How Colombia’s Wayuu female relief workers battle a 7-year drought

La Guajira is a desert stretching into the Caribbean Sea, covering north-eastern Colombia and north-western Venezuela. A remote, destitute region, La Guajira has suffered a seven-year drought worsened by El Niño’s disruption of usual rain patterns in recent years. Spread over 20 000 km² (about the size of Slovenia), this peninsula is home to Colombia’s largest indigenous population, the Wayuu, who number close to 300 000 people.

Scant infrastructure means that Wayuu families, scattered over a vast, arid territory in “Rancherias” (desert farms) struggle to reach public services, markets, hospitals or even simple drinking water. The lack of access to water and other basic resources, as well as rising food prices exacerbated by the closure of the Colombia-Venezuela border in August 2015, have combined to create a serious humanitarian crisis in La Guajira. In 2016 alone, an estimated 86 Wayuu children died of malnutrition.

The European Commission’s Department for Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations has been funding a comprehensive response programme, implemented by humanitarian partners to address the acute water and food needs of nearly 900 families. Most humanitarian workers are from the Wayuu community themselves, ensuring language and cultural relevance and acceptance among their nomadic communities.

Guadalupe Mengual, 37, is a Wayuu woman and a nutrition nursing assistant with Action Against Hunger (ACF). She is part of a five-person team providing health care to the most isolated and drought-affected Wayuu families of the Northern Guajira. The EU is funding ACF to provide health services to Wayuu people, in order to reduce child mortality due to lack of safe drinking water and poor sanitation.

“As part of the Wayuu community, as a mother, and as human being, this situation hurts,” Guadalupe explains. Many families do not have the resources to take ill children to health centres, as the Wayuu live in scattered, isolated settlements which are hard to reach as there are few roads.

Her job includes teaching hand-washing and breastfeeding techniques and facilitating the communication between Wayuu people and other relief workers who do not speak Wayuunaiki, the Wayuu language.

Guadalupe’s team also works on improving hygiene and nutrition practices, through identification, diagnosis and treatment of children with moderate to severe malnutrition. Since May 2016, Guadalupe and her team have attended 920 families (4 465 people), of which 11 severely malnourished children have been successfully treated.

“Some families stay at home, waiting for government assistance that rarely comes,” she says. “That’s why we go out to their rancherías, no matter how much time it takes. Sometimes we drive for five to eight hours just to reach a single family, because we know we are the only ones who can help them.” Home care is the surest way to reach those who need help the most.

When children are affected by malnutrition, the team makes a weekly house-to-house follow-up visit, until the child’s health is restored. This involves at least six visits during the recovery process. Besides attending children, ACF also assists the elderly, as well as breastfeeding and pregnant mothers, providing them with the necessary vitamins and nutrition supplement for a healthy delivery.

“I am an indigenous woman and a humanitarian worker and I am very proud of providing lifesaving assistance to my own people, to my own community,” Guadalupe says.

Involving Wayuu staff at all stages of the humanitarian project has contributed to building trust with beneficiary communities. “The people we help feel that having their own people belong to the relief teams is a real plus, as we are familiar with the environment, the local language, and local culture,” she explains.

Guadalupe’s health team includes three women: a medical coordinator, a nutritionist and a nutrition nursing assistant. The EU and its humanitarian partners strongly promote an active role for local women as a way of strengthening gender equality and empowering indigenous professionals.

“I’m proud of being included in the decisions on delivering assistance to my community; it’s a great opportunity to show other Wayuu women that we can be agents of change,” Guadalupe stresses.

*With additional contributions from Ruth Silva, Information and Communications Assistant, EU Humanitarian Aid Operations.