Colombia: Must political conflict entail sexual violence?

Candid Orange sexual violence Colombia

Gender-based violence is a universal problem – it exists in every country in the world for a number of reasons, many stemming from the patriarchal attitudes that remain rooted in the fabric of most societies. Though Candid Orange and TVINAT are profiling two specific countries for the series‘ next two articles, the aim of this is to highlight how these patriarchal attitudes can manifest themselves, and not to pinpoint these countries as worse or in need of more attention, without reflecting on how similar systems and injustices are felt worldwide.

Much like the majority of countries around the world, violence against women and girls in Colombia is an endemic problem, with little evidence to suggest it is stopping. Yet looking back at the years of conflict endured by Colombia, we must recognise that victims of conflict-related sexual violence must be acknowledged.

Patriarchal attitudes are woven into the fabric of societies across the globe; but, in Colombia, we see a very specific context of violence, one compounded by the internal conflict that has raged since 1964. It should come as no surprise that rates of sexual violence and violence against women drastically rise in situations of conflict, whether internal conflict or war on an international scale. But what about after the guns are put down?

Following the intensely divisive Peace Accord of 2016, there supposedly came a new dawn in Colombia that was set to usher in less violence. Yet the distinct lack of change between then and now sparked nationwide protests in 2019.

How exactly does this relate to violence against women? You’d maybe presume that sexual violence would decrease after conflict, with the consolidation of internal stability and victims perhaps now having better access to public services. However, in much the same way that conflict still endures, cases of such violence have in fact risen dramatically.

Why does violence against women happen in Colombia?

Unrelated to the conflict, the United Nations has named the deeply entrenched gender roles that exist between men and women in this Latin American state as amongst the greatest causes of violence against Colombian women. Reports show many women have less access to financial independence, worsened by being less actively engaged with and participating in civic life compared to their male counterparts. As we know, this only mirrors the countless other patriarchal contexts across the globe.

When studying conflict-related violence against women, however, we see these gender roles surface in tragic ways. Gender-based violence has been utilised by all the different armed groups of the conflict, not only to spread fear within the community but also to dehumanise the very victims of their attacks. Paramilitary groups in particular used sexual violence extensively as a strategy to assert social control over an area, however, for guerrilla groups, this assertion of control is less of a priority. Instead, they have been found to have recruited girls and women to aid in the fight, and then coerced them into sexual slavery.

Conflict-related violence against Colombian women

The Colombian women experiencing violence due to the conflict varies greatly, and there is no one defined idea of who experiences such abuse. Victims range from women across rural and urban settings, from women involved in the conflict via guerrilla groups to those who merely encounter armed groups.

Indigenous women and Afro-Colombian women experience the highest rates of violence, due to racist perceptions about their bodies, as well as the historic condoning of violence against them. Often having a cultural and spiritual impact, gender-based violence stemming from conflict is a significantly racialised issue – a harrowing fact, certainly when we know that during the later years of the conflict (specifically between 2001 and 2009) six women per hour were sexually assaulted, some 54,410 each year. In the first nine months of 2012, two girls under the age of 18 were sexually attacked every hour.

Rural Colombia after the Peace Accord

Colombian authorities have identified 170 ‘priority’ regions across the country which have particularly high rates of poverty, a more established presence of illegal economies, as well as a distinct lack of institutional control. It is in these very situated contexts that records of sexual violence are being closely followed. The fact that the number of these regions recording more than 100 cases of sexual violence per 100,000 women per year has increased by 364.2% since 2013 tells us that it remains a serious issue to tackle. Further figures of sexual violence shown an increase over the years (by just under a third between 2013 and September 2019), maybe in some way a positive sign that confidence in reporting violent experiences is increasing. Whether this is the case, or whether simply more violence is taking place, there has been a push to better study why increases do happen.

Dejusticia, a research centre that publishes academic research for social justice means, have attempted to explain this increase. According to their in-depth study of the rise in sexual violence in these 170 priority areas, deeply entrenched gender roles and patriarchal structure play an integral role, something which is only worsened by how violently exercising masculinity is often normalised and even legitimised during conflict due to the male-oriented nature of military orders.

Interestingly, in each of the municipalities that Dejusticia studied, the continued presence of demobilised armed groups has also been a concern. Are they a key indicator that sexual violence increases?  Or would relating their presence to such violence impede what efforts can be made to integrate them back into society after years perpetrating violent conflict? Of course, with the demobilisation of armed groups comes a greater ease to collect data, so understanding how widespread sexual violence can be during conflict has perhaps been skewed by difficulties in speaking to the women who have experienced such acts.

Outside of the conflict, between January and October last year, 115 women were victims of femicide nationwide. Although the perpetrators of these murders are not recorded, we do know from other data that, in 2017, 45% of those who suffered gender-based violence suffered at the hands of a partner or ex-partner. Colombia is no anomaly in the tragic fact that intimate partner violence constitutes a great portion of the violence enacted against women worldwide.

What is the State’s response?

Unfortunately, as with numerous countries worldwide, the Colombian State fails its women in the handling of sexual violence, and an overall lack of understanding around this abuse plagues the national psyche. Much like is demonstrated in the UK, a large portion of the population think that women stay with abusive partners because “they like it”. In rural and isolated communities of Colombia, the ways in which the government has attempted to combat gender-based violence, whether during or after the conflict, falls apart due to “bureaucracy, corruption and a simple lack of interest.”

It is not all bad news in that the government has made attempts to prevent and eradicate the issue, with this ‘post-conflict’ era ushering in a legal focus on gender as the country moves forward. However, it can seem like an insurmountable task for a country currently facing a rise in cases of familial violence. In August alone, by which time Colombia’s lockdown had lasted five months, 104 women were victims of violence, 68 of which were murdered.

Presenting a very tangible danger in the lives of those who must face the difficulties of a nation negotiating their violent past and present, sexual violence has not been resigned to the history books of the conflict.