Stella Cárdenas Ovalle

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow Since 2001
Fundación Renacer
This description of Stella Cárdenas Ovalle's work was prepared when Stella Cárdenas Ovalle was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2001 .


Stella Cárdenas has pulled together a range of services and legal protections for sexually exploited children in Colombia by pushing the public and the state to acknowledge and take responsibility for the children.

The New Idea

Stella Cárdenas is building new institutional protections against child prostitution and pornography in Colombia by persuading the government to extend the mandate of its ministry charged with protection of children, the Ministry of Family Welfare. Through a series of field studies presented to the public and the government on the real dimensions of the problem, Stella and her Fundación Renacer ("Rebirth Foundation") contributed substantially to the passage of Law 360. This law, passed in 1997, for the first time assigned penalties–fines or jail sentences–for anyone who draws children into prostitution. To achieve broad enforcement of the law and continue to influence policy, Stella is developing a long-term alliance of private citizens' organizations, including Renacer, which are all oriented toward child protection but have not worked together effectively before. In her estimation, the alliance will be the most powerful catalyzing agent in the fight against commercial exploitation of children. The network will continue to look for holes in the recent law and generate public debate. One particularly sensitive question, for example, regards presumption of innocence and the concept of "child"; presently the testimony of an exploited child over age fourteen is not valid to determine the guilt of an adult abuser. The network will also need to build social consciousness of the magnitude of sex tourism and its implications for Colombia, as well as hold the judicial system, which is widely perceived as corrupt, accountable to uphold the law on behalf of children. Stella has identified several avenues of persuasion, including Colombia's participation in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the tutela–a legal mechanism by which citizens can appeal official decisions that compromise basic rights–and growing interest on the part of governments and international organizations to attend to the problem of child sexual exploitation.

The Problem

A series of factors put children at risk for sexual exploitation in Colombia and leave them unprotected. The war and drug trade have altered family structures that in ordinary times would have provided safety and nurture. The war has also caused the displacement of countless families, some of whose children have been soldiers in the war. Displaced children are particularly vulnerable to being prostituted, even more so in the declining economy. Surveys by Renacer, affiliated organizations, and the government's Family Welfare Institute estimate that there are 25,000 child prostitutes in Colombia, and the demand for them is increasing with a rise in sex tourism. The market has shifted to Latin America as traditional sex tourist markets have become subject to greater control. Although the government includes a ministry-level Family Welfare Institute, which exists to safeguard children generally, it has only recently begun to develop a comprehensive focus on child prostitution and pornography. Since 1997, it has been illegal to have sex with children, but prostitution is not illegal if it takes place behind closed doors (as opposed to soliciting on the streets). Until 1997, the only legal action a child (or any sexually abused person) could take against a rapist was to force him to marry her. Their needs, and the children themselves, have largely been invisible to the public. Some of them work from brothels that look like normal houses, rather than on the street. When Stella first started working in Cartagena, people there were convinced that any child prostitutes in their city were not local children but rather had come there from the interior of the country. There are few other private service organizations that offer services to sexually exploited children, and even fewer try to address the wide range of the kids' needs. Many are based in religious ministry. Most organizations that work with prostitutes concentrate on adults and do not have specific programs to deal with the unique complexity of children in prostitution–almost always including drug use, abuse from pimps and clients, psychological disturbances, infection with STDs, illiteracy, and lack of education. Organizations that offer support in these other areas, such as drug abuse, are often unwilling to accept children who are working in prostitution.

The Strategy

Recognizing the failure of isolated efforts, Stella simultaneously set up Renacer to work directly with sexually exploited children and began to press for more responsibility from the public and the government. With teams of professionals who are screened for their ability to work affectionately with multi-problem children, Renacer has worked with a total of ten thousand sexually exploited children since Stella founded it in 1988. It offers children access to doctors and psychologists, drug intervention, education, job training, games, and placement in a residential home for those trying to leave prostitution. Several former child prostitutes are now employed as peer educators. In 1991, Stella worked with the Bogotá Chamber of Commerce in a study of child prostitution. The research had a huge impact on the public, and people began to question why the state was not protecting these children. The results were used to convince the government to fund programs like those of Renacer, which are now functioning not only in Bogotá but have spread to other parts of the country. Though securing Renacer's ability to provide services was a vital step, it did not lessen the need for policy change. Stella has utilized relationships with numerous international entities, including an ongoing alliance with the British Embassy in Colombia and with ECPAT, the primary international organization fighting child prostitution, to demonstrate that people outside of the country care about the problem of child prostitution in Colombia. She has opted not for mass campaigns but rather for a strategy of handpicking individuals within the Ministry of Family Welfare, the Attorney General's Office for Children and Families, the Public Defender's Office, and other state institutions to take up the cause as their own. Their participation was part of the successful pressure for Law 360. After further research into the growing problem of sex tourism in the coastal cities, Renacer extended its program to Barranquilla, Cartagena, and San Juan Nepomuceno. The Cartagena program includes preventative work in, for example, the Nelson Mandela neighborhood, which is populated by the especially vulnerable displaced populations. Stella and her colleagues had to fight harder to gain acceptance for the program in Cartagena because the culture is very conservative and class-oriented and was reluctant to see it as their problem. Stella, however, demonstrated with research that many of the children involved in prostitution were in fact local, and she met with the communities and used the media to present the problem. She also received support from businesses and the local tourist bureau as they came to understand that sex tourism is bad for business as well as for the city. Some companies now support Renacer with donations or offer internships to the children preparing to leave Renacer to live on their own. When in 1998 the then mayor insisted that the only place Renacer could do its rehabilitation was near the city garbage dump, they, on the part of the children, used the tutela, a legal mechanism by which they sued the mayor for a violation of the children's rights and won the case in court. Stella sees the process as a good instrument and expects to use it with her colleagues for further enforcement efforts. In order to promote laws that discourage sex tourism in client countries and strengthen Colombia's enforcement processes about all forms of sexual exploitation of children, Stella is fostering a strong network among Colombian child-oriented citizen organizations. Though many of their goals overlap–some work with the children of adult prostitutes, some with addicts or street kids, for example–they have not formally been organized to work together, and the others' programs have not incorporated political and service interventions as Renacer has. It will be necessary to overcome internal competition in order to forge a common platform and a unified negotiating bloc. Renacer already invited all of these organizations to a national forum, in which all share experiences as equals. A second forum is being prepared in Medellín with the potential sponsorship of that city's mayor. The network will have various action fronts, from the spread of information to public pressure for official commitment to prevention and improvement of the living conditions of the boys and girls who are immersed in the problem or at high risk. Cooperation between the associated institutions will also allow for a more effective provision of services to children. At the international level, the network will join with other organizations that are already developing initiatives toward a law that will make the principal of extraterritoriality real, so that pedophile tourists and traffickers of child pornography can be brought to trial. Stella is preparing for the network itself to ally with government entities to pursue prosecution if that is necessary.

The Person

At age eleven, through some progressive teachers, Stella became aware of the social problems and injustices in Colombia and asked what she, as a student, could do to better the situation. When she was thirteen, she began organizing friends to help an impoverished community overcome a tragic flood by providing child care, helping them reconstruct homes, teaching them to make their own formulas to treat their children's diarrhea, and collecting clothing and medicines. At age fifteen, she became a literacy tutor for poor displaced families. In high school, she was a student activist, demanding rights for students and teachers, as well as for the poor. She decided however, that she was not comfortable approaching problems from the standpoint of a political party, as many students were doing. Stella worked her way through her first years of college, where she studied Economics until she decided that working exclusively with numbers was not where her interest lay and dropped out to live with her sister outside of Bogotá. While with her sister, she analyzed what was really important to her, recognized it was working with people, and decided to return to Bogotá to study psychology. While there, she had her first contact with the problem of prostitution when she accompanied her sister to do volunteer work with a group of nuns working with prostitutes. After speaking extensively with a prostitute who wanted to kill herself because of the tragic life she had led, Stella decided to work full-time defending the rights of prostitutes. Then, when she ran into thirty-five children on the street–among them child prostitutes–the rage that she felt for the pain they were enduring led her to believe that it was her destiny to work to protect them. Since that time, she has dedicated herself to designing programs to help sexually exploited children and adolescents to overcome their problems and reintegrate them into society in a positive manner. She also continues to fight so that the issue of sexual exploitation of children becomes an important issue for those who legislate on children's issues. She is a Founding Member and the Director of the Fundación Renacer, but she views her role as that of a facilitator who can step out of the picture now that the process has been put into place.