Constanza Ardila Galvis

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow Since 1998
Fundación Social Colombiana CEDAVIDA
This description of Constanza Ardila Galvis's work was prepared when Constanza Ardila Galvis was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1998 .


Constanza Ardila has developed a pedagogical methodology through which Colombians can trace the source of violence in their own lives, so as to control the aggressive tendencies that were sown in their youth and thereby help to break the current cycle of violence in Colombia.

The New Idea

Constanza Ardila is working to halt Colombia's cycle of violence through a new pedagogical model which trains people to develop a culture of peace. Her work is based on the recollection and recuperation of childhood traumas, opening and sensitizing individuals to the dangerous consequences of continued violence. She believes that only by recognizing the damage done to them by prevailing educational models and political structures can the victims of violence rehabilitate themselves, avoid hostile actions like the ones encountered in their childhood environments, and learn new ways of existing in peace and respect.

Constanza's model trains people who have influence in the formation of children, including teachers in the formal educational system, community child-care workers, police, and military authorities. It challenges the dominant educational paradigm which demands blind obedience from students, and the repression of emotions. Instead, students are encouraged to relive past experiences under the guidance of trained leaders from within the community. Because it is not possible to bring psychiatrists to all of Colombia's population which have been the victims of political violence, Constanza relies instead on "social therapists." Because the model does not depend only on doctors and psychiatrists, it is able to reach a much larger population.

Most institutional projects directed towards the victims of political violence have not attempted to alter the pedagogical roots of violence or change the culture of violence in which children grow up. They have been concerned largely with the denunciation of human rights abuses and violent acts. Others have implemented a model of assistance to respond to immediate needs such as housing, clothing, and food for a few months after political violence or displacement, without addressing the context which perpetuates a culture of violence. State and private institutions focus only on the political and economic causes of the violence which affects rich and poor, regardless of their politics. Constanza maintains that the causes of violence are found in a culture sustained by educational models and family and societal relationships. Even with economic improvements and the resolution of the civil war, if the pedagogical formation of children is not changed, then the country's cycle of violence will never be broken. Only when these structures are altered with a new pedagogical model will violence in Colombia diminish significantly.

The Problem

In Colombia more that one million people, or 3% of the population, have been displaced and forced from their homes during the past ten years. Various armed conflicts continue and the violence shows no signs of letting up, as mass displacement of the rural population leads to the growth of shanty towns around urban centers whose public resources cannot meet new needs. 58% of those displaced are women heads of household (according to the Council on Human Rights and Displacement). Young people are overwhelmingly the victims of such displacement, for 72% of displaced persons are under 25 years of age. Each hour 20 children under 19 years of age are displaced. And each day a child loses his life to the country's socio-political violence (Colombian Commission of Jurists). These youth also face violence on a daily basis; 60% have witnessed a killing and 40% have been shot at (1996 survey by the Public Defender's Office). Many grow up to join the very forces which threatened, traumatized, or displaced them in the first place, either for protection or because they have no other option. Currently, the Colombian armed forces count 3,000 youth among their ranks and 10% of soldiers are between the ages of 13 and 17. Constanza estimates that more than 8 million young Colombians are at high risk of entering groups which resolve conflicts with violence.

The dominant educational model in Colombia does not provide tools or teach youth to respond to violence in any way other than retribution or submission. According to Constanza, schools and societal relationships simply reinforce the behaviors that feed violence. Educational models, as well as strategies of child-rearing, are based on vertical relationships between children and figures of power. Children are taught to blindly obey rules imposed by authority figures, not to ask questions, to be submissive, and to resist pain. They are not encouraged to think for themselves or to form independent responses which would permit them to escape from the country's violence. To receive the approval of society and family, children are not supposed to express fear or weakness but instead to respond aggressively to intimidation. These children grow up to be adults who have never resolved the pain of early losses, and become hardened to the suffering of others. They perpetuate violent attitudes towards others, are unable to feel emotions which would impede violent acts and barbarity, and have a high probability of being aggressive. As a result, Colombia's indices of child abuse and mistreatment are among the highest, with 47% of all children abused. A human being reared in such conditions has little hope of generating different conduct when faced with violence and aggression.

The Strategy

Constanza founded CEDAVIDA ten years ago to assist displaced persons and the victims of political violence to overcome past trauma and re-establish themselves physically, emotionally, and mentally. In the cities of Barrancabermeja, Villavicencio, Apartado, and Soacha, the organization has implemented a program called Community Builders of Peace, setting up 28 homes for children who have been victims of political violence, and five centers to assist displaced persons. The majority of teachers and coordinators in these centers are women who have experienced the violence of armed conflict and have been rehabilitated from their suffering through Constanza's model, by recognizing, remembering, and reliving past traumas. 70% of CEDAVIDA's staff are rehabilitated victims who have personally witnessed the efficacy of this model.

In 1993 Constanza began to study educational models implemented in rural areas, where violence is most pronounced, and where authoritarian teaching methods are frequently employed. She studied 1,500 children who were not able to express their emotions after witnessing or being victims of violence. The results of her survey led directly to the development of her model. Through years of investigations and scientific studies, recognition from international psychologists, and the life stories of those rehabilitated through her model, Constanza has validated this pedagogical methodology. She is now ready to replicate and train others in her approach.

Victims who come to her centers for assistance are evaluated in their need for medical and psychological attention. Through this auto-diagnostic survey, widows, orphans, and family members of the disappeared describe and relive traumatic events from their past. Constanza has found that before resolving the psychological suffering of violence, victims cannot move ahead in other areas of their lives, such as income generation, forming social relationships, or meeting basic needs for food and housing. From this realization, Constanza derived a therapeutic instrument which allowed displaced victims to share their pain and to understand and make peace with their past suffering. She recalls the case of a child whose parents were assured he was deaf and dumb and would never learn to speak. Through a process of investigation with the family, a community childcare worker realized that the child had witnessed a massacre at the age of 11 months, and afterwards refused to talk as a way to protect himself from the world. With Constanza's model of therapy, he was rehabilitated and began to speak like a normal child. Reliving the past in this manner helps victims to become aware of their actions, recuperate their emotions and capacity to feel, and recognize the disastrous effects of violence. These victims are sensitized to the destructive ways in which they were raised, and become the protagonists for personal and social change.

CEDAVIDA provides direct assistance to groups and individuals through its "peace community" workshops of 60 hours, helping people work through the violent acts which forced their displacement. Participants recognize that they were victims of violence, recall the damages and effects, and learn to control their own violent impulses and to return to their homes. Adults who have been through this therapeutic process then assist others in their own therapy. Constanza plans to train 50 such multipliers in each community each year, focusing on teachers and community childcare workers. They receive 160 hours of training to provide follow-up treatment to young people who have been the victims of violence. She has already completed training with 22 community caregivers and is now working to train 40 teachers, 220 additional community caregivers, and 40 conflict negotiators.

Constanza is also focusing on other groups to spread her methodology, including police forces and the military. These groups receive 436 hours of training in social and rehabilitative therapy. Through a program sponsored by the British Embassy she is training 20 police agents to use her methodology in uncovering their own histories of violence and in dealing with young offenders. Preliminary evaluations of police behavior are hopeful so far, showing increased positive interactions with community members, a more optimistic attitude towards their work, and less brutality on the police force. Constanza plans to extend the same training program to the military. Seven university professors have also agreed to teach her methodology to their students. Constanza plans on influencing national policy through the Colombian Institute for Family Well-Being, to train all of the country's 80,000 community childcare workers (responsible for 1.2 million children) in peace and therapy processes. She is lobbying the Education Ministry at the national level and education secretariats at the local levels to incorporate her model into teacher training programs so as to form hundreds of teachers for peace. She plans on expanding her police training program to police and military forces throughout the entire national territory, so that the same actors in times of conflict begin to reproduce her pedagogy for peace.

Constanza has already received national and international recognition for her model. In 1996 she received the national Luis Carlos Galán ProComun Award, in recognition of innovative and effective community efforts against violence and child mistreatment. The coordinator of this annual award commented that "we have seen results and it is impressive. The methodology deserves to be applied across Colombia, for it is the only way to break the chain of violence so those affected don't mistreat others any longer." Constanza has authored books such as The Harvest of Anger and The Social Actor Displaced by Violence and Protagonist for Peace which detail her methodology and disseminate it to the national and international levels. Contact with a post-war Austrian psychoanalyst, Alice Miller, assured Constanza that her model can be replicated in other countries suffering from violence and its effects. She has received financial support from the United Nations and European Union for the creation of educational communities, and CARITAS Spain, Save the Children, the British and Dutch Embassies, the Colombian Institute for Family Well-Being, and the Foundation for Superior Education for her initial CEDAVIDA program. She plans to leverage these same contacts to support her in the launch and international replication of her pedagogical methodology. Most recently, Constanza presented a proposal to UNESCO to create an institute of higher education to train teachers for peace and to include recollection of past trauma and conflict negotiation as obligatory requirements for certain university majors.

The Person

Constanza was born into a liberal family, the victim of threats by the conservative hegemony, until her father was forced into political exile in the United States. From a very young age, Constanza lived with violence and fear, and learned to sleep under the bed in case of gunfire. As a child she often visited rural areas. She was always concerned about high levels of violence in the country and began to study the causes of conflict in Colombia, feeling an inescapable commitment to her country and compatriots. She lived outside of Colombia on many occasions, but always under an air of anxiety for being "displaced" from her native country. She began to understand the feelings of the displaced, and the traumatic loss of home, family, and friends. Constanza entered university to study economics in a search for the causes of her country's situation. Upon completion of her degree, she recognized that the roots of violence were to be found in other phenomena as well, and since then has continued her quest to explain Colombia's level of violence.

In 1988, Constanza founded CEDAVIDA to search for a way to resolve conflicts without recourse to force, to acquire a real understanding of what was happening in Colombia, and to work more directly with children and women victims of violence. CEDAVIDA, at the beginning, focused on the creation of homes for displaced children, income generation for displaced women heads of household, and self-evaluations to get to the causes of violence. These evaluations proved to be a therapeutic instrument in reliving violent acts, and rehabilitation from them. Since this discovery, Constanza has been dedicated to perfecting her model and sharing it with others to break the chain of violence in Colombia. She is now ready, after ten years of work with CEDAVIDA, to leave the organization's functioning to others in order to dedicate herself full-time to the implementation and spread of her pedagogical methodology for peace. She has adhered to this idea even in the midst of tremendous personal danger; a panelist recalls talking to Constanza on the phone and, even as she heard gun shots in the background, Constanza continued to describe her idea.