Civil Rights Global Policy Studies & International Security Health & Social Policy LBJ School

Sexual Violence in Colombia and Around the World: The Invisible, Mute, and Exempt Crime

Photo Credit: Jose Huesca/EPA via The Guardian

Second in a series by Marcelle Cohen (LBJ MGPS Student) covering her internship at La Allianza Iniciativa de Mujeres Colombianas por la Paz.

Sexual violation, forced marriage, forced prostitution, sexual slavery, forced abortion, forced sterilization; the negation of reproductive rights to access anti-contraceptives or protection from sexually transmitted disease; genital mutilation… The United Nations has reported that it is now more dangerous to be woman than a soldier in an armed conflict.

Historically, sexual violence in conflict was accepted as an unfortunate, but unavoidable collateral damage of war. Sexual terror has long been an institutionalized feature of conflict, legitimized as deserved spoils by warring armies. During WWII for instance, the world turned its head away from the mass rape perpetrated by all sides, going unrecognized by the two courts set up by allied countries to prosecute war crimes. It wasn’t until 2000 that UN Resolution 1325 recognized women as human beings who suffered from gender-based crimes against humanity for the first time in history.

In conflict, sexual violence is the perfect crime. Margot Wallström, the U.N.’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict has stated that “[s]exual violence in conflict has become the weapon of choice. The reason is as simple as it is wicked – because it is cheap, silent and effective.” Shedding light on the dimensions and systematization of sexual violence within the Colombian armed conflict reflects similar challenges as with other conflicts worldwide, due to a cultural and social landscape that has naturalized violence against women. Stigmatization and re-victimization that occur in the wake of sexual violence in both social and institutional arenas have inhibited reporting and thus silenced these crimes.

The sexism and misogyny that shape social contexts have acted to distort the perception sexual crimes as acts of violence. The victim is often blamed for sex crimes, liberating the perpetrator of responsibility. For instance, during paramilitary rule, the grade school principal in the Colombian town of Riachuelo opened the school’s doors to paramilitary occupation, and girl students were raped by the forces. When the girl victims denounced these crimes, however, town officials and residents claimed that the events that the girls were presenting as rape “were entirely for their own pleasure (…) the ones that were raped were the paramilitaries, not the girls.” This case is also reflective of how sexual violence becomes a blemish on its victims. The girls that accused their rapists were punished through humiliation and ostracization from their community, demonstrating why most victims decide to negate and bury these crimes. This case also demonstrates how many victims live in fear of denouncing because their rapists still hold seats of authority, and have the power to inflict further suffering on the victim.

The same gender inequality that legitimizes sexual violence in society is also enshrined in aggressive institutions. Legal tools and procedures to investigate and mete out justice for victims are inadequate, resulting in processes that often only serve to traumatize women victims of sexual violence. In testimonies, Colombian women have reported how public servants have subtly accused them of having provoked the crimes, or worse: of not believing them entirely. The report Basta Ya, documents an instance of a public prosecutor reporting on how “[t]he other day a woman came to tell me that she had been raped. But the story was not very believable because she was ugly and old.” Other public officials have reflected coercive prejudice, excusing rape as the sexual hunger of the victims: “young girls like the military uniform. They are the ones that seek them out and they feel proud when they’re with one.”

Sexual violence floods over the body of the female victim, extending to the social fabric. Sexual violence has symbolic weight in patriarchal societies: of degradation and punishment for women, but also humiliation for the male enemy and the community. This makes sexual violence a convenient tool, eliminating the need for the legal consequences associated with murder or non-sexual torture, while still maintaining the power for social control.

In a prolonged armed conflict such as the one in Colombia, where impunity has bled deeply into institutions and the social fabric, resistance has emerged in the form of speaking truth into impunity’s vast and violent silence. I met eight women from the Caribbean town of Libertad during an annual conference for my internship organization, la Alianza Iniciativa de Mujeres Colombianas por la Paz. The women were all in their early to mid-twenties, Afro-Colombian, poor subsistence farmers, and illiterate—the most vulnerable sector in Colombia. The AUC paramilitary forces had occupied Libertad from 1997-2004, systematically raping and abusing girls between 13 and 16 years old. Woman after woman told her story of being chosen by the paramilitary leader, Marco Tulio Pérez Guzmán, “El Oso”, and abducted out of her home to be raped for days. One of the women reported that her mother had sold her to the paramilitaries for three days for $20.000 Colombian pesos, the equivalent of $7.43. One woman’s father had sent her to the paramilitaries because he was angry that she had a boyfriend; they forced her abortion and then proceeded to rape her in a cabin for days before she escaped. Another woman’s gang rape by paramilitary members had left her pregnant and unaware of her child’s biological father. Yet another woman was rejected by her family after her abduction and subsequent sexual victimization; she started sleeping under bridges and selling herself at the age of thirteen. All the women reported that for years they couldn’t meet anyone else’s gaze, that they felt worthless, disdained and mute. All the women spoke with their heads bowed to the ground. All the women were crying. But they were still speaking out.

These women from Libertad, which means freedom, organized and brought El Oso to justice for his sexual crimes. During his trial, El Oso admitted to executing systematic murders, massacres, and forced disappearances. But he refused to recognize that the crimes he committed against women were non-consensual – even despite clear evidence from at least nine women of prolonged sexual slavery under his rule. His refusal to confess led to El Oso’s 40 year sentence, resulting in the first time an ex-paramilitary leader lost the benefits of the amnesty program La Ley of Justicia y Paz for failing to acknowledge crimes of sexual violence.

Although El Oso’s conviction symbolizes a positive step in challenging the impunity of sexual violence in conflict, justice for the victims remains incomplete. Each of the eight women I met from Libertad now have at least 5 children. The women reported that they often had no food, and would sometimes resort to rubbing salt in their children’s mouths when they were hungry. None of the women had any opportunities for education or work. They told us that El Oso’s shadow still haunted their dreams, tormenting them in the still moments of the day.

Colombia – and the world – must establish strong social norms against sexual violence. Both societies and states must be resolved against new violations of these norms. But we must go further: justice for sexual violence needs to go beyond penal sentencing for the accused and focus on the victims’ health and well-being. Women need reparations in the form of psychosocial services, rehabilitation, capacity-building, and state guarantees of non-repetition to restore dignity to the victims. In this sense, the crime of sexual violation still persists for the women of Libertad, understood as the continued denial of moral and material reparations for these victims.

Edited by Jon Brandt

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