The justice system is failing to protect victims of sexual violence in conflict zones as the perpetrators of thousands of sexual assaults each year go unpunished.
“What is happening in Colombia with regard to sexual violence against women is impunity, as demonstrated by our reports, as demonstrated by Amnesty International, as demonstrated by human rights organizations,” Congresswoman Angela Robledo told Colombia Reports.
Colombian women and girls in conflict zones are frequent victims of sexual violence perpetrated by armed groups and the Colombian security forces. Unable to turn to the government and stranded in a culture unsympathetic to female victims, women have little recourse to justice. They and their families are often forced from their land and property by the threat of further violence.
The story of Yolanda (a false name to protect the victim) illustrates the environment of impunity for armed actors. In July 2005 the 11-year-old girl was stopped by a soldier on her way home from school in a rural area of Saravena in the Arauca Department, near the border with Venezuela. This was not the first time the soldier solicited sex from Yolanda, but this time he forcibly took her captive and raped her.
When Yolanda’s family reported the case to the office of the inspector general the local prosecutor rejected the allegation, claiming that Yolanda’s mother invented the story. The army offered the family money to withdraw the accusation. Meanwhile, when he learned of the allegation, the soldier began to threaten the family over the phone. The family fled their home in fear. This story typifies the under-reported and systemic inability of the Colombian government to protect the rights of its citizens.
Few victims are as bold as Yolanda and her family in pursuing justice; in fact, because of the lack of security and fear of reprisal, most victims elect not to report abuse.
“[It is] a taboo and complex subject because it is not easy for a woman who has been raped to report [it] in the context of an armed conflict due to the risks of re-victimization,” said Saskia Loochkartt, the humanitarian affairs officer for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Colombia.
PARAMILITARY GROUPS USE SEXUAL VIOLENCE AS A WEAPON OF WAR
When sexual violence is systematically employed by armed actors engaged in extended conflict it should be considered a military tactic used to sow terror, displace, threaten and extort women and their families. At least 50% of displaced women have been victims of sexual violence.
In the effort to reduce support for guerrillas in a region, members of the now-defunct paramiliary group, the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), sought out rebel sympathizers, raped their women, and often forcibly displaced them and their familes, thereby increasing control over the area.
“They began deliberate attacks against civilians, aimed at eliminating bases of support for the guerrilla organizations, targeting the population of ‘collaborators’ and using terror to subdue and submit them,” reported an amicus curiae by the NGO Humanas.
“Sexual violence, used in a consciously planned manner in the framework of the armed conflict, is an instrument of total domination. Tactics which degrade and terrify the victim end up tearing at the social fabric of the community,” Humanas claims.
The Justice and Peace Law, which was instituted to demobilize the paramilitary groups, gives a maximum sentence of eight years to those who confess their crimes. The Justice and Peace Task Force, responsible for prosecuting those crimes, has recorded confessions for over 25,000 homicides. Only 96 confessions of sexual violence have been made. This demonstrates how these crimes have been utterly marginalized in a legal context.
Colombia’s largest left-wing rebel group, the FARC, have also been accused of widespread sexual abuse, much more so than other guerrilla groups like the ELN.
“Though there are documented cases of sexual violations of the civilian population, it is much more common between the ranks. Females are recruited and obligated to have sex with their commanders or with their comrades. [The FARC] also commit other crimes with great frequency, like forced abortion,” Diana Lopez, spokesperson for Humanas, told Colombia Reports.
Some 80% to 90% of the demobilized ex-FARC women claim to have endured at least one forced abortion. Some claim to have suffered many more. Additionally, because of nonexistent contraceptive practices, sexually transmitted diseases are reportedly rampant.
Luis Perez, the victim of a FARC kidnapping who was subsequently released, claimed to have seen children as young as five carrying rifles “bigger than their bodies.” While the boys farmed coca leaves, the girls were sexually exploited.
“The situation of the women is pathetic; they are sexual objects. A girl arrives and the first thing she is obligated to do is to have sexual relations with the commander of her Front or column,” Perez said.
COLOMBIAN SECURITY FORCES
“We have evidence that some members of the army abuse girls and adolescents in conflict zones… it is distressing that the army’s presence is converted into a risk factor for minors,” Angela Robledo said before congress in December 2012.
The incidence of reported cases of sexual violence is much higher for the security forces than for the paramilitaries or guerrillas.
“When there is a military base in a particular area, there is an increase in unwanted pregnancy; there is an increase in relations with minors, and this also constitutes sexual violence,” Diana Lopez told Colombia Reports.
Robledo presented data from the coroner’s office showing that the army committed 54% of the sex crimes by armed actors in conflict zones. Of the army’s victims, 89% were under 17 years of age.
According to the same data, the guerrillas were responsible for 19%, paramilitaries for 12%, and drug traffickers for 9%.
The army has issued a policy of “zero tolerance” towards sexual violence. However, significant enforcement has not been carried through, creating a climate of systematic impunity.
CLIMATE OF IMPUNITY
In the past decade, there have been relatively few convictions for sexual violence involving members of the security forces, considering the very high number of allegations that were received by the inspector general’s office, according to the 2013 annual report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Margot Wollstrom, Special Representative of the Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict of the UN, claims that the sexual violence occurring in the context of the armed conflict is a part of the patriarchal and chauvinist culture in Colombia that women confront every day. This socio-cultural environment severely hinders the delivery of justice. The justice system fails to treat these crimes as violations of human rights, and therefore contributes to their continuity by failing to properly investigate and punish them. The authorities consider these cases isolated instead of in the context of a systematic and widespread problem.
Between 2005 and 2010, the coroner’s office recorded 665 cases of sexual violence associated with the armed conflict. According to the activist group La Mesa de Mujer y Conflicto Armado, the Colombian military was responsible in 82% of those cases.
Of the 72 cases assigned to the prosecutor general’s human rights task force, just one led to a conviction.
Amendment 37 of 2012, which has been ratified and awaits enactment, is designed to “ensure access to justice for victims of sexual violence, in particular sexual violence during the armed conflict.”
A coalition of congressmen and human rights activists, including representative Angela Robledo, is striving to push Amendment 37 through the legislative process.
“We believe that the project is on track, it has the Government’s support which is key, [and] we also have the support of the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Justice, and many international organizations. All this makes us think that the project will go forward,” Robledo said.
Among the changes proposed by the amendment are the alignment of national law with international standards, classification of sexual violence as a crime against humanity, and the extension of the crime beyond just the physical to include threats and manipulation.
- Interview with Congresswoman Angela Robledo
- Interview with Diana Lopez, spokesperson for Humanas
- Justice and Peace Task Force
- Mesa de Trabajo Mujer y Conflicto Armado (Sisma Mujer)
- Violencia Sexual es un Estrategia Paramilitar en Colombia (Humanas)
- Violencia sexual contra menores, un estrategia de guerra (El Espectador)
- Las niñas son explotadas sexualmente dentro de las Farc (Caracol Radio)
- Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights report 2013
- Colombia: Hidden from Justice (Amnesty International)
- Fuerza Publica, principal agresor sexual de las mujeres: organizacion femenina (Caracol Radio)
- El Estado y la violencia sexual contra las mujeres en el marco de la violencia sociopolítica en Colombia (Margot Wallstrom)
- Violencia sexual: el lado mas oscuro de la guerra en Colombia (Angela Robledo)