By Dawn Thomas
Although Colombia is said to have one of the world’s most progressive legal and judicial systems for human rights, sexual violence in Colombia continues to be an invisible crime. The high prevalence of sexual violence against women in the context of the armed conflict is exacerbated due to the lack of government attention and the high levels of impunity it allows for its perpetrators. The Colombian Constitutional Court reported that paramilitary actors, government forces and guerilla groups inflict 90% of the sexual assaults on women.
In the face of these findings, the Colombian government has shown little will to prevent sexual violence or combat impunity. Too often, cases against perpetrators of sexual violence brought before the criminal courts linger in formal investigations or trial phases. This creates increasing distrust in the judicial system and stops many women from reporting attacks. Subsequently, women do not feel supported by the national and local government and remain silent. The victims of sexual violence that I interviewed during advocacy campaigns and field visits echoed these findings with their personal stories. Members of gender-based organizations stated that, “sexual violence against women has become commonplace in our communities.” Paramilitary actors continually rape women and local authorities remain reluctant and generally uninterested in cases involving rape and may even be involved in hiding facts to obscure justice. One woman reported, “the violence is getting worse and worse. Women don’t have protection. If we are attacked, we are afraid to make a complaint. We have no support that’s why we stay quiet” (“Buenaventura Workshop.” Personal interview. 9 Feb. 2012).
Consequently, Colombia faces an ongoing challenge with internal displacement as people living near conflict activity often leave their communities to escape its negative effects. This in turn has damaging effects on women’s social and economic stability as women are forced to uproot themselves and begin again in neighboring cities or to other parts of the country. According to UNHCR, internal displacement in Colombia is one of the worst in the western hemisphere and second in the world. The number of persons displaced is comparable to countries like Sudan and the Congo. The most affected by displacement are Afro-Colombians and indigenous people who tend to live in remote rural zones. Additionally, women make up 58% of the total displaced population and if children are added, accounts for more than 75%.
While Colombia has legal and judicial systems in place for human rights and for the protection of displaced persons, most municipalities are unable to fulfill these rights. I confronted this issue during a consultancy to develop a program for IDPs in a mining town in Caldas, Marmato Colombia. Marmato, the second poorest municipality in Caldas, found it difficult to meet the needs of IDPs due to barriers like low financial resources and limited institutional capacity. At best, the attention to the displaced populations in Marmato was superficial. Most IDPs were left to their own avail to find housing, employment and sustenance that most “victims” are supposed to have recompensed under the law. In a municipality that is the second poorest municipality in Caldas, the population is often dealt with as “the other” that is waiting for handouts. Nevertheless, women IDP groups sprouted throughout the town to support one another when the town failed to do so.
This is no surprise as Colombian women have a history of galvanizing not only for women’s protection, but also for women’s social and economic rights as well as to increase their role in constructing peace. Many gender-based organizations throughout the nation advocate in their communities as well as meet with mayors and local authorities to influence public policy to protect women. Similarly, international women’s organizations work to bring international attention to these silent crimes and organize global advocacy campaigns to push for the enforcement of stronger laws and the implementation for international resolutions such as UN SCR 1325 and 1820.
Hope in a New Law
Women’s efforts toward a safer and just environment has been arduous, but not in vain. Just this year, Colombia’s senate passed a law that protects survivors of sexual violence — particularly those who were victimized by paramilitaries, Colombian forces, guerillas, or other forces involved in Colombia’s decades-long armed conflicts. It addresses acts of sexual violence such as rape, forced enslavement, forced sterilization, forced pregnancy, and serial rapes during wartime. This law also gives psycho-social support and comprehensive medical attention to victims.
This new development is a significant triumph in the struggle to preserve women’s protection. It also shows that the work of civil society groups is making an impact. Adherence to these laws can have multiplying effects on women’s social and economic stability and may even decrease the number of displaced populations as perpetrators would be held accountable. However, measures to combat impunity, along with increased security need to be in place to help women feel safe enough to make complaints. These two factors cannot be independent of each other or the law will be ineffective and Colombia’s invisible crime will persist.
Dawn Thomas received her Masters of Arts in International Affairs from The New School and her Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology from Rutgers University. Her research and interests include gender rights, displacement and education. She has collaborated with gender rights organizations on adoption of UN SCR 1325 & 1820 in Colombia and has consulted with the mayor’s office in Marmato, Colombia where she identified strategies to provide adequate redress for internally displaced persons displaced by violent conflict. She is also a part time lecturer in the English Department at Rutgers University.