war, but then another armed group wanted to recruit me to help them, because uniforms are vital to the war," Garziao says. "I refused. That's when they attacked me and I had to flee to Bogotá. A man took me to the Colombian Agency for Reintegration (ACR), which welcomed me and helped me start a new life." Now, Garziao boasts one of the first workshops in Colombia employing former female combatants.

Joining the world of fashion has become a common fate for many female ex-guerrillas and former paramilitaries seeking to return to civilian life. Government-provided seed capital - between $1,000 and $3,000 - has provided many women the funds to buy a sewing machine and start working as seamstresses.

"You don't have to put a gun on your shoulder or be a politician in order to change this country," says Erika, a former FARC guerrilla who asked to use a pseudonym. "With my machines, I'm changing the lives of my family and my children. It's something that I would have liked to have known [how to do] when I was younger. Now I also sew underwear and bathing suits, and I work with my sisters."

During Erika's time in combat, a grenade shattered her leg. Now she works with an ACR program that allows female ex-combatants to share their stories with youth to keep them from following the same path.

"Almost all women in Colombia are taught to sew at home, with one technique or another passed down from our grandmothers," explains designer María Luis Ortiz. "The women who leave the war aren't different from other women, and that's why I'm not surprised when I see so many of these demobilized women searching for an economic future in fashion." Ortiz created the "Soy" project to use her knowledge of Paris fashion to work with "survivor" seamstresses from various workshops.

"It takes just a simple conversation with these women to understand that before they wielded a gun someone had taught them to sew," says Ana María Londoño, the director of Fucsia, Colombia’s most important fashion magazine. She created a project through Maestros Costureros: “It's the needle revolution, as we’ve called it,” she says. “In Colombia, amid so much fashion production, there is demand for skilled sewing labor and we’re always short on designers. So this is a project in which ... the most renowned and famous designers can train and integrate many ex-fighters so they can work and create an economic future.”

Garizao, for example, learned to sew from her mother. Every night, she would hold a candle for her mother, who sat at a pedal machine making clothes to earn a few pesos for her family.

"I first reconciled with myself, and I had to go through a process of learning to value life and work again,” Garziao says. “All of us who have survived this war have the right to ask for forgiveness, to be reborn, to be valued for what we are now and not what we were before. For me the workshop has been my big chance to be reborn.”

Aracely Álvarez, another ex-FARC fighter who now works with designers through Maestros Costureros, remembers growing up and praying to God each year for a sewing machine. “I wanted to be like my mom who always made dresses for the most beautiful women in town.” Eventually, her prayers worked, and she learned how to cut and sew. But the war in Apartadó in northern Colombia and the travails of separating from her husband, with whom she had eight children, left her just a single option: Join an armed group to fight.

“Once I joined the guerrillas they asked me to leave my children with Family Welfare and I couldn’t do that, so that made the situation more complicated,” she says. “I wanted to get out of the war, but I could not, I couldn't find opportunities. That’s why it's so amazing and I am so happy that peace has been signed because I know so many women who are going to be entitled to new opportunities.”

Pablo Restrepo, a young political scientist who worked in the Colombian Agency for Reintegration before shifting to create entrepreneurial fashion projects, says that the country now faces many challenges.

“We must undertake great social openness that allows demobilized fighters to find work,” he says. “That’s where fashion will show its true power. It doesn’t just demand a lot of skilled labor, but it will also accommodate a large number of women perhaps who few may suspect were in the guerrilla [groups].”

Today, his brand “Paloma y Angostura,” which makes thin cotton “basics” shirts, employs many women and even men who left the war. Ironically, they’re sewing a new design that seeks to urge Colombians to vote yes to peace.

Ana Maria Londoño, of Fuscia, hopes more industries will unite in the crusade to employ survivors of the war.

"It's time that women and men in this country remember what they can do with their hands beyond guns,” she says. “Sewing, cutting, tailoring, crochet -- learning craft techniques will be a very noble way for Colombia to stitch itself back together.”

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