Women suffer some of the most blatant and frequent rights violations of Colombia´s more than 40-year internal conflict. They are routinely subjected to physical abuse, sexual and psychological violence, and often suffer forced displacement, all at the hands of the military, guerrillas or paramilitaries, crimes that go unpunished. These women also live in exclusion and poverty.
According to the United Nations, between 1997 and 2009, the violence forced 1.6 million Colombian women to flee their homes.
“Many of these women have fled to avoid being recruited by armed groups operating outside the law, or to avoid this happening to their sons and daughters. All of them have suffered from the violence,” said the UN in a statement on March 8, International Women´s Day.
Humanitarian groups such as Spain-based Intermón Oxfam say that 60 percent of Colombia´s 3.3 million displaced population are women, and two of 10 women who flee suffer sexual violence.
Colombia´s Constitutional Court in 2008 named 10 risks women face in the armed conflict because of their gender, most of all, sexual violence, sexual exploitation and sexual abuse.
Members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, Colombia´s largest rebel group, paramilitaries and state security forces have raped or abused women as part of their battle strategy, says Diana Montealegre, coordinator of Oxfam International´s campaign on abuses against Colombian women in conflict areas.
“Women have become the objective of armed groups because … they are considered a useful target to humiliate the enemy or punish those who sympathize with the enemy,” she added. “They punish or control [the women] to dictate their sex lives, their clothing and even what partner they will have.”
Montealegre said that after men in the communities are killed, women become heads of household, taking on roles and duties that they are not accustomed to, and if they are displaced, they are forced to take care of their children and elderly relatives in an unfamiliar environment, making them doubly susceptible to abuses.
Many organizations who study the effects of Colombia´s armed conflict estimate that at least one in three displaced families there is headed by a woman, and within that group nearly half are indigenous women and 47 percent are Afro-Colombian. These women are “the most vulnerable to sexual violence because of the triple discrimination they suffer for their gender, ethnicity and poverty,” says the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women.
“The maddening thing is that these violations against women and the disrespect for their rights go on unpunished,” said Jineth Bedoya, a journalist who was kidnapped and released by a paramilitary group in 2000. “The Attorney General´s Office has 183 cases with 518 victims registered, of which only 10 cases have been recognized by the paramilitaries. Most abuse cases are committed by paramilitaries, then guerrillas and then the military.”
She said the victims suffer double humiliation: “once in the act itself and then by denouncing it, for the lack of understanding and even rejection they receive from authorities.”
“There are socio-cultural factors that lead women not to report the abuse but above all, there is a lack of guarantees to promote that they do and guarantee the victims´ protection,” said Bedoya.
“This is about systematic and generalized human rights violations,” said Montealegre, adding that the crimes are often viewed as second-tier, or even something “natural” compared with crimes like kidnapping or forced disappearance.
In 2008, at the insistence of women´s organizations, lawmakers agreed to draw up new norms to guarantee women a “life free of violence” and with legal guarantees to ensure that their rights are respected and if not, the legal backing to guarantee their protection and attention.
Earlier this year, the Constitutional Court ordered the government to install infrastructure to treat displaced women who have suffered from psychological and emotional trauma. One measure included training health care workers to deal with the unique and severe problems victims of forced displacement suffer and ensure that victims know where to receive treatment.
Colombia´s Corporación Humanas, a nongovernmental organization, created a guide for Building a Sexual Violence Case, which it says is a feminist view of helping women bring their cases to court and to ensure that these crimes are viewed as torture, crimes against humanity or war crimes.