Despite laws, resolutions, decrees, protocols, and directives against gender-based violence, women victims of sexual violence during armed conflict face tremendous challenges in seeking justice, including discrimination, stigmatization, and the inexistence of a holistic strategy to combat impunity in these cases.
“Sexual violence, particularly in the context of the conflict, is often not reported to the authorities as women are frequently too scared to talk, fear the stigmatization attached to being a survivor of sexual violence or believe the crime will not be effectively investigated,” Amnesty International noted in a written statement on Oct. 4 announcing the release of the report “Colombia: Hidden from justice. Impunity for conflict-related sexual violence, a follow-up report.”
The study maintains that in the context of armed conflict, “while some women are targeted for reasons other than their gender, many are singled out simply because they are women and for reasons inherently linked to the conflict — to sow terror within communities to force them to flee; to wreak revenge on the enemy; to control the sexual and reproductive rights of female combatants; or to exploit women and girls as sexual slaves.”
In December 2011, President Juan Manuel Santos signed four decrees regulating Law 1257 against gender violence, which when adopted in 2008 represented a major breakthrough in the prevention and punishment of all forms of violence and discrimination against women, but did not include gender-based violence in armed conflict.
Also in 2008, the Constitutional Court recognized that “sexual violence against women is a common, widespread, systematic and invisible practice in the context of the Colombian armed conflict, as are sexual exploitation and abuse, by all illegal armed groups, and in rare cases, by individual agents of the security forces (…). What is more serious is that this type of violence engenders a three-part process of formal and informal invisibility, silence on the part of the victims, and impunity of the perpetrators.”
The court ordered a series of measures implemented on this issue, including an investigation by the Attorney General’s Office into specific cases, which have not moved forward, according to the human rights research and advocacy group, Human Rights Watch.
At the end of July, legislators Iván Cepeda and Ángela María Robledo presented a bill that classifies sexual violence in armed conflict as a war crime, an offense that according to international law is not subject to a statute of limitations. According to the results of the First Survey on the Prevalence of Sexual Violence Against Women in the Context of the Colombian Armed Conflict released in December 2010 by the humanitarian organization Intermon Oxfam, from 2001 to 2009, nearly 490,000 women were direct victims of sexual violence in municipalities where security forces, guerrillas, paramilitary or other armed groups were present.
“The only way of ending sexual violence against women and girls in Colombia is by ensuring that those suspected of criminal responsibility face justice,” said Marcelo Pollack, Colombia researcher at Amnesty International. “By failing to investigate effectively sexual violence against women, the Colombian authorities are sending a dangerous message to perpetrators that they can continue to rape and sexually abuse without fear of the consequences.”
He added that “respect for human rights must be at the top of the agenda in the forthcoming peace talks between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Without a clear commitment from all the parties to the conflict to end sexual violence and other human rights abuses there can be no lasting and stable peace in Colombia.”