By Ulrike Beck of the Colombia team at Amnesty International
As people around the world prepare to celebrate International Women’s Day on 8 March, thousands of women and girls continue to endure rape and other sexual violence at the hands of armed forces, paramilitaries and guerrillas in Colombia’s decades-old armed conflict.
The vast majority of these crimes are never reported. Where they are reported, assaults frequently go unpunished. This International Women’s Day, you can let the survivors know that they are not alone by expressing solidarity with them and their fight for justice.
While researching a recent report on the lack of justice for sexual violence in Colombia’s armed conflict, Amnesty International spoke with dozens of survivors and their relatives.
The women’s heartbreaking stories illustrate the challenges they face in denouncing sexual violence related to the conflict.
Angélica told us how she was held against her will for 10 years as a domestic and sexual slave by a man thought to be a member or a collaborator of the FARC guerrilla group. In her search for justice, she walked from door to door in the capital Bogotá until her feet were bloodied and blistered, but no one would listen to her.
Blanca, a woman campaigning for justice after her three daughters were raped and killed by paramilitaries, related how police officers in charge of her protection would arrive at her home in a large group and then disappear for weeks at a time, leaving her vulnerable. Her neighbours grew suspicious of her dealings with the police.
Mari fled the area where she was repeatedly raped by paramilitaries and attempted to forget the traumatic experience. When she finally built up the courage to denounce the crimes at the Attorney General’s office, they responded in disbelief: “Another one? Another rape?”
When 14-year-old Dora went to file a complaint about her sexual assault, she was left alone with the perpetrator, a police officer, and told to seek conciliation.
These are just four of the brave women who shared their stories.
When Amnesty International shared its completed report with the women, Angélica was surprised that we had not forgotten her. You can help us to make her and other voices heard, and let them know they are not forgotten.
In 2008, Colombia’s Constitutional Court recognized that “sexual violence against women is a habitual, extensive, systematic and invisible practice in the Colombian armed conflict.” But the true scale of the problem remains unknown as there is no accurate data and no national data collection process.
The Constitutional Court ordered the Attorney General to investigate 183 cases of sexual violence in 2008. At the time we published our report, only 68 additional cases of conflict-related sexual violence were under investigation. In only a handful of these cases have the perpetrators been identified, let alone brought to justice.
In December 2011, a Colombian court convicted a paramilitary for sexual crimes, the first such verdict in the Justice and Peace process. In this case a paramilitary group – which at the time operated with the support of Colombia’s armed forces – had “confessed” to more than 2,000 individual crimes including mass killings, enforced disappearances and forced displacements.
But the perpetrators continue to deny their part in the widespread and systematic sexual abuse of women and girls – only three rapes were among this litany of crime confessed by members of this particular group.
“This is what we demand, justice!” said Clara, who faced sexual violence by members of the Colombian armed forces and is one of the women Amnesty International spoke with.
Now we are asking you to write solidarity messages to these brave women who survived sexual violence and took the risk to seek justice for all of Colombia’s women and girl survivors of conflict-related sexual crimes.
Disclaimer: For the safety of the women we interviewed, Amnesty International has disguised their real names.
Colombian authorities fail survivors of sexual violence (News story, 21 September 2011)
‘This is what we demand. Justice!’ Impunity for sexual violence against women in Colombia’s armed conflict (Report, 21 September 2011)Women in danger on Colombia’s front line (Blog, 21 September 2011)