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Column: Women in Colombia are fighting back against the use of rape as a weapon of war

Sexual violence is perpetrated by security forces, guerrilla groups and paramilitaries in Colombia – with journalists and human rights defenders targeted alongside civilians. But despite considerable personal risks, women are fighting back.

Karol Balfe

THE FIGURES ARE sobering. From 2001 to 2009, on average 54,410 women per year experienced sexual violence in Colombia, this breaks down to 149 per day, or six women per hour. This sexual violence is closely connected to the economic and political exclusion of women and the same attitudes and cultural beliefs driving sexual violence against women in domestic life. However sexual violence against women in Colombia is also a military objective.

This conflict has been brutal for both men and women. Five decades of fighting have left 5.5 million people displaced, the highest number in the world. Land is at the heart of the conflict. Those who fled left behind 6 million hectares of land, much of which is now held by armed groups and their allies, or has been bought by big businesses. Estimates regarding the total number of people killed in Colombia from the conflict range from 220,000 to 600,000.

Despite the peace talks currently underway, enforced disappearance continues to be used as a method of intimidation and terror. At least 50,000 Colombian families are searching for missing family members. Human rights defenders and community leaders are being particularly targeted with the number of attacks and killings increasing year-on-year, culminating in 69 killed in 2012.

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A woman holds up a poster dotted with rose petals and a message that reads in Spanish; “Only a kiss would shut me up,” during a march to protest physical abuse of women and in support of Colombia’s peace talks currently underway in Cuba, in Bogota, Colombia, Friday, Nov. 22, 2013. Thousands of women marched Friday through the streets of the capital, some walking as many as 25 blocks to the Plaza de Bolivar. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

All armed groups engage in sexual violence against women

Against this horrific background, women, their bodies, their lives and their rights are being used as the spoils of war. While all armed actors engage in sexual violence against women there are some differences in their methods. Women are forced by paramilitary groups into prostitution. Between 2012 and 2013, 43 of 244 demobilised female fighters from guerrilla groups reported they had been forced to have abortions. The guerrillas also use sexual violence in the forced recruitment of girls as combatants.

Although sexual violence is perpetrated by all armed actors, state and non-state, the impact of the State Security Forces’ involvement in sexual violence has a particularly devastating effect. These forces are mandated to protect the civilian population. When sexual violence is committed by them, the civilian population are left with no authority to whom they can turn for justice.

Worryingly the magnitude of conflict-related sexual violence against women in Colombia is yet to be fully understood. It is a crime that is massively underreported. Sexual violence by the security forces, guerrilla groups and paramilitaries is almost never prosecuted despite its widespread and systematic nature.  Up to 18 per cent of women in Colombia report the attacks, but more than 98 per cent of sexual crimes go unpunished. Where it is reported, women encounter major obstacles accessing the justice system.

This is a systematic and generalised practice. These are not isolated violations committed by ‘rogue’ elements. The near-total lack of justice acts a strong deterrent for women wishing to report such crimes. Women struggle to have their cases taken seriously, documented and investigated by the police. They are usually not given the required medical support nor are they directed to the appropriate medical and health services.

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Women march during what organized call a “Slut Walk” in Bogota, Colombia, Saturday, April 6, 2013. The words on their backs read in Spanish “If I was born nude, why cover me up?,” left, and “Neither a whore, nor a saint.” (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

A voice for a generation: Colombian journalist Jineth Bedoya Lima

Despite these obstacles, Colombian women are fighting back. At considerable personal cost, women are speaking out and demanding truth, justice and accountability. In speaking out they encounter threats and risks to their physical security and that of their families.

One such individual is the Colombian journalist Jineth Bedoya Lima. Due to her work, Jineth has experienced violence from different actors of the conflict, including being kidnapped twice, tortured and raped by a paramilitary group. Despite these devastating experiences, Jineth has continued her prolific career as a journalist in Colombia.

Jineth’s own words show her bravery:

I spent nine years in silence. I felt ashamed. The damage done to your soul never goes away… Now I can speak about what happened to me. I realised I could be a voice for the thousands of women who have been victims of sexual violence, which gives me strength.

She chose to stay and fight, yet 13 years on the perpetrators of these crimes remain free.

Jineth’s bravery compels us all to act. Sexual violence is the hidden reality of this conflict. Around the world, the role of women is recognised as being essential in peace-building. Yet not a single woman is at the negotiating table in the Colombian peace talks. The participation of women in peace talks contributes to the sustainability and broad social buy-in of peace.

International pressure on Colombia is badly needed. The Irish government has made strong international commitments to the global agenda of women, peace and security. We should urge the Colombian government to ensure that the issue of sexual violence is adequately addressed.

Karol Balfe works on Governance, Peace building and Human Rights for Christian Aid Ireland. Christian Aid and Trócaire will jointly launch the report Colombia: Women, Conflict-Related Sexual Violence and the Peace Process, on behalf of ABColombia 3 December 2013. Jineth Bedoya Lima will speak in Dublin at the launch.

Read the report: Colombia: Women, Conflict-Related Sexual Violence and the Peace Process

We’re interested in your ideas and opinions – do you have a story you would like to see featured in Opinion & Insight? Email opinions@thejournal.ie

Read: One quarter of women experience physical or sexual violence from a partner

Read: Top Colombian drug lord charged in New York

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About the author:

Karol Balfe

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