COLOMBIA: Colombia's Women Bear the Scars of a War Among Men

Monday, June 10, 2013
The Guardian
South America
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
General Women, Peace and Security
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

The hot and damp jungles of southern Colombia have been torn apart by war for more than 20 years. One of the most devastating and widely used weapons in the bloody struggle for power over this fertile and oil-rich land – once one of the biggest cocaine-producing regions in the world – is sexual violence against women.

Between 2001 and 2009 alone, nearly three-quarters of a million women were direct victims of sexual violence in the context of Colombia's armed conflict, according to a study by Casa de la Mujer (House of Women). Putumayo's women suffered more than most.

Diana, a 23-year-old women's rights activist from Putumayo, recalls the story of four daughters of the farmer Galgarra. The story of the Galagarra girls plays like a tragic fairy-tale which begins: "Once upon a time, in the land of paramilitaries..."

Four sisters, the youngest aged 12; the eldest, 22 and 18-year-old twins were dragged violently from their home in Putumayo in 2001. "They were beautiful young girls," says Diana. "The leaders say they want them, and so they take them."

Diana, who was only 12 at the time, knows the story well. "They were taken from leader to leader until they brought them to 'El Cobra'," she says.

The look in Diana's eyes betrays the horror of what this means. El Cobra was the stuff of nightmares; a real-life boogeyman who used to wear a necklace of ears cut from the people he had killed that day.

The sisters' bodies were found 10 years later raped and butchered with machetes.

El Cobra is long gone, and his death squad lost dominance over the area, but smaller paramilitary groups and even the Colombian state forces are still using the warlord's terror tactics on the women there, say numerous rights workers and law-makers.

"By managing the lives of women", says Colombian Congresswoman Angela Robledo, "by forcing them to follow certain behaviours, women are subdued under the rule of the warriors who can then dominate the political, social, and cultural community. By using the woman's body as a territory of war, they use it as an instrument to unnerve the people and to exercise dominion over the entire population."

Robledo says the perpetrators use different types of sexual violence ranging from the regulation of social life and sexual harassment, to rape, forced prostitution, sexual slavery, forced pregnancies and forced abortions.

Women are seen as part of the "emotional environment" of the enemy, says Robledo; an environment that must be destroyed in order to humiliate and demoralize the opposition. This is what makes sexual violence so devastating: the fact that it is an incredibly cheap but interminably powerful weapon.

According to Robledo, the biggest perpetrators of sexual violence now are the armed forces and the police. "The situation is intolerable," says the representative, who puts the blame for 54 percent of attacks on the country's public forces, while guerrillas commit 19 percent and paramilitaries (now euphemistically dubbed criminal gangs) 12 percent.

"For us the army isn't so favourable," says Pastora, who sits weaving a colourful bag of her indigenous tribe. "The army leave behind pregnant women, although supposedly they are there to protect us. They leave a lot of children and they don't take responsibility for this. This is a big problem and the government hasn't taken this into account," she says.

The army has taken a zero-tolerance approach to sexual violence by its members. However, there is still a culture of systematic impunity for the perpetrators. There is also an embedded macho culture among the ranks of viewing women as objects. "These women think they are equal to men," says regional commander Colonel Juvenal Diaz, who insisted the interview was conducted while dancing cheek-to-cheek. "But they are not equal – how can they be the same? Women are beautiful and kind, and we men are ..." says the colonel, his voice trailing off as he presses his sweaty body closer.

Official figures can't possibly show the full extent of the problem. Robledo says that out of 4,617 cases, only 67 contain information about the perpetrator, showing that women are either too afraid to identify the assailant, or the authorities don't record the crimes with sufficient care and detail.

The women caught up in this conflict are so used to what the Colombian Constitutional Court has termed the "widespread, systematic and invisible practice of sexual violence," that they are numbed; they seem not to notice it anymore. It has become part of everyday life.

Farm-owner Silvia insists she hasn't seen sexual violence in her area for the last few years. "No, it hasn't affected me," she says. But she begins to sob as she tells how her teenage daughter committed suicide only two months ago. "When she lived they harassed her. She wasn't raped but they wanted to have her and she did not accept."

"The guerrillas come down to the town to conquer the girls," cries Silvia, letting the tears run freely down her face. "The men offer them things, and they offer them false promises, and the girls get excited. But this isn't life."

This 'invisible' plague of sexual violence goes largely unreported in Colombia. The women fear for their safety and the stigma of being labelled a victim. The macho culture of their country means that victims may be shunned by their families and the community, or that their husbands or fathers would have to take revenge on the armed men. Lack of confidence in the legal system is another barrier to reporting the crime – in fact 97.8 percent of the cases seen by the prosecutor general did not receive a custodial sentence.

The Casa de la Mujer study found that there was no efficient and reliable register of sexual violence cases. Many complaints are recorded as homicide, conspiracy, forced displacement, or threats. This misrepresentation renders sexual violence statistically invisible, and reveals the shortcomings within the system.

A bill Robledo presented to the House in April aimed at making sexual violence a crime against humanity, guaranteeing access to justice for victims, and removing impunity, passed the plenary stages.

"The government's efforts should concentrate not only on the facts of the political violence, but also on these socio-cultural issues, the impunity and the re-victimisation which fracture the social web," says the Congresswoman.

"Traces left by the violence on the body and minds of women are deep and have totally affected their life ambitions and their daily lives. It has changed the way they travel through life and has transformed their thoughts, dreams and beliefs. It has injured what is most valuable to them: their recognition and appreciation in society," says Robledo.

"It's like a storm," explains Silvia. "It comes at times. There are times when things are calm, but there are times when they manifest and return, and we are worried, wondering about what will happen tomorrow; what will happen tonight."