On November 27, as part of 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence, advocacy group ABColumbia published a report on women, conflict-related sexual violence and the Colombian peace process. This report reveals the widespread and systematic use of sexual violence in Colombia’s ongoing armed conflict by security forces, guerilla groups and paramilitaries. Torture and mutilation, the killing of unborn children, rape in the presence of family members and gang-rape are used as a tactic to achieve military goals. This report sheds light on the strategic use of rape as an illegal weapon of war, a method of conducting hostilities that violate states’ responsibility as well as international law. This report also illuminates the economic and cultural systems that sustain violence against women and girls – pre-existing norms and patterns of discrimination, both inside and outside the conflict – that must be dismantled to establish an equality-based rule of law in Colombia. Massively underreported, these crimes are almost never prosecuted and the impunity rate for sexual-related crimes runs at more than 98 percent. According to the report, ending the almost total impunity for this crime is essential for the potential success of a peace process in Colombia.
A woman holds up a poster dotted with rose petals and a message that reads in Spanish; “Only a kiss would shut me up,” during a march to protest physical abuse of women and in support of Colombia’s peace talks in Bogota, Colombia on Friday, Nov. 22, 2013.
In 2012, Amnesty International said that in Colombia, “women are targets of sexual violence to sow terror within communities to force them to flee their land, wreak revenge on the enemy, control the sexual and reproductive rights of female combatants or exploit women and girls as sexual slaves.” While sexual violence against women is employed as a strategy of war by all armed actors in the Colombian conflict, different objectives are pursued using sexual violence by security forces, guerilla groups and paramilitaries.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armados Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) uses sexual violence strategically in the forced recruitment of female combatants. Though recruitment of children below the age of 15 is a war crime, young girls are either lured into the FARC or abducted, to serve “as companions for their leaders,” their forced sexual services as ‘payment’ to protect other members of their family. Furthermore, once ‘recruited,’ FARC imposes their policy of contraception and forced abortion to further control the sexual and reproductive rights of female combatants.
Oxfam wrote that “state military forces, paramilitaries and guerrilla groups have used sexual violence with the goal of terrorizing communities, using women as instruments to achieve their military objectives.” By terrorizing rural communities, most commonly inhabited by indigenous populations, these groups use women’s bodies to exercise forced displacement and advance their control of territories and resources. The use of sexual violence to induce terror is epitomized by the act being carried out in full view of the community, according to the ABColumbia report. This practice of forced displacement on indigenous communities puts them at risk of physical or cultural extinction – a campaign that looks a lot like genocide. Furthermore, with an increased presence of state military forces in regions characterized by large scale-mining, agribusiness and areas of strategic importance for drug trafficking comes an increase in the exploitation of women and girls as sexual slaves.
Sexual violence is also used to impose social control over the activities of women. This tactic is extensively used by paramilitary groups and occasionally by guerilla groups. Cultural attitudes and social codes are imposed on women and transgression from those roles result in punishment, often public and intended to shame the victim and cause social stigmatization against them. The use of sexual violence as a method of conducting hostilities identifies the ‘enemy’ as the civilian population rather than other armed combatants. Colombia’s Human Rights Ombudsman reported that “even if cases of sexual violence against women perpetrated by the Security Forces do not correspond to a war strategy (…), they constitute a generalized practice that takes advantage of the conditions of subordination of women, their precarious economic conditions resulting from lack of protection by the State, and the acceptance of existing ideas in the local culture, such as a woman’s body is an object that belongs to men.”
Protesters in Bogota chant “miniskirts are not an invitation.”
“(Rape) is one of the only crimes for which a community’s response is more often to stigmatize the victim rather than prosecute the perpetrator.” – UN Action against Sexual Violence in Conflict
According to this report, “impunity for these crimes acts to reinforce, rather than challenge, these pre-existing norms and patterns of discrimination against women, both inside and outside of the conflict.” Incidents are rarely reported because there are no guarantees for women in the justice system – either they are not believed, or the police took no action, refused to document their case or they feared for their safety. Also, the social stigma attached to sexual violence that fosters the practice of victim-blaming and encourages women to remain silent about their attacks. When Colombia’s security forces are themselves among the perpetrators of violence, it makes sense that women have an extreme lack of faith in their access to justice. Ending impunity for these crimes is essential for changing attitudes about conflict-related sexual violence.
Unlawful weapons violate states’ responsibility as well as international law. Peace talks between the Colombian Government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were officially announced in August 2012, after five decades of conflict. The ABColombia report calls for Colombia to adhere to UN Resolutions 1325 and 1820. Colombia signed both these resolutions, which state that Governments must ensure sexual violence is on the agenda during peace talks, that there should be no amnesties for sexual violence crimes, and that women must play a major part in the peace process and in the construction of peace. Women’s issues cannot be dealt with ex-post, especially when mistreatment and abuse of women is deeply rooted in Colombian society. Women are being sacrificed for their country without their consent and their voices must be heard during the peace process.