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Husbands use rape 'as a way of teaching their wives to shut up'

Rape in Colombia is a strategy of war.

This article is the third and final installment of a series from Fergal Browne on displacement, sexual violence and other issues facing women in today’s Colombia. The entire series has been reposted here this morning. 

PastedImage-21497 Source: Melissa Martines

“TWO HOODED MEN came out of the bushes in camouflage. In my ignorance I thought they were going to rob me, but that was not the case,” says Melissa Martines (name changed by request) who breaks off.

“I’m sorry if I begin to cry.”

She begins to breath heavily and tears roll down her cheeks.

“One put a gun to my head, held me down, while the guy raped me. Then the other did the same. I was utterly destroyed.”

The attack took place on a country road in the Pacific Coast department of Cauca. She is sure her two attackers were members of guerrilla forces, who controlled the area.

Later, she told her husband what happened.

He insulted me instead of supporting me, verbally abused me, pretty much said I was setting myself up for this to happen. This gave me so much pain to hear. I said nothing more.

She fled the town four days later with her two children after she received a tip-off from one of the wives of the village’s guerrilla leader that she was a suspected paramilitary informant.

They planned on killing her and forcibly recruiting her son into the war. It was the seventh time she had been displaced due to threats in her life and extortion.

She currently lives in Bogotá and hasn’t spoken to her husband since the she left in 2007. Still to this day she wears as many clothes as possible to cover herself up.

Her son, who is now 21 and a policeman, is greatly affected too.

“He is angered and frustrated by all that happened. He remembers his mother as beautiful and elegant, but that due to all the suffering, I’ve wasted away,” she says struggling to speak.

Strategy of war

Martines was the victim of sexual violence considered to be ‘an habitual, extensive, systematic and invisible practise’ committed during Colombia’s internal conflict, according to the Constitutional Court in its Order 092, which stated an explicit link between displacement and sexual violence.

“It is one of those crimes that specifically targets women. We believe that it is a strategy of war,” says Nataly Perez from Sisma Mujer, a feminist organisation.

A survey undertaken as part of a campaign entitled ‘Rape and Other Violence: Leave my Body out of the War’ found 12,809 women were victims of conflict rape, 1,575 women had been forced into prostitution, 4,415 had forced pregnancies and 1,810 had forced abortions between 2000 and 2009 in Colombia.

Rape of young girls

Among the most gruesome cases was the Betoyes massacre in May 2003.

Paramilitaries entered the town killing several and forcing 300 to flee. They then raped four girls aged 11, 12, 15 and 16. The latter had her womb cut open, the fetus ripped out and hacked with a machete.

A 2003 Amnesty International report said the action was ‘fully supported’ by the military.

Paramilitaries were given broad concessions in exchange for demobilisation under the Justice and Peace Law in 2005.

An ABColombia report highlighted that of the 39,546 confessions received, only 0.24% relate to sexual violence. Therefore, the report states ‘the full extent of this crime has not been revealed, nor is it being investigated or the truth made known’.

With regards what few reports there are of military or police personnel involvement in sexual violence, few result in conviction. Of 232 cases which existed between 2004 and 2009, only nine resulted in a sentence.

“Everyone stands with impunity in this country before the law. In 16 years working in psycho-social area, I’ve never once seen a case reach a satisfactory conclusion whether it be for rape, torture, nothing. Not one case,” says Osana Medina who runs Casa Violeta, a house specifically for women and their children who have suffered in extreme cases of displacement.

The woman’s fault – ‘asking for it’

At most only 18% of cases of sexual violence are reported with few resulting in convictions.

“98% of cases of sexual violence are in impunity in the armed conflict. It’s so sad because first they suffer the crime, then the institutions block them, because it’s seen as the woman’s fault, that they provoked it,” says Perez.

ABColombia highlighted in its 2013 report examples of ‘re-victimisation’ with police telling victims who report a sexual crime they were ‘asking for it’ and a lack of attention to health issues, which arise from sexual violence.

This backdrop means few displaced persons actually declare sexual assault as a reason for displacement.

“On our register, we have 9% who stated they are victims of sexual assault, but for sure it’s underreported,’ says Silvana Torres, a coordinator at the Victim’s Unit, the state body which coordinates support for Colombia’s displaced.

It’s because of the stigma attached to it. They just don’t have the confidence to admit it.

Abuse at home

Domestically, women suffering in violent relationships can feel trapped due to little support from the state and lack of financial means to leave. 37% of women in Colombia admitted to being victims of violence from a partner, the figure rises to 48% amongst displaced women.

This led the Constitutional Court to recognise the high vulnerability of displaced women to sexual violence in its Order 092, which said the Government must design a programme for the prevention of sexual violence and integrated attention to survivors.

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The current Government under Juan Manuel Santos is generally accepted as having advanced somewhat Colombia’s laws with a Victim’s Law which set out special rights for female victims as well as Law 1257, which regulates against gender violence.

PastedImage-81708 Eliana Mejia Source: Fergal Browne

One result is the setting up of Houses of Equality in each borough. Eliana Mejia is a psychologist in one of these houses in the impoverished neighbourhood of San Cristobal in Bogotá, where many displaced live. 90% of her female patients are victims of sexual violence, although not all are displaced victims of Colombia’s war.

“When it comes to reporting, first comes the recognition of their rights, but afterwards the legal part can generate a lot of frustration, because things are slow. Conditions remain insufficient. Only now is the Government beginning to enter into public policy.

“The problem here in Colombia is that when a woman says to her husband, ‘No you can’t rape me or hit me I have rights’, the man reacts by hitting her harder. It’s a way of teaching them to shut up,” says Medina.

Financially, women from poor neighbourhoods are left with a difficult choice. ‘Female victims suffer from constant threats. Things like, ‘I’m going to leave you on the streets, you’ll have nowhere to go, no income. You have no choice but to continue with me’, so many women don’t leave,” says Mejia.

Psychologically, the effects are massive.

Every woman I meet who is a victim of the armed conflict suffers from depression. Suicide is low because of the necessity to take care of their children, but there’s a lot of anxiety, low self-esteem, lots of difficulties with social relations, talking very little.

The effects are not just for the women, but also for children.

“You have kids here who come up to me and say that when they grow up they will stab to death the man who raped their mother. These children are four or five-years old. The suffering of their mothers hits them badly,” says Medina.

Your body is the memory

As a high amount of women she works with are victims of sexual violence, a lot of her work focuses on the ‘reconstruction’ of the woman’s body.

“With sexual violence, your own body becomes a memory of all that happens. Your body then isn’t yours anymore, so we attempt to reconstruct it. It’s a long process which can take between up to eight years.”

Despite the difficulties, there’s been many success stories.

“Yes lots. The women in this house are amazing,” she says. She points to one story of a woman she requests not be named.

She arrived and talked to no one, slept little out of fear people would come for her.

“The last few weeks she’s slept well. The post-traumatic stress has been reduced. It’s been a successful process so far.”

This article was supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund. With additional reporting by Katherine Mora. It is the third in a series from Fergal Browne on displacement, sexual violence and other issues facing women in today’s Colombia. 

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When death threats are real: ‘They are not playing… but I’m not going to shut up’

About the author:

Fergal Browne

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