‘Too late for me’: Women flee Colombia to escape sexualized violence

By — September 21, 2012

Consuela, seen here in a photo altered to hide her face, describes being raped by what she says were paramilitary forces in Colombia. Her refugee life has been far from easy. (Rachel Halder)

A young woman about my age sits across from me at a table in a large house converted into an Ecuadoran church. With tears pouring down her cheeks, she chokes out the words of her story, wiping drops away with the back of her hand. I say I’m sorry for bringing up her pain.

She tells me that her psychiatrist recommends she talk about her experiences so she can “get it out.” She doesn’t like speaking about what happened to her because “it brings up very painful memories,” she says. “Sometimes I’ll just cry instead of talking about it.” But she continues anyway.

Consuela is from Colombia, where at least two women are raped every hour, according to the Instituto Nacional de Medicine Legal y Ciencias Dorenses (National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences of Colombia). I’ve changed her name here because she asked me to for her own safety. She, like too many women in Colombia, has been haunted by images of paramilitary men raping her at a young age. Now, at 26, she stands to tell her own tale—of rape, abuse, and extreme grief—that began at age 14.

Violence in Colombia is complicated. In an ever-evolving conflict that orbits around illegal armed actors, drug trafficking, and organized crime, women have become a primary target. They have long suffered as forced refugees in their own country, which has a dismal number of internally displaced people, with more than 1 million identified as internally displaced at the end of 2010, according to the UN Refugee Agency. But the actual violence and attendant suffering is more directed than diffuse.

In 2011, a number of groups, including Oxfam and the Casa de la Mujer, a nonprofit Bogota-based aid organization for women, teamed up to produce a startling report called the “First Survey on the Prevalence of Sexual Violence Against Women in the Context of the Colombian Armed Conflict 2001-2009.” The study showed that there’s an extremely high rate of sexualized violence against women in Colombia. From 2001 to 2009, in the 407 municipalities that have an active presence of armed forces, according to the report, 18 percent of women report such abuse—everything from rape to forced prostitution to forced abortion. “This means that during the nine years in which the study was carried out, 489,687 women were victims of sexual violence,” the report states. “This is an average of 54,410 women per year, 149 per day, or 6 women per hour suffering sexual violence.”

Of those 489,678 female victims, 82 percent did not report the abuse, according to the report. That is more than 402,000 women in those nine years alone who suffered in silence. Many women said that the presence of armed actors in the municipalities—fear of retribution—was a major obstacle preventing them from reporting their attacks.

Women in Colombia are raped in an attempt to silence them, their families, and their communities. All sides of the conflict use women’s bodies to reinforce their “cause”—they are treated as trophies, according to Amnesty International. Activism is incredibly perilous for those protesting violence, and unfortunately, the lack of action of the Colombian judiciary for all gender crimes is extreme. Rape continues to rip apart the country because nobody is stopping it.

When Consuela was in high school, three men belonging to paramilitary groups raped her close friend, she tells me while we sit in the church. The friend refused to report what happened to her so Consuela told her friend’s parents. That, she says, was why she was later sexually attacked. She had “tattled.”

“The paramilitary men came to silence me and give me a message that I should be quiet,” she told me.

The fault landed on her shoulders and so she too was gang-raped.

Her situation didn’t simply end there, as such situations rarely do. The rape destroyed her life both emotionally and physically. Due to the trauma, she left high school to seek psychological care. Finally, after Consuela’s rape and the murder of her cousin, the family fled across the border to Ecuador, she says.

I spoke to an aid worker who was part of an international Mennonite organization working with Colombian refugees locally who said Consuela’s story was hardly unique. Women are fleeing the violence in such large numbers that Ecuador and Colombia, with UNHCR, have recently established a bi-national commission on Colombian refugees’ needs to evaluate how they can eventually make a safe return to their homeland.

Living in Ecuador hasn’t made the struggle for Consuela any easier though. Refugee life has been very difficult, full of further sexualized violence and racial discrimination because she is black, she says. She lives with the memories of her assault. She says she thinks about killing herself often.

“This event is something you never forget,” she says. “You try, but it just marks your life; it defines your life.”

The needs of Colombia and the women who are attacked are immense. Despite UN and government efforts to revise the response to victims of the conflict, illegal armed groups, security risks, and a lack of adequate financial and institutional capacity constantly undermine implementing measures that could change things.

There are still tiny glimmers of hope though. In late August, a court convicted a junior army officer for the 2010 rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl, her two brothers, and the rape of another girl in in Tame, in northeastern Colombia. Macelo Pollack, Colombia researcher for Amnesty International, said in a statement: “It is rare that perpetrators of human rights abuses are ever brought to justice in Colombia, and more so if they are members of the security forces and if the crime is one of sexual violence.”

Hundreds took to the streets on June 3 to march for justice for rape and murder victims. On June 10, President Juan Manuel Santos signed the controversial Victims and Land Restitution Law, otherwise known as the “Victims’ Law,” which allows relatives of those killed by guerrillas or paramilitaries to seek compensation. The attorney general’s office finally, on September 10, declared the rape of Colombian journalist Jineth Bedoya a “crime against humanity,” 12 years after she was gang-raped in the course of her work.

Even so, for thousands, if not millions of Colombia’s women, justice remains untenable. Consuela, for one, is wary. “I hope the law can help other women in the future, but it’s too late for me,” she says. The potential danger she and her family faces in Colombia means, she told me, that she can never go home.

(To read this article in Spanish, please click over to Asuntos Del Sur, which has translated it.)