Colombia failing survivors of sexual violence - Amnesty

by Anastasia Moloney | @anastasiabogota | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 21 September 2011 11:42 GMT
Report says authorities have done little to stop armed groups abusing women as weapon of war

BOGOTA (TrustLaw ) - The Colombian government is failing to provide justice and support to the thousands of women and girls who have been raped and sexually abused by warring factions in Colombia’s armed conflict, Amnesty International said on Wednesday.

For nearly five decades, Colombia has been mired in fighting between government troops, leftist rebels, cocaine smugglers and right-wing paramilitary militias. All of these armed groups are responsible for sexual violence against women, according to a report by the rights group.   

“The practice of sexual violence against Colombian women in the context of the country’s conflict continues to be widespread and systematic,” Susan Lee, Americas director at Amnesty International, told TrustLaw.

“Women and girls in Colombia are seen as bounties and trophies of war, and as a means to punish the enemy,” she said.

Armed groups also use sexual violence against women to instil fear among communities, and as a way of imposing social and military control in an area, the report said. Sexual violence forces families to flee their homes, allowing combatants to grab land.  

“As they dominate an area, they also dominate young girls who are drawn in as sexual slaves,” Lee said.

“Armed groups seem to think it is some sort of right to use women. They don’t consider sexual violence against women, including rape, a crime or a human rights violation.”

The report, based on dozens of interviews with survivors of rape and sexual violence over two years, includes the testimonies of women and girls who have been gang-raped by fighters and coerced into prostitution.

“I never knew whether I was having a period or not because I was always bleeding, there were so many men. They used to put coca in my vagina so that they could carry on,” one 17-year-old girl told Amnesty International, who was forced by a paramilitary chief to become a prostitute in a local bar in 2005.

FEAR AND IMPUNITY

Colombia does not have a national register for sexual violence against women, making it difficult to gauge the extent of the problem. But there is little doubt it is dramatically under-reported, as many survivors are too afraid to come forward, the report found.

Women fear reprisals from the perpetrators, and have little faith in the justice system to take the crime seriously and punish their attackers.

“A woman is often disbelieved, is not taken seriously, and very often blamed for what has happened to her,” Lee said. 

“There is also a cultural stigma attached to sexual violence that is obviously extremely ingrained in Colombia,” she added.

When survivors of sexual violence do dare to report a crime, they often find that judicial officials, both female and male, are reluctant to help.

“When I went to file the complaint, I went to the Attorney General’s Office. I said I was going to report the case of my rape, as a victim of sexual violence [and they said], ‘Another one? Another rape?’ When they said that, I froze and got up and said ‘Thank you, I’ll come back another day’. I said ‘I don’t want to [do it] anymore,” one rape survivor is quoted as saying in the report.

Such attitudes mean combatants who rape and sexually abuse women are rarely prosecuted.

“Impunity appears to be absolute partly because of the invisibility of the phenomenon,” Lee said.

It is also because the Colombian authorities have been unable and unwilling to investigate crimes of sexual violence, and there is a lack of political will and coordination among state agencies to tackle the issue.

“There is nobody (in the government) who is saying let’s get a grip on this,” said Lee. “It’s not on the political agenda; no-one really wants to touch it.”

(Editing by Megan Rowling)

TrustLaw also has a factbox on sexual violence in Colombia's conflict.

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