Maria’s terror at the hands of her captor ended when he committed suicide. Leonor is still receiving psychological treatment having endured years as a sex slave.
With the help of testimonies from Maria and Leonor and others, victims of the Colombian armed conflict are now benefiting from advances in the country’s legal system regarding gender and sexual violence and bringing the perpetrators to justice.
Previously, claims made by victims of gender violence, such as Maria who was held for five months as a sexual slave for a paramilitary leader and Leonor who was repeatedly violated for six years while she was a member of the guerrillas, were neither investigated nor were the culprits brought to justice.
With the publication of a new report produced by Corporacion Humanas an NGO campaigning for gender rights and equality and Lawyers Without Borders Canada (LWBC) entitled: “Studies on outcomes of the Justice and Peace law with regards to Women’s Rights in Colombia”, there are indications that significant advances have been made and the perpetrators of gender violence are being found guilty.
“The most invisible crimes in Colombia’s judicial process regarding the conflict have been those of sexual violence,” said Adriana Benjumea, Director of Corporacion Humanas. “In the past whatever happened to sexually abused women was believed to be their own responsibility and not that of legal institutions,” continued Benjumea.
This is the first report of its kind and the consequences for Colombian victims are far-reaching in that they can now provide statements in safety and with the support of legal institutions.
“Ten years after the Justice and Peace Law,” – established in 2005 to facilitate the reintegration of members of illegal armed groups into civilian life – “we can say that today we know a great deal more about the dynamics of the paramilitaries and their actions,” said Benjumea.
In 2014 as a result of investigations the paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso of the right-wing United Self Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), a group which emerged originally to combat the leftist guerrillas and which officially demobilized in 2006, was found guilty of implementing the tactics of sexual violence. Maria’s case was chosen to study for the report as Mancuso exercised strong control over the AUC’s feared Bloque Catatumbo where the rapes took place even though he was not the perpetrator of the attacks.
“Maria’s case shows that sexual violence requires different treatments and demands that the sentencing, reparation and guarantees of non-repetition are effective to fully validate women’s’ rights and as an essential requirement to construct lasting peace,” said Benjumea.
Leonor’s experience as a member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC guerrillas) ,who have been fighting the government for 50 years and are currently involved in on-going peace negotiations, is harrowing. Speaking to Paula Delgado-Kling, author of a forthcoming book on child combatants in Colombia entitled: “Stolen Lives”, Leonor confided that, “when the commander first forced himself on her, he was nearing 48 and she was 11.”
Leonor demobilized from the FARC in 2001 when she was 17 and has been undergoing psychological treatment for over a decade as she tries to rebuild her life.
Official figures suggest that there are 3,5 million women and girls who have been direct victims of the conflict through displacement, enforced prostitution, murder, rape, torture, kidnap and forced recruitment.
The challenge remaining, despite the advances, is to ensure that women who have suffered similar fates to Maria and Leonor are guaranteed justice. With so many victims and a backlog in the country’s judicial system created by 50 years of war how many women will have their cases heard?
Currently in jail in the United States for drug trafficking crimes, Colombian courts were able to establish criminal responsibility by Salvatore Mancuso for the acts of sexual and gender violence carried out by his men. As the peace negotiations continue between the Government and the FARC and more details about the deals on transitional justice are revealed, it is clear that neither crimes against humanity nor war crimes will go unpunished. How will the FARC leadership respond to similar accusations of criminal responsibility?
“Looking forward, we consider that this decision and the lessons from the Justice and Peace system in general, should be considered in current discussions regarding transitional justice to ensure that sexual violence is investigated and sanctioned and the rights of victims to truth, justice, reparation and non-repetition are upheld,” said Simon Crabb of LWBC.
Will the Colombian Court’s decisions also now extend to members of the FARC and the Armed Forces found guilty of sexual crimes?