Untangling the conflict in Colombia can be particularly challenging, given the wide variety of actors and structures at play. Cleavages between left- and right-wing factions in the society, as well as confrontations with the government, have led to decades of political violence, fighting, and ethnic violence. Colombia’s prominent position in the global drug trade, particularly since the 1980s, has also contributed to widespread violence between drug lords, landowners, communities, and even U.S. troops.
With a society that the BBC has described as highly economically segregated between the rich and the poor, Colombia has traditionally had a fairly definitive political split between the right and the left, though these lines have blurred a bit over the past several years. Through generations of war, government forces, paramilitary groups (and successor groups), and guerrilla groups have been complicit in heinous acts of sexualized violence against women, according to a 2007 report by the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces.
In the 1940s, the assassination of a populist political figure triggered the country’s descent into chaos, with nearly 200,000 murdered and 600,000 injured from 1948 to 1958, a decade now known as La Violencia, according to a 1967 article by scholar Norman A. Bailey. Leftist political groups, grounded in Marxist philosophies about equality and the redistribution of wealth, soon banded together, creating peasant guerrilla movements: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which was born of the original Communist Party of Colombia (PCC), and the lesser known National Liberation Army (ELN).
Several right-wing pro-government paramilitary groups, including the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), were formed to suppress these groups. Paramilitary groups originated from “legally constituted ‘self-defense’ groups which the army created in the 1970s and 1980s to act as auxiliaries during counter-insurgency operations,” according to a 2004 report by Amnesty International called “Colombia: Scarred Bodies, Hidden Crimes.” The AUC, which was formed by drug traffickers and land owners to combat extortion and rebel kidnappings, carried out massacres and assassinations and targeted left-wing groups that spoke out against them, the BBC reports.
As clashes erupted between the government, paramilitaries, and leftist guerrilla groups, reports of rape, sexual slavery, torture, and mutilation, particularly at the hands of paramilitary groups, started to surface. Over the last few decades, paramilitaries were held responsible for most abductions and murders of civilians, the Amnesty report said.
In subsequent years, in order to increase their income and therefore military capacity, FARC began collecting “taxes” from marijuana (and, later, coca) farmers who operated in FARC-controlled territory, according to an article published by the Transnational Institute, a Netherlands-based global policy organization. A 2008 article in The New York Times describes how FARC still collects roughly “$200 million to $300 million a year by taxing coca farmers and coordinating cocaine smuggling networks.”
This income allowed the FARC to establish what Amnesty International described as “strongholds… where they effectively determined local government policies and exercised significant control over the local population.” In many cases, the latter included control over women and girls, either through forced recruitment, forced abortions, or rape, the report found.
The expansion of Colombia’s drug trade had a profound impact on the course of conflict in the country. Since that time, groups on all side of the conflict were linked to drug-related activities. The U.S. Department of Justice suggested that FARC was responsible for upward of 50 percent of the world’s cocaine supply. Reports also said that the AUC was notorious for its extensive involvement in trafficking and that the ELN had strengthened ties with major drug trafficking operations.
In the 1990s, FARC was able to gain a number of strategic advances with respect to territorial control, which encouraged a steady increase in participation in paramilitary groups. Colombians living in rebel-controlled areas—women, in particular—faced sexualized violence by the government and paramilitary forces, who were intent on punishing those communities for their alleged support of the FARC, according to the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces.
In the mid-2000s, news surfaced of ties between the paramilitaries and some of former President Alvaro Uribe’s most prominent political supporters, according to a 2007 New York Times report. The president said that anyone shown to have “illegal ties to the paramilitaries, which terrorized Colombian cities and the countryside in the nation’s internal war … should be prosecuted in courts of law.”
The Colombian senator who revealed the alliance was later stripped of his seat, according to news reports. Authorities said he had aided the AUC in exchange for the group’s support to win his government seat.
In recent years, the Colombian government’s efforts to demobilize paramilitary groups seemed successful at first, but had the effect of creating “successor” paramilitary groups, known as bacrims (shorthand for bandas criminals). These “demobilized” operatives participate in the drug trade and control various communities around the country. But, worse still, they continue to rape and pillage communities around Colombia, while their victims—who are no longer viewed as victims of war, but merely victims of a social issue—are left without support.
The Colombian government made a deliberate decision to exclude the bacrim both in rhetoric and on paper from any connection with the war. This refusal to acknowledge the bacrim as a faction in the conflict, according to Insight Crime, a research group focusing on organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean, stems from the fear that to acknowledge them as such would undermine the government’s claims that it had effectively demobilized the country’s paramilitary operations and therefore make them appear weak or ineffective. Conceiving of these groups as organized gangs, rather than paramilitary successor groups, allows them to be rhetorically (and legislatively) divorced from the conflict—claims that have been supported by both Human Rights Watch and other human rights groups.
The UNHCR reports that Colombia has the highest number of internally displaced persons (IDPs): somewhere between 4.9 and 5.5 million people. Most have been displaced forcibly or fled their homes out of fear. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), the leading international body in internal displacement, reports: “Open military confrontation is not the main reason why people flee their places of residence. A much more subtle form of violence is direct threats against the civilian population.” The organization identified direct threats, assassination of loved ones or family members, armed combat of various degrees, and forcible recruitment as reasons for internal displacement.
As the violence progressed, so, too, did the use of tactics such as terrorism and kidnappings. A study released in 2013 by Colombia’s Centro Nacional de Memoria Historica, a part of the government’s Department for Social Prosperity, found that “at least 39,058 people were kidnapped between 1970 and 2010.”
A joint report by Oxfam and Casa de la Mujer in 2011 found that “12,809 women (13.54%) were raped by illegally armed actors, and 1,970 (2.08%) were raped by members of the armed forces” in Colombia between 2001 and 2009.
How Sexualized Violence Is Used as a Weapon of War
To recruit: Many of the guerrilla groups—most notably, the FARC—used sexualized violence strategically for recruitment purposes, according to a report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
In a 2001 report, the UN special rapporteur on violence against women said that guerrilla groups had reportedly “abducted young girls as companions for their leaders.” The report said that girls had been “lured into the FARC and then abused. So-called ‘recruitment’ is based on persuasion, as there is little other alternative.”
To control communities, territory, or natural resources: A report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights said that violence against women in Colombia was used as a strategy of war to control territories and the communities they inhabit. The report found that “actors in the armed conflict employ different forms of physical, psychological and sexual violence to ‘wound the enemy’ by dehumanizing the victim, injuring her family circle and/or spreading terror in her community, with the objective of advancing in their control of territories and resources.”
To punish: Women suffered heinous acts of physical and sexualized violence as punishment by either guerrilla forces or paramilitary groups, for ethnic, political, or social allegiances, according to news reports. Throughout the conflict, women were raped, kidnapped, forcibly displaced, and murdered.
To terrorize: In 2012, Amnesty International said that in Colombia, “women are targets of sexual violence to sow terror within communities to force them to flee their land, wreak revenge on the enemy, control the sexual and reproductive rights of female combatants or exploit women and girls as sexual slaves.”
In a 2009 briefing paper, Oxfam wrote that “state military forces, paramilitaries and guerrilla groups have used sexual violence with the goal of terrorizing communities, using women as instruments to achieve their military objectives.”
The rapporteur for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights described how “through acts of physical, psychological and sexual violence, the armed actors seek to intimidate, punish and control women for having affective relationships with members of the opposing faction, for disobeying the norms imposed by the armed actors or for participating in organizations perceived as the enemy.” The report said that “these acts, however, do not solely intend to dehumanize the victim as women. These aggressions additionally serve as a tactic to humiliate, terrorize, and wound the ‘enemy,’ either in the family nucleus or community of the victim.”
Sexualized violence was also used as a means of punishing men, as the rapporteur for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights explained. In these cases, the report said: “It is meant to demonstrate victory over the men of the other group who have failed to protect their women. It is a message of castration and emasculation of the enemy group. It is a battle among men fought over the bodies of women.”
Patterns of Violence
- A 1998 report by the UNHCR said that both the FARC and the AUC regularly used the threat and practice of bodily mutilation. In June, NPR highlighted cases in which women were tortured or had their breasts cut off. The North American Congress on Latin America reported in 2009 that “indigenous women have suffered similar atrocities with reports of rape and sexual mutilation by paramilitary forces designed to terrorize communities into submission or flight.”
In many cases, women were left to bear the burden of unwanted pregnancies, forced abortion, or forced sterilization. A March 2013 article in the independent news outlet Colombia Reports found that “80% to 90% of the demobilized ex-FARC women claim to have endured at least one forced abortion. Some claim to have suffered many more.”
A 2008 article in a U.S. newspaper explained the rationale for FARC’s practice of forced abortions as primarily pragmatic: “The ban on pregnancies is even contained in the rebel instruction manuals, according to one defector, because children are a clear burden for guerrillas who stay on the move, carry heavy loads and suffer a precarious diet.”
Oxfam described the systemic practice of sexual slavery by armed groups across the conflict, not merely the FARC, paramilitary, or government forces. A 2001 report to the UNHCR by the special rapporteur on violence against women found, “Women have been abducted by armed men, detained for a time in conditions of sexual slavery, raped and made to perform domestic chores.”
The report also said: “Testimonies from survivors indicate that some women were raped by up to six men; others were raped while tied up and their relatives, also tied up, were forced to watch them. ”
In 2009, the North American Congress on Latin American reported that “Afro-Colombian women, in particular, have suffered from terrible violence by legal and illegal armed groups.” A paper by Oxfam that same year found: “Afro-Colombians and indigenous women and girls face the greatest vulnerability to sexual violence given the triple discrimination they endure due to their gender, ethnicity and the poverty in which they generally live.”
Any behavior by women seen as socially unacceptable would be punished by paramilitary forces, according to a report on Colombia by the special rapporteur on violence against women. For instance, “prostitutes and women accused of adultery have been paraded nude on trucks around the village with a sign around their neck saying that these women wreck homes.”
The report said, “Social controls were also placed upon entire communities—by both sides of the conflict, with the effect of restricting the behavior of women in controlled territories. They impose strict codes of social conduct, including restrictions on what women may wear and penalties for ‘misbehavior.’ They reinforce conservative values and the different gender roles expected of men and women. Women are not allowed to wear miniskirts, hipster jeans or tops which show their midriffs and anyone who disobeys that rule is taken to the paramilitaries’ barracks and forced to cook and to wash the paramilitaries’ clothes.”
Women often remained silent in the face of such practices. Studies have found that many who have spoken out about the abuses they suffered reported facing victim-shaming, stigma, and even death threats.
Quantifying the number of rapes or incidence of sexualized violence in Colombia has proven extremely difficult given that the conflict has been ongoing for several decades. Even more difficult is the fact that actors on all sides—the Colombian military, guerrilla movements like the FARC and ELN, paramilitary groups, and drug lord and cartel-controlled militias—have perpetrated acts of sexualized violence. This extended time frame and universality of attacks has had the effect of normalizing sexualized violence and rape. Differentiating between violence born of the conflict—and that which is not—has therefore become extremely difficult.
Other scholars have corroborated the idea of conflicts normalizing sexualizing violence and rape, pointing to cases such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Afghanistan. As author Janie L. Leatherman wrote in her book Sexual Violence in Conflict:
As conflict escalates, sexual violence becomes normalized: war-formed models of masculinity come to shape the definition of masculinity. … In the post-conflict period, the horrors of sexual violence persist for vulnerable and marginalized women and girls in new forms as domestic violence, prostitution, and trafficking.
In a 2003 study, Oxfam found that “between 60% and 70% of all Colombian women are estimated to have suffered some form of violence (physical, psychological, sexual or political).”
An article published in Colombia Reports found that “data from the coroner’s office show that the army committed 54% of the sex crimes by armed actors in conflict zones. Of the army’s victims, 89% were under 17 years of age. According to the same data, the guerrillas were responsible for 19%, paramilitaries for 12%, and drug traffickers for 9%.”
But these numbers are in direct opposition to the many accounts, including a UN Security Council report from January 2012, indicating that guerrillas and paramilitary groups are to blame for a majority of sexualized violence.
A report examining rape and sexualized violence in the conflict, released by the Colombia-based women’s organization Casa de la Mujer, found:
“The rate of sexual violence, for the period 2001-2009, in 407 municipalities with an active presence of the armed forces, paramilitaries, guerrillas, and other armed actors in Colombia, was estimated at 17.58%. This means that during these nine years 489,687 women were victims of sexual violence. Between 2001 and 2009, every hour 6 women were victims of some type of sexual violence in the municipalities with the presence of these armed groups.”
The report added that “82.15% of the 489,678 women were victims of some type of sexual violence, meaning 402,264 women didn’t report the abuses. 73.93% of the victims consider that the presence of armed actors in the municipalities is an obstacle to reporting sexual violence.”
Cristina Carreño, head of Médecins Sans Frontières’ Mental Health Programme in Colombia, told WMC’s Women Under Siege that in 2012, the organization treated 280 survivors of sexualized violence. Of them, “96 percent of patients were women,” she said. “The main types of violence were rape (57 percent) and sexual aggression (31 percent). A significant data [point] is that in 66 percent of cases the survivor had already lived a similar incident.”
Washington Post journalist Juan Forero told WMC’s Women Under Siege that the nature of sexualized violence in Colombia would be better understood as opportunistic, rather than systemic. He said that in Colombia, “the violence is a bit different from, say, West Africa, where we’ve seen rape used as a tool of war. In Africa, we talk about rape being used to weaken the enemy and weaken support. Here was a very different thing. Here, it was groups becoming de facto governments of large swaths of territory. So they could do whatever they wanted—looting city buildings, the mayor’s offices—and have their way with women.”
Cultural Gender Attitudes
Cultural norms in Colombia, an inherently male-dominated society, have proved a large obstacle to effectively addressing the problem of sexualized violence in the country. The widespread culture of impunity, with regards to the mistreatment and abuse of women, stems from social and economic inequality, which is deeply rooted in Colombian society.
“Women from urban areas continue to have access only to positions and areas of activity that enjoy less socioeconomic prestige, lower income and fewer labour guarantees,” according to the special rapporteur on violence against women. “Women from the indigenous and Afro-Colombian population suffer multiple/intersectional discrimination on the basis of gender, race, color and ethnic origin and as internally displaced persons,” she said. “They also are often deprived of access to health, education, employment and political representation. Women from indigenous communities often need permission from their husbands to speak in public.”
The social stigma attached to sexualized violence—one of many factors fostering a practice of victim-blaming—coupled with a fear of retributive violence has rendered many women silent about the attacks they have experienced. According to MSF’s Carreño, “Some of the barriers [to reporting sexualizing violence] are directly related to the armed conflict (fear of exposure to combats, curfews imposed by armed groups, roadblocks, fear of landmines, forced confinement in the towns, etc.), while others are more related to geography, economic limitations, stigma related to SV, lack of confidentiality in health structures/professionals and fear to denounce.”
Carreño added, “Some women might also be afraid of the potential consequences towards them and for the perpetrator (in some places, if a women denounces SGBV the perpetrator will be killed).”
The Instituto Nacional de Medicine Legal y Ciencias Dorenses (National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences of Colombia) reported that in Colombia, 17,935 women are raped every year, a number that works out to roughly two rapes every hour. But when considering all incidents of sexualized violence, “an average of 54,410 women per year, 149 per day, or 6 women every hour suffering sexual violence,” Oxfam reported.
The continued silence on the part of the government has been indicative of a country (and a war) where addressing the disproportionate effect of the conflict on women is not viewed as a national priority. As Oxfam reported, “the problem goes beyond the lack of adequate programmes and policies to the even more critical issue of the government’s attitude about sexual violence. It has become apparent in recent years that this issue has never been a part of the government’s national or international agenda, but rather is relegated to a second order of importance.”
One woman, without identifying her assailants, told the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women in 2001:
“A group of armed men broke down the door of our home while we were sleeping; they knocked over the furniture and broke everything. They tied my father to a chair. They opened my legs and tied one leg to the wardrobe and the other to the bed. They insulted and threatened us. They raped my sister and me. Later we realized the same had happened to our neighbors and a young girl from the village was taken to hospital for her injuries.”
In the same report, another survivor shared her testimony:
“Paramilitaries wore balaclavas. They forced women to cook for them. They only raped the young girls. Their party went on for four days. The bodies were already beginning to rot in the streets. Some of the bodies were burnt so they couldn’t be identified.”
A 2009 Oxfam briefing paper on sexualized violence in Colombia quoted one woman from Bogotá:
“It was nighttime. Two men with guns and wearing camouflage military uniforms came. … They took my husband outside, pointing the gun at him the whole time. … I was able to calm our little girl, and I sang to her until she fell asleep. Then one of the men took me from the room to the hallway to interrogate me. He threatened to kill me if I resisted. He took off my clothes, he covered my mouth and he forced himself on me. He raped me. Afterward he told me to get dressed and then he said: ‘Nothing happened here. That, after all, is what women are for.’”
A displaced woman, interviewed by Amnesty International in 2003, described hearing a nearby attack:
“A stick was pushed into the private parts of an 18-year-old pregnant girl and it appeared through [the abdomen]. She was torn apart. They [army-backed paramilitaries] stripped the women and made them dance in front of their husbands. Several were raped. You could hear the screams coming from a ranch near El Salado."
Normalization of violence against women—both physical and sexualized—has been among the primary consequences of 50 years of conflict in Colombia. Violence against women is now often discussed as an overarching social issue, divorcing it from the conflict. But this view lacks nuance, as the epidemic of violence against women is the product of a culture that promotes such behavior—a culture of brutality and violence that was itself born of the conflict. In The Guardian, Colombian Congresswoman Angela Robledo wrote that the bodies of women are perceived as a part of the “emotional environment” of the enemy, making sexualized violence “an incredibly cheap but interminably powerful weapon” in conflict.
The social consequences and stigma attached to being a victim of rape or sexual assault, as well as the threat of retaliatory violence, has also resulted in victims choosing to suffer in silence. “The lack of testimonies and direct data has been considered a nearly insurmountable obstacle to gaining knowledge of sexual violence,” a 2011 report by Benetech and Punto de Vista found. The level of impunity for perpetrators of sexualized violence in Colombia is also therefore high.
Amanda Klasing, an expert on women’s rights at Human Rights Watch, told WMC’s Women Under Siege that “every institution in Colombia has thought about the issue of sexual violence. It is implementation that is the real problem.” She said that “in spite of demobilization processed for paramilitary units, the impunity that existed for paramilitaries still exists for gangs of bacrim, who are essentially just a second generation of paramilitaries. Bacrim are basically like mafia groups, and these are the successors of the paramilitary groups. Demilitarized members are now joining and can continue to act without consequence.”
Klasing added that there were particular obstacles to addressing violence by these gangs. These people are “not technically paramilitary, because according to government they have been demobilized,” she said. “But because victims are attacked by bacrim, they are not considered victims of the conflict, and so they do not have the same access to services or assistance.”
Another consequence of the conflict has been mass displacement of women, which has rendered them increasingly vulnerable to violence and exploitation. A 2012 report from Human Rights Watch found that not only had millions been displaced throughout the course of the war, but that the conflict, in fact, “continues to displace tens of thousands every year.”
Mass displacement is also problematic as it makes it incredibly difficult for women to access personal documents or identification for registration. This, in turn, limits the ability of women—particularly from rural areas—to access health, education, or social services, or to gain access to loans, land titles, or home ownership. Finally, displacement by conflict has not only uprooted women and their families from their homes, but caused an upsurge in the number of female-headed households, thrusting additional economic strain upon women.
While a number of legislative initiatives and new laws have been introduced in Colombia, the surface of the problem has barely been scratched. In a 2001 report to the UNHCR, the special rapporteur on violence against women said that there continued “to be a tremendous gap between the guarantees provided and reality.”
In June 2012, Congress passed an initiative, referred to as the “legal framework for peace,” which set up guidelines for peace talks between the government and guerrilla groups, and was subsequently signed into law by President Juan Manuel Santos Calderón. But experts criticized this legislation as being too lenient, as it would still allow for the possibility of de facto amnesty for perpetrators of sexualized violence (including members of the Colombian armed forces) if they were to come forward about their crimes.
Just after that, there was a major step forward when it comes to rape in Colombia: In September 2012, the attorney general’s office in Colombia declared the abduction, rape, and torture of Colombian journalist Jineth Bedoya to be a crime against humanity.
In 2000, Bedoya was abducted from a maximum-security prison in Bogotá, where she was investigating allegations of arms trafficking involving state officials and the AUC. Bedoya was drugged, tortured, violently gang-raped, and left bound in a garbage dump on the side of the road.
"After what happened to me ... my life was broken into before and after," Bedoya told Lauren Wolfe, director of WMC’s Women Under Siege, in 2011. "There's a distinction between what happened to you as a journalist and what happened to you as a woman. Before there was the risk—we always had a fear of something happening to us when we covered conflict, but now I have the additional fear of what can happen to me because I'm a woman, the specific vulnerability of what can happen to my body because I'm a woman."
While her case stalled in court for more than 10 years, progress was finally made. In May 2011, a paramilitary soldier was arrested and confessed to being one of Bedoya's three attackers. Two other men were subsequently arrested, and all three were charged with kidnapping, torture, and violent sexual intercourse, leading to the September declaration.
A few other successful steps forward have also been taken on the road to justice for victims of sexualized violence. In a landmark 2008 ruling, Colombia’s Constitutional Court acknowledged that “sexual violence against women is a habitual, extensive, systematic and invisible practice in the Colombian armed conflict.”
Marcelo Pollack, Colombia researcher at Amnesty International, reported in 2012 that 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.”
(Kerry K. Paterson/Published September 18, 2013)