National figures indicate that violence against women in Colombia has increased significantly in the last ten years, while experts suggest that it is the combination of a machista culture and “institutional weaknesses” that continue to facilitate gender-based violence in the country.
The biggest problem in any analysis of gender-based violence is a lack of data. While the number of total incidents reported has increased significantly over the past decade, experts still believe that many, if not most, violent acts against women go unreported.
Still, with the help of statistics about sexual and domestic violence which are predominantly affecting women, a worrying trend is still apparent in Colombia.
Colombia’s National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Science reports that documented sexual offenses have risen roughly 40%, from about 14,000 to 21,000 incidents, between 2003 and 2012.
Sexual violence cases in Colombia
In the same time period, cases of domestic physical violence have reportedly gone up about 30%, from 62,000 to 84,000 incidents.
Domestic violence cases in Colombia
The Ministry of Defense also released figures for a similar period of time displaying an even more radical increase of these two indicators.
While different data bases and report behavior can explain for the varying figures, both sources tell the story of an significant increase of violence against women in Colombia in last eight to ten years, as 77% of recorded domestic violence victims and 88% of sexual abuse victims are female.
According to High Chanciller for the Equality of Women Nigeria Renteria Lozano, the trend is neither an increase in reporting nor an increse in violence, but a complicated combination of both. In an interview with Colombia Reports, Renteria explained that even as the public attention for the problem of violence against women has grown and more and more women report these kinds of crimes than did previously, there has still been a substantial increase of violence against women in recent years.
A multifaceted problem
Lozano described violence against women as a “multi-causal phenomenon,” stressing its cultural and social roots and the difficulty to adequately capture it legally and statistically. According to Law 1257 of 2008, created to strengthen women rights and improve legal prosecution, there are five basic forms of violence against women: physical, sexual, psychological, economic and patrimonial.
While physical and sexual violence are easier to detect, economic and patrimonial violence are more subtle. There is a difference, for example, in a woman choosing to stay out of the fulltime workforce and take control of house life and childcare and a woman being deprived of material wealth by their partners and actively hindered from taking an autonomous role in society, as Ana Maria Salamanca, a women rights expert from the Women’s House (Casa de las Mujeres) NGO in Bogota.
“Their partners deprive them of their economic goods. Let’s say they work: then their husbands or boyfriends keep their wages because they say a woman is not capable of managing her funds on her own. This is a form of violence because it keeps women from living autonomously and independently,” Salamanca told Colombia Reports.
One of the characteristics of all forms of violence against women is that it is mostly committed in the private, intimate space of family and home, another factor that makes statistical tracking difficult.
According to the National Institute for Forensics, 64% of domestic violence cases happened between partners in 2012, with 88% of the victims being female. In 43% of these cases, the boyfriend was the offender. Husbands, meanwhile, accounted for 23% and ex-boyfriends for 13%, with 59% of the total incidents occurring in the victim’s home. It’s hard to know, however, whether husbands abuse their spouses less than boyfriends abuse their girlfriends, or whether a married woman is less likely to report an abuse than one in a less-committed relationship.
In the case of sexual violence, the institute reported that 77% of the offenders of sexual violence against women were either family members or members of the victim’s circle of acquaintances, while, like in the case of domestic violence, 59% of the crimes were committed in the victim’s home.
In general, an estimated 90% of all cases of violence against women are committed by males.
Different forms of machismo
According to both experts, the 2008 law has been successful in raising public awareness and encouraging women to come forward. But at the same time, both claimed that there has been a significant rise of violence against women and that the number of reports by victims is still too low in relation to the estimated number of unreported cases.
According to Renteria, the idea that a man has legitimate power over a woman and should exercise it regularly is deeply embedded in Colombia’s cultural tradition.
“Even today there exist many cultural stereotypes that go back generations (in Colombia), that justify violence against women in a specific manner,” said Renteria, who also described a less obvious form of Colombia “machismo.”
It’s commonly held, she said, that women can “provoke” violence with “a certain way of clothing or behavior” that does not comply with male expectations.
While the former gives men the right to abuse women in the context of Colombian society, the latter superimposes agency on the victims of violence themselves, preventing women from seeking help and discrediting them when they do.
Impunity and silence
This underlying societal “acceptance” of violence against women means that only a small percent of these crimes are ever sanctioned, legally or otherwise.
Societal apathy is yet another factor that forces women to keep quiet about the abuses inflicted on them. “A lot of times women don’t even bother to report, because nothing will happen,” said Renteria.
“The rise of violence is due to the lack of social and legal sanctions,” confirmed Salamanca, saying that many female victims are not even aware of their rights, much less that they have been violated.
The intimate form of violence involved, moreover, requires a level of sophistication and sensitivity that the responsible authorities simply do not possess, according to Salamanca.
“Still, the institutions are lacking the capacity to provide spaces in which the women feel safe and comfortable enough to report the crimes committed against them,” Salamanca told Colombia Reports, adding that “a lot of times women see themselves confronted with authorities who suggest that they are responsible for what happened to them, stigmatizing and victimizing them a second time.”
Rather than explain victims their rights or support their decisions to distance themselves from their attackers, she said, authorities will commonly tell aggrieved women to “sort things out with their partners” in order to keep the family intact.
The problem, she said, extends both inward and outward, from the deeply personal and psychological issues involved in being abused by a lover or family member, to the “socio-sexual patriarchal system,” which facilitates the exclusion of women from politics and business, and leads to disproportionate levels of representation in all the higher planes of society.
Lanzano said that the 2008 law was a step in the right direction, but that the institutions charged with enforcing it need greater funding and better organization and preparation.
A higher level of cooperation is required between state authorities, she said, to battle the “institutional weakness” of the criminal justice system regarding these matters. And police officers and other public servants who come in direct contact with female victims of violence should be made to undergo special training.
The Ministry of Education should play a role as well, said Salamanca. “The key to change those traditional stereotypes that facilitate violence against women is to work with the children, in order to transmit also to their fathers that their traditional stereotypes are no longer valid.”
Similarly, media is another focus of those looking to combat stereotypes and the ways they are transmitted — through movies, television, music videos and advertisements — especially to the younger generation.
Salamanca stated that her NGO especially works on an individual basis aiming to empower women to question the daily discrimination or violence, regardless of the form it comes in.
“We want women to ask themselves, why is it me who has to cook all the time? Why can’t my husband cook from time to time?” she told Colombia Reports.
With these little steps, the NGO wants to generate a new consciousness within Colombia’s female population, one that encourages women live more independently and seek help when they have become victims of violence.
- Interview with Nigeria Renteria Lozano
- Interview with Ana Maria Salamanca
- Comportamiento de la violencia intrafamiliar, Colombia, 2012 (National Institute for Forensics)
- Mujeres indígenas, víctimas invisibles del conflicto armado en Colombia (National Institute for Forensics)