Women in danger on Colombia’s front line

By Josefina Salomon, with Amnesty International’s team in Bogotá

Angélica is never alone. Everywhere she goes, she’s accompanied by two armed security guards in a bullet-proof car.

For Angélica, travelling alone is simply too dangerous.

She is a Colombian human rights activist, working to protect women survivors of sexual violence in the midst of Colombia’s 45-year-long armed conflict.

But defending human rights is a very dangerous job in Colombia.

Over the past few decades, many of these leaders have been threatened and killed, and others have even been subjected to sexual violence themselves because of the work they do.

“Being a woman human rights activist in Colombia is like being a kamikaze in Iraq,” Angélica told us during our recent visit to the South American country. “We have to take on the job of defending our own rights and empowering ourselves to do that.”

In November 2009, Angélica was the victim of sexual abuse allegedly committed by paramilitaries. She was beaten so badly that she is still dealing with the consequences of the abuse.

The attack followed a series of threats she had been receiving since 2008, when she was working to protect the rights of women across Colombia who suffered sexual abuse.

“I was very scared. When the men abused me, beat me, the first thing they warned me was not to report it. They said that I should look at them very well in the face because I could see them again at any moment.”

A year later, a group of men followed and attacked one of her daughters, who had gone to the capital Bogotá to register at a university.

Unlike many other women, Angélica reported the threats and sexual abuse to the authorities but little was done to investigate the case and bring those responsible to justice.

“Since I suffered the abuse three years ago, I haven’t even had an HIV test or any psychological attention from the State, which I have been requesting for some time.”

The situation got so worrying that in early 2010, she requested protection measures from the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, a regional human rights body. By April 2011, the Colombian authorities had provided her with two armed security guards and a bullet-proof car.

Even though the protection helps her to stay safe, Angélica’s life has completely changed since the bodyguards are always with her.

Like other human rights activists in similar protection schemes, Angélica says her social and family life has been badly affected and that she lives in constant fear that someone will infiltrate her security.

“The protection scheme is ironic in a way. When I arrived in my neighbourhood with a massive car, my landlord increased my rent as she thought I had won the lottery. If I go to a restaurant, they also think I’m rich and they charge me more.”

Even in the protection scheme, the threats haven’t stopped. In June this year, her name and those of other activists were published in two leaflets signed by a paramilitary group.

“People say that after the third leaflet, they start killing people – let’s see what happens,” says Angélica.

Many human rights activists like Angélica told us that in addition to the protection they receive, the state should bring to justice those responsible for the abuse. Ensuring those who attack women and human rights activists are punished would be the only real protection for them.

“I want the authorities to recognize that there are women and girls victims of sexual violence in the context of the armed conflict and for them to publicly say that we human rights activists are not doing anything wrong. The only thing left to take away from us is our dignity,” said Angélica, before leaving, in her big car, with her two armed guards.

Read More:

Medellin – the city where no one feels safe (Blog, 23 September 2011)Colombian authorities fail survivors of sexual violence (Press release, 21 September 2011)
This is what we demand. Justice! – Impunity for sexual violence against women in Colombia’s armed conflict. (Report, 21 September 2011)