The body of Colombian women is a battleground

A catalogue of sexual violence has accompanied the armed conflict in Colombia. The peace talks must not brush it under the carpet.

José-Manuel Barreto
8 September 2014

A group of 60 victims of the Colombian armed conflict last month spoke to representatives of the government and the guerrilla of the FARC, who have been engaged in peace talks in Havana, Cuba, since November 2012. It’s time to impress on both parties to the negotiations the need to address the plight of the Colombian women and girls who have been victims of sexual violence in the context of the conflict.

A recent report, Colombia: Women, Conflict-Related Violence and the Peace Process, published by Sisma Mujer, ABColombia and the NGO US Office on Colombia, documents the sexual violence to which women have been subjected in this context. The picture is shocking: between 2000 and 2009, women’s organisations recorded 12,809 cases in which women and girls were victims of rape, as well as 1,575 cases of forced prostitution, 4,415 victims of forced pregnancy and 1,810 forced abortions.

Gang rape, sexual slavery, beatings, torture, mutilation and even murder and the killing of foetuses have been involved. In many cases rape was committed in the presence of family members.

The victims have been mainly women and girls living in the countryside or in small towns and villages—poor peasants caught in the middle of the conflict. Indigenous and Afro-Colombian women have suffered higher rates of violence, with here racism playing a role.

“Systematic and generalised”

All sides have committed these crimes: right-wing paramilitaries and their heirs, the criminal bands; members of the army and the police, as well as the guerrilla groups, including the FARC. Nor is conflict-related sexual violence the consequence of individual members of these armies going rogue, as some claim. According to the Constitutional Court, it is “systematic and generalised”—tellingly, the FARC has a policy of forced contraception and abortion.

Rape is inscribed within the dynamics of war. It is used to secure social submission and territorial control by creating an atmosphere of fear and terror, and as a way of punishing or taking revenge on enemies and their real or alleged sympathisers. Rape is also a tool to recruit girls as combatants.

The victims have been mainly women and girls living in the countryside or in small towns and villages—poor peasants caught in the middle of the conflict.

The sexual violence which serves the logic of war finds favourable conditions in the entrenched machismo and social discrimination characteristic of “traditional” Colombian culture. The economic and political marginalisation of women is pervasive in Colombian society. The result is a web of prejudices according to which women are to serve men, their bodies to be used and disposed of.

Almost all these crimes are perpetrated with absolute impunity. Only 18% of the victims of domestic and conflict-related rape report it to the authorities and in only 2% is there a conviction.

Women’s perspectives

Earlier this year the Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos, responded to the request by feminist organisations that women be included in the government’s team of seven negotiators in charge of the peace talks with the FARC. The concern had been to ensure women’s problems and perspectives were represented in the peace conversations. Santos included two women –one of African descent.

According to international humanitarian law, the sexual crimes committed in the context of the conflict represent crimes against humanity. A crucial task for the government and the guerrillas will be to ensure that they are not pushed under the carpet.

Culprits from all sides should not be favoured by amnesty. Otherwise impunity would add humiliation to the trauma of victimisation. Any eventual political settlement cannot allow rapists to walk free in the streets of Colombia—or in the corridors of power.

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