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COLOMBIA: Women Suffer Abuse Behind the Front Lines

Helda Martínez

BOGOTÁ, Jan 23 2007 (IPS) - “The actors in the Colombian armed conflict, in particular the paramilitary groups and the guerrilla, employ physical, sexual and psychological violence against women as a strategy of war,” stated the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).

This is one of the conclusions of the IACHR’s Rapporteurship on the Rights of Women. The Commission forms part of the Organisation of American States (OAS), which cooperates in Colombia with the non-governmental Corporación Sisma Mujer.

Some 50 civil society organisations presented updated statistics and more detailed testimonies to add to the Rapporteurship’s information, during a visit to Colombia by the IACHR’s Víctor Abramovich, from Jan. 16 to 20.

The report, “Violence and Discrimination against Women in the Armed Conflict in Colombia”, says that “violence against women is used as an instrument to intimidate and spread terror to communities, thereby provoking the displacement of hundreds of families.”

“Acts of violence against women include homicides, acts of torture and markings against women who sustain affective relationships with combatants and to obtain information. Both men and women are the victims of crimes perpetrated by all the actors in the armed conflict, but in the case of women, acts of physical and psychological violence are joined by aggressions and crimes of a sexual nature,” the document says.

According to statistics from the non-governmental Colombian Commission of Jurists, “during the January 2002 to June 2006 period, one woman a day, on average, died in Colombia” as a result of the political violence.

“Too many violations are being perpetrated against girls, teenagers, and adult women in Colombia under the shadow of the conflict, and yet there is very little awareness of this in society, or in the media, which could help to raise awareness on this issue,” Claudia Mejía, the head of Sisma Mujer, told IPS.

The IACHR report addresses the problem of the recruitment of girls and young women by irregular armed forces, such as the ultra-rightwing United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) and the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

“Girls are raped by members of the armed groups, subjected to forced abortions and forced to use intrauterine devices. Paramilitary leaders ‘order the search’ of girls between the ages of 12 and 14 to live with them, provide sexual services and perform domestic duties,” the report says.

“Everyday violence against women soars in wartime,” Mejía emphasised. But while crime rates go up, the phenomenon continues to be ignored.

In the report, the Rapporteur states that women victims are not taken seriously, or may even be mistreated, by the judicial branch when they come forward to make complaints, which promotes impunity and perpetuates crime.

This statement is in agreement with a 2004 report from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR).

The UNHCHR document says that “the majority of violations of the rights of women and girls remain unpunished, due to a lack of official investigations, the low number of complaints because of shame, lack of credibility of the justice system, and underreporting in cases of death or sexual violence.”

There is an “absence of training programmes for court officials on gender issues, and there are sexist practices in the justice system, especially in penal matters,” the UNHCHR report adds.

The IACHR Rapporteur’s report, in addition to calling for improved treatment and protection for women, acknowledges that officials recognise the existing challenges, and that the Colombian state has advanced in the adoption of a legislative and public policy framework designed to protect women’s rights over the last decade.

One of the government efforts mentioned was the concern to gather reliable statistics on crimes against women through the work of the National Institute of Legal Medicine, the Department of National Statistics and the Presidential Advisory Office on Gender Equality (CPEM), among others.

But there is still much to be done, according to the recommendations of the IACHR Rapporteur, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and even the CPEM, which oversees government policies on women’s issues. In its 2003 report “Women – Builders of Peace and Development,” the CPEM acknowledged that women as a group suffered from high levels of inequality.

Marta Lucía Vásquez, the head of the CPEM, told IPS that “the advances in protection that have been achieved should be recognised,” for example gains through “government policies such as ‘Democratic Security’ and the reactivation of President Álvaro Uribe’s social policies.”

She also pointed out that deaths of men and women occur in the ratio of three to one, and that there are other Latin American countries with higher rates of violence against women than Colombia’s.

Even so, according to official statistics, women account for half of those displaced from their homes because of the civil war, and four out of ten displaced families are headed by women.

The IACHR report on Violence and Discrimination Against Women said that “on (women’s) shoulders falls the reorganisation, care and daily hygiene tasks of the family and even the community. Men feel unable to solve these problems and unable to do the work they ordinarily do in their fields. This situation sometimes leads to family conflicts.”

“When resettlement is in shelters, women’s privacy is affected. Their health needs regarding menstruation and family planning are not taken into account,” according to the report “Chocó: Territory of Wealth and Survival”, given to Rapporteur Susana Villarán by women’s groups during her June 2006 visit to Quibdó, the capital of the western province of Chocó on the Pacific coast.

While the official figures for the number of displaced persons in Colombia are already high, the non-governmental Consultancy on Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES) affirms that the displaced population is more than twice the figure published by the state.

CODHES estimates that from 1985 to December 2004, about 3.5 million people, 51 percent of whom are women, have been displaced from their homes because of the armed conflict.

“I am a black woman displaced from Chocó 10 years ago. I lost my brother, who disappeared when the paramilitary forces took him away, just because he took part in a peasant march. They forced us to leave our lands, they also took my husband away and three months passed without us knowing whether he was dead or alive. With the help of the priest in my town I arrived at Barranquilla (on the Caribbean coast) with my six children. It was very challenging to support them…,” according to a testimony included in the Rapporteur’s report.

IACHR Commissioner and Rapporteur Susana Villarán visited Colombia in June 2005 and interviewed government authorities, victims and their families, civil society organisations, including indigenous and Afro-Colombian associations, and women’s rights groups, in Bogotá, in Quibdó, where most of the population is black, and in Valledupar, capital of the northern province of Cesar.

The Rapporteur talked to indigenous people living in the Sierra Nevada de Santa María, and after considering all the testimonies she concluded that within the context of a high degree of violence against women in the country, black and indigenous women suffered even worse treatment because of their additional vulnerability as members of ethnic minorities living in areas of outstanding natural wealth.

Persecution by irregular armed groups is also directed specifically at women leaders of non-governmental organisations working to defend women’s rights.

“Unionised women were victims of 15 femicides (gender-related murders), 102 death threats, 10 arbitrary detentions, 15 cases of harassment and persecution for union activism, two attempted murders, seven forced displacements and one kidnapping” in 2005, according to the National Union School (ENS). The agencies involved in defending women’s rights plan to continue their efforts. “What we need is mass publicity for this situation, which affects women, and through them their families, and therefore the country,” Mejía concluded.

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