Colombia: The nightmare of fleeing from war only to fall into hell

From villages under the control of FARC guerrillas and wracked by violence, hundreds of women fled for the city of Medellín and other population centers in search of means of subsistence and escape: domestic work in the homes of wealthy families and even of the guerrillas themselves. Reinalda and Marcela are two faces of a group of women that arrived with high hopes yet ended up caught in a cycle of abuse and exploitation hidden behind closed doors.

Mariana Escobar Roldán 19 de Mayo del 2019

Reinalda Chaverra was thirteen when her mother sent her as a “maid” to a city 200 kilometers from her home.


The date is indelibly recorded in her memory: January 17, 1986. That Friday, in Tutunendo, a town of Afro descended Colombians in the north west of the country, it was pouring with rain and the path from Reinalda’s home was more like a swamp—not unusual in the world’s third wettest region. The bus had departed at seven in the morning from Quibdó, the closest municipal capital, and was due to pass Tutunendo at eight. By that time, Reinalda was already standing beside the highway wearing a dress to her knees and carrying a small backpack.

She was not alone. A tall man with big arms was holding her hand. It was just the second time Reinaldo had met her stepfather’s brother Libardo. The first was some days earlier, when he had visited Reinalda’s mother to suggest that the girl be sent to Medellin where she could cook, clean, and care for three children in the home of a wealthy family.

“He told my mother, Fermina, that they would give me clothes, put me in school, and teach me to read and write. I cried, begging her not to let them take me.”

From the age of six Reinalda had looked after her three younger siblings: ‘Neneco’, Ventura, and Jorge Luis. But medical facilities in Tutunendo were inadequate, and one day, when Jorge Luis contracted a fever, there was nothing they could do to save him. It was the weekend when Reinalda worked hardest; from Friday to Sunday her mother would leave their home on the farm and travel into the town. She never revealed exactly where.

Reinalda and her brothers were left in the care of their grandfather, who, although could neither read nor write, could keep track of what day it was, and use the position of the sun to calculate the time.

THE FLIGHT. Reinalda is the face of those who work in homes due to forced displacement and poverty. Photo: Paula Thomas / Mutant

There was no calendar or clock. Nor did they have electricity or running water; it would be another three decades before these services reached Tutunendo. To provide light in the evening they would fashion oil lamps made from milk bottles. They would bury their human and food waste in the backyard. To bathe, they would walk half an hour to a river. And it was only the females who attended to the housework—chores they began doing from the age of five.

“Unless we knew how to patch a shirt we were useless. All the education we needed was inside the home. That is why only the boys in my family went to school.”

Reinalda regarded all this as completely normal. In fact, despite the pain she feels even now about her mother’s decision, at the time it seemed almost natural that she be uprooted and turned into a domestic worker, lacking a salary, facing violence, without access to the health and pension systems, and excluded from all the rights a girl of thirteen should enjoy.



We need look no further than the history of the domestic service industry in Colombia during the second half of the twentieth century to understand why, even to this day, it is normal for hundreds of thousands of workers like Reinalda to experience violence.

 It was only in 1950 that the country finally abolished a law that allowed the “leasing” of domestic servants. As late as the 1970s the Substantive Labor Code still contained an article which stated: “Night work is prohibited for children under sixteen (16) years of age, with the exception of domestic service.”

 Magdalena León, a feminist sociologist and the first to study domestic work in Colombia, says whilst in theory it has been compulsory since 1985 for employers to pay social security benefits (health and pension), the affiliation procedures have always been confusing and no penalties apply for non-compliance. In practice, most employers have ignored the law with impunity.

Unless we knew how to patch a shirt we were useless. All the education we needed was inside the home.

Reinalda received no salary when she began in 1986, and looking back now on that first experience—with a family whose name she prefers not to reveal—she describes it in just one word: slavery.

 “I worked from Sunday to Sunday. I didn't have a single day off and couldn't even go out the door. In the two years I lived there, I never went to the city center. My pay was second hand clothes.”

The promise that she would go to school and be taught to read and write went fulfilled. Her days started at four in the morning, before anyone else in the house had woken. She would first iron the uniforms for the children (then aged five and seven). Afterwards she would prepare breakfast. At 5 o'clock the couple would leave for work; the husband to his job in a soft drink factory and the wife, herself a domestic employee, to the home of an associate of the famous drug lord Pablo Escobar.

 “One day the woman caught me looking out the window to the street and told me to fetch the boy who was outside playing football with his friends. He didn't want to come in and when I took him by the hand he threw me a rock that cut open my forehead. Soaked in blood, I went to complain but instead that woman just reprimanded me for looking out the window.”

 Returning, Reinalda gave the boy a slap. His mother then shook her by the shoulders and, threatening to return the slap, shouted: “This will teach you to respect children!”


The mistreatment that began with that blow would later culminate in a chain and padlock placed on the fridge door to stop Reinalda snacking during the day.



Young girls become domestic workers at a frightening rate in Colombia.

Marcela Gutiérrez, aged just nine years, would also become a domestic employee. She worked in Medellin at the home of acquaintances of her family who had recently moved from Bagadó, a municipality of Afro-descendants some 40 kilometers from Tutunendo.

 Marcela’s parents sent her to Medellin because they knew they were unable to support all of their seven children. Colombia’s armed conflict had scared and impoverished many families across the municipality.

 Activities by illegal armed groups had escalated and paralyzed Bagadó at the end of the 1990s. Marcela can still recall the big story of 1997: on the last Wednesday of January, at the end of the verbena festival in honor of the Virgin of La Candelaria, two hundred National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas launched an early morning attack on the police station.

 Later, in October 2000, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) occupied the town center and over several days prevented its 5000 inhabitants from leaving their homes. As soon as they were able, rather than risk being again trapped in a village where they could no longer even fish or sow crops, the Gutierrez family moved to Quibdó.

DISCRIMINATION. By the time she was 13, Marcela Gutierrez had begun to understand the inequities in the sector where she worked: her meals were prepared separately and the size and type of food was sometimes different—worse—than that of the others. Photo: Paula Thomas / Mutant 

Marcela’s parents saw two advantages in sending her away: reduce their living costs and provide their daughter with a better way of life. But once in the city things did not improve for Marcela. Although she did attend school, first Marcela had to get up at four to wash, iron, and cook for the older children of the family. Her working day lasted until eleven at night.

Marcela was thirteen when she started her second job as a domestic employee, this time back in Quibdó, the capital of Chocó Department, where she worked for the daughter of a former governor.

 The salary was 200,000 Colombian pesos—about three quarters of the prevailing minimum wage—from which the cost of treats or any food additional to the three daily meals was then deducted. Marcela’s meals were prepared separately and the amount and type of food was sometimes different—worse—than that of the others.

If I had any complaints about my working conditions, the employer would always say: ‘Then you can go.’

 Although she could go to school, first Marcela had to get up at four to wash, iron, and cook for the older children of the family.

Published this year by the National Trade Union School and the University of Cartagena, the report into domestic employment Una trabaja porque tiene sueños brings together many stories likes that of Marcela: Angie, from the Urabá region in Colombia’s northwest, who, aged just seven, washed dishes for neighbors to provide food for her siblings; Otilia, who, aged just ten, worked from five in the morning until eleven at night at the home of a family in Cartagena, and; Teresa, also ten and also from Urabá, who went to Medellín and woke early every day to feed chickens and make arepas (a typical Colombian dish made of ground maize dough).

Reinalda, who today defends the rights of women like herself through the Afro-Colombian Domestic Workers Union (Spanish acronym: UTRASD), is still chasing her dream: “That there will not be a single girl in Colombia treated as a slave.”

 The report’s authors—Viviana Osorio, a lawyer, and Carmenza Jiménez, a social worker—surveyed domestic workers in Cartagena (145 individuals) and Urabá (93). They discovered that 18% of the respondents in Cartagena had started in domestic service before turning seventeen and 57% in Urabá had begun between the ages of twelve and eighteen.

Although official figures on child domestic labor in Colombia are disorganized or out-of-date, they show that the problem continues to exist and to profoundly affect the lives of thousands of invisible teenagers and girls.

The Ministry of Labor reported that in 2013 more than 20,000 minors were employed in domestic service; fourteen thousand commuted each day and six thousand lived at their workplace.

Although the latest Child Labor Survey by the National Administrative Department of Statistics of Colombia (Spanish acronym: DANE) does not indicate how many girls and boys currently work in domestic service, it does show that, as of December 2018, some 475 thousand people aged five to twelve undertook household chores in excess of fifteen hours per week. The International Labor Organization (ILO) classifies such labor as “additional work.”

Women told the researchers that child domestic labor survives in areas such as Urabá because “employers” travel from village to village and town to town offering pay of between 200,000 and 300,000 Colombian pesos—around one-third of the current national minimum wage.

 “Some families believe that they can increase their income by sending their children, and that having their children in domestic service can reduce costs,” explains one of the researchers.

And although poverty is an issue, when families migrate from the country to the city to escape conflict their financial security diminishes further whilst the vulnerability of their daughters to child labor increases; the latter cuts short the girl’s schooling, which in turn leads to devastating consequences over the rest of their lives.

Migration, violence, and domestic work are woven together and form a vicious cycle for Colombian women, which, in many cases, begins in childhood and continues when they are adults. In Renata’s case, these three conditions, each bound to the next, became part of the unhappy tapestry of her life.



Reinalda’s worst torment would not being until much later, when she was working in the Doce de Octubre neighborhood, to the northwest of Medellín. It was there that the war finally reached her.

She never had Sunday off in that house where, while still a child, she had become a domestic worker. Only rarely was Reinalda allowed to leave the confines of the home. On one such occasion, on a shopping trip to the market, she met a young man who took a shine to her.

 Alex was a “nice guy” and, like her, around fifteen years of age. He started to organize secret dates, complimented  Reinalda, and left letters for her under a stone. From time to time, and despite it being forbidden to have a boyfriend, Reinalda responded. It was the first time someone had courted her.

 “El Doce” was an outer suburb, inhabited mainly by families from other departments who had fled Colombia’s internal armed conflict or who simply sought a better life in the city.

Migration, violence, and domestic work are woven together and form a vicious cycle for Colombian women, which, in many cases, begins in childhood and continues when they are adults.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel set about arming young people in the poorest parts in the city—such as el Doce—and bringing them under its wing. More than 150 criminal gangs spread across the city and turned Medellín into one of the world’s most dangerous places.

 Reinalda had no way of suspecting the activities Alex was involved in, or why he was always sitting on the same corner. But one day, he tried to kiss her forcibly.


“I picked up the first thing I saw, which was a piece of brick, and smashed his forehead. When he least expected it, Alex was covered in blood and seemed to begin to pull a gun from his pants. Terrified, I ran away.”

With a group of young men firing shots at the door, the windows and the front of the house, Reinalda took refuge in the bathroom. After that it was impossible for Reinalda to stay; for injuring one of its own, the Los Cocoricos gang would surely have killed her. So, with her future uncertain, she left Doce de Octubre under police escort, carrying nothing more than the clothes she had been given during her two years of service.

 Safely away from Medellin, Reinalda divided her time between Tutunendo and Quibdó, working in the homes of teachers and police officers always for a salary one-quarter of legal minimum. She had no fixed hours, no holidays, no membership of the health and pension systems, and no payment for occupational risk insurance.

By age twenty-two she was pregnant. The child’s father disowned his son and then revealed that he already had a family of his own. Lacking financial support or maternity leave, Reinalda went back to work in Quibdó, leaving her child in the care of his grandmother from Monday to Saturday.

By 1995 the 34th front of the FARC—the guerrilla force with which the Colombian government has more recently (2016) signed a peace agreement—was dominant throughout the region. With the rivers and dense jungles making it difficult for the state to deliver services, drug trafficking and illegal gold and timber exploitation began to thrive. In parallel, paramilitary groups that formed factions of the (since demobilized) Córdoba and Urabá Campesina Self Defense force began to move in.

These two outlawed organizations fought for control of the area and also came into fierce conflict with the Army. Amidst kidnappings, forced recruitment and sexual violence, Reinalda was one of the 6859 people who, according to the Single Victims Registry, fled Chocó during that year.

LIVELIHOOD. In Colombia, 61% of domestic workers like Reinalda earn less than the minimum wage, 77% receive food as payment in kind, and 99% work unpaid overtime. Photo: Paula Thomas / Mutant

On Sundays Reinalda would stay with a family in Quibdó. One night, whilst the home owner and her daughters were watching television, Reinalda answered a knock at the door. In the unlit streets nobody noticed the two hooded men who pointed a gun at her head and bundled her into a car.

In the swampy location where Reinalda found herself captive, stood a ranch house made of guadua bamboo. So dense was the jungle, that if Reinalda moved even a few meters the building completely disappeared from view. The temperature was stifling. Guarding the site were some fifteen armed men—dressed not in camouflage fatigues but in dark clothing—among them mestizos, indigenous people, and Afro-Colombians.

Although nobody explained why Reinalda had been taken, she assumed it was because one of her paternal relatives had recently been involved in a quarrel that had led to the death of the cousin of an important paramilitary leader. She went to work from the very first day. The men assigned her housework, such as washing clothes, salting the meat, serving meals, and washing plates. They even taught her to shoot. Reinalda lived constantly with the fear that she could die at any moment. If the burden was crushing during the daylight hours, it was the nighttime when the worst awaited.

Without fail, "Pipo"—as the leader of the group was known—would enter Reinalda sleeping quarters and, in his words, “do and undo” her. A mulatto with straight hair and Afro descendant features, he raped Reinalda countless times; although she cried, screamed, and resisted, his strength was always too much.

More than a year passed. Then one night the sound overhead of the only Army helicopter to ever approach the hideout forced the members of the group to disperse. Reinalda seized her opportunity. She fled until she reached a road, where she flagged down a passing truck. The driver signaled her to jump in the back, where she found herself sitting amongst his cargo of chickens.

A mulatto with straight hair and Afro descendant features, he raped Reinalda countless times; although she cried, screamed, and resisted, his strength was always too much.

Reinalda arrived back in Quibdó, her clothes in tatters, still fearful that her captors would come looking for her. Knowing she was no longer safe in Chocó, she decided to return to Medellín immediately. 

That was 1996. To this day Reinalda has never once returned to her native department.



Although statistics cannot measure the personal stories of each of the nearly 753,000 domestic workers registered in the country, it is probable that many of them have fallen into the same cycle of migration, violence and exploitation that Reinalda experienced.

Camila Esguerra Muelle is a Colombian anthropologist whose postdoctoral work examines care chains: systems which see women leave their own home as a survival strategy and migrate elsewhere only to then perform household chores in the homes of others.

In her forthcoming Migración y Cadenas Globales de Cuidado Esguerra has found a clear relationship between forced displacement and the increase of domestic employment in Colombia.


Her yet-to-be-published findings reveal that whereas a decade ago the percentage of women who relocated and then subsequently obtained work in domestic service was 7.4, today the figure is 12.5%. Similarly, in this same period the percentage who worked in their own home following displacement decreased from 19.1 to 14.7%.

Colombia’s Single Victims Registry, which holds all reported events since 1985, does not show how many displaced people have gone on to become female or male domestic workers. Through its press office, the Unit for Comprehensive Attention and Reparation of Victims (Unidad para la Atención y Reparación Integral a las Víctimas) explained it does not disaggregate “this type of information [by occupation] because victims generally do not work, which is why they ask for help from the State .”[sic]

The evidence shows the contrary; the victims do work, and, according to Esguerra, when they arrive in the cities, the first opportunity they find is in the informal domestic sector.

In Medellín, for example, a 2014 survey by the National Trade Union School showed that only 9.5% of Afro-Colombian domestic workers were in fact born in the city. The vast majority had come from locations—such as Chocó and Urabá—where armed conflict and inequality have deeply effected women. The survey found that 23.8% were forcibly displaced and 57.1% left their home due to the absence of job opportunities.

Such women often lack the training needed to enter the formal market. According to the Gran Encuesta General de Hogares household survey, 4.9% of these women have no education whatsoever and just 38.6% finished primary school. A mere 22.5% completed high school. For many, the best option becomes dedicating themselves to the chores they learned at home.



Just as the armed conflict has a particular impact on Colombia’s rural women and leads them to migrate, so too it influences the violence they subsequently suffer in the city, in their work, and in their neighborhood environments. Esguerra refers to this phenomenon as “the continuum of violence against displaced women who believe they will find a way out of their pain and their shortcoming through domestic work.”

Reinalda has her own way of describing it: “Those who are born smashed up, continue smashed up their whole life.” In her case, just when she thought she was finally free of the violence of kidnapping and verbal and sexual aggression, she found more humiliation.

On her return to Medellin, Reinalda needed to begin from scratch once again; because of the restrictions set by her previous employer she had been unable to develop any networks of friendships or support during her previous life in the city. Now, again on the lookout for work, she would often visit Parque Berrio, a place where laborers and domestic workers would gather in the afternoon. Asking everyone she met for information, Reinalda eventually heard about a new opportunity at another family home.

Reinalda’s new “boss” was a teacher at a well-known private school. Her husband, the stepfather to the two children, visited just once a fortnight: he was a foreman at Pablo Escobar’s mythical Nápoles hacienda. On once such visit, with the children and their mother away on vacation, Reinalda found herself alone in the house with him. After preparing a meal and returning to her bedroom, she was appalled to discover the husband coming through the door—whose lock she had repeatedly asked to have fixed—dressed only in his underwear and intent on raping her.  

“It all came flooding back to me, and I remembered ‘Pipo’, so with all the strength I could muster I locked myself in the bathroom inside the room, where I kept the mops and brooms.”

Managing to escape, she took refuge in a neighbor's house, where she hid for several days. On her return with the children the teacher did not believe Reinalda’s account and instead asked her to resign.

Since neither the Prosecutor's Office nor the National Institute of Legal Medicine records the occupation of gender violence victims, no records exist within the judicial branch about this crime against domestic workers.

Civil society researcher Viviana Osorio conducted 293 interviews in Urabá and Cartagena and found evidence of sexual violence in each one. “Sometimes it is more obvious and sometimes more camouflaged, but it is always present.”

Valentina Montoya, a PhD candidate at Harvard University, researches the types of violence that domestic workers in Medellín and Bogotá face on the public transport systems. She points out that with the massive urbanization process in Latin America during the 1980s the majority of domestic workers became “external” rather than “internal” employees. The change meant they began to use public transport to move between their own homes and those of their employers. The disruption was gradual and happened without any adjustment to the transportation model; why would it occur to anyone that this largely invisible sector would have such an impact on transit?

Civil society researcher Viviana Osorio conducted 293 interviews in Urabá and Cartagena and found evidence of sexual violence in each one. “Sometimes it is more obvious and sometimes more camouflaged, but it is always present.”

But the impact has been massive. According to the 2015 Bogota Transport Survey, because of their occupation it is domestic workers who spend the most time on public transport in the Colombian capital: 25% of their working day, that is, up to six hours. Transport costs alone consume 22% of their income.

Montoya found that during these long journeys domestic workers are constantly victims of racial and sexual discrimination. “The Afro-Colombians who use public transport receive racist taunts and rarely get a seat, even when they are pregnant,” she says. Several women even testified during Montoya’s interviews that men had masturbated in front of them on public buses.



Violence is not always explicit. Through low wages and unmet legal obligations, Colombia’s domestic workers also experience economic and patrimonial forms of violence that impoverish them further.

Sixty-one percent of domestic workers earn less than the minimum wage, 77% receive food as payment in kind, and 99% work unpaid overtime.

In 2016, the union movement achieved a victory through Law 1788, a measure which passed Congress unopposed and recognizes and guarantees the right to a service bonus. But uptake has been slow. A recent Ministry of Labor report prepared for the law’s monitoring committee showed an increase of just 3.5% in the number of domestic workers who access the entitlement.

When we asked the ministry for the number of bonus payments made by employers to domestic workers since passage of the law, a representative replied there is no registry of either domestic workers or their employers.

When we asked how the ministry intended to monitor a law that promised to reduce the high levels of informality and how it would ensure real change in the lives of domestic workers, the spokesperson replied that the strategy was threefold: make calls to employers, organize press conferences, and prepare awareness campaigns.

“Inspectors cannot enter a home without authorization from a judge of the Republic or the employer, and, since the country lacks an employer registry, in theory there is no one to visit.”

Formalization for these predominantly female workers still has a long way to go. In December 2018, the Planilla Integrada de Liquidación de Aportes—a system which records employer contributions—registered just 102,123 domestic workers receiving health payments, 94,079 receiving pension payments, and 99,978 receiving occupational safety payments.

The results show that just 12% of Colombia’s domestic workers are registered in the retirement pension system and just 13% in the health and occupational safety system, figures which have remained unchanged since 2014.

According to Salua García, co-founder of Symplifica, a company that offers formalization services to employers, many informal workers believe that social security affiliation will bring more costs than benefits, including the loss of state subsidies. For their part, employers consider that the affiliation procedure is too complex. “That's why they think it's not good business to be formal,” says Garcia.


Regardless of the factors from both sides that perpetuate informality, the fact remains that at least 600,000 women lack protections. And this figure takes no account of the countless Venezuelan female migrants, who, fleeing violence in their home country, are currently trying to survive in the domestic employment sector in Colombia in the face of the same cycle of abuse.

All of which goes to show that Colombia has a long way to go to comply with the provisions of International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention No. 189, which the government ratified in 2012 and which commits the country to decent working conditions in the sector.

The convention calls for a home inspection regime, which, in Colombia, is a responsibility of the Ministry of Labor. However, as Vice Ministry of Labor Relations and Inspection spokesman Álvaro González acknowledges, inspections in the country are “highly limited.”

According to González, inspectors cannot enter a home without authorization from a judge of the Republic or the employer, and, since the country lacks an employer registry, in theory there is no one to visit. Unlike other sectors of the economy, inspections are not routine in domestic service.

As a result, it is up to each domestic worker, individually, to report breaches by their employer, with all the costs that this process entails.


In Colombia, people power has boasted of its success in delivering laws which, on paper, protect the rights of people working in the domestic employment sector. But when it comes to implementing these laws, it seems nobody wants to take responsibility.

There are those who argue that the challenge is cultural rather than legislative. “In Colombia, what the laws says is one thing but what the social norms say is quite another,” claims María Fernanda Cepeda, a researcher into domestic employment in Spain and Colombia. The anthropologist explains that domestic work has historically been invisible because it forms part of care responsibilities which, by social default, have always fallen to women.

Who cares for caregivers? Cepeda wonders out loud, before immediately answering her own question: as a society we prefer not to ask since to do so would open a window on to own our own classism, racism, and machismo. “The core of the problem is that we are dealing with care giving, and this, in our society carries the scourge of discrimination.”

It seems easier to continue to leave our society’s best-kept secret under the carpet. It falls to the domestic workers to ensure that the country is clean and in order, and that everyone else—always those with greater privileges—can play their roles within an economic system that works toward a “better future.”