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Rape, The Invisible Crime In Colombia’s Drawn-Out Civil War

Sexual violence against women and girls has been a common, though rarely talked about, practice in Colombia’s decades-old civil war. A new report by Amnesty International highlights the problem, and urges Colombian leaders to end the impunity.

The cover photo for Amnesty International's report on sexual violence in Colombia.
The cover photo for Amnesty International's report on sexual violence in Colombia.
Marie Delcas

BOGOTA -- Carmenza's voice cracks as she recalls her experience. "The paramilitary men raped me in front of my husband. Then they slit his throat. In front of me." That was in 2003. Carmenaza was 37, with four children. She never registered a complaint. "What would be the point?" she asks.

Little by little the subject of sexual violence in Colombia is becoming less taboo. Human rights groups and women's organizations are talking openly about the numerous acts of rape and other types of sexual violence committed by men from all sides of the country's decades-long armed conflict. But the state continues to sit on its hands. Impunity is still the rule of thumb.

A new report released by Amnesty International draws attention to the phenomenon. "Paramilitary fighters, guerillas, soldiers and police – they've all carried out, and continue to carry out violence against women and girls," says Susan Lee, Amnesty International's director for the Americas. The report, published Sept. 21, is called ""This is what we demand, Justice!" Impunity for sexual violence against women in Colombia's armed conflict."

Fighters use sexual abuse to keep women quiet, to make them flee, to terrorize them or for vengeance, the study suggests. "In Colombia, as elsewhere, women and girls are often treated as war trophies," says Lee. Yet for the most part, silence reigns. In order to secure reduced sentences, demobilized paramilitary fighters have admitted to tens of thousands of massacres and murders. When it comes to rape, however, they've confessed to only 86 instances.

In 2004, Amnesty International described sexual violence as the "most invisible crime" in Colombia's endless conflict. Four years later, the country's constitutional court confirmed in a ruling that "within armed conflict, sexual violence against women is a common, understood, systematic and invisible practice."

Black and indigenous women in rural communities have suffered much of the violence, as have women displaced by the conflict and those in historically impoverished communities. "Today, women leaders, especially those involved in organizations calling for restitution of ruined lands, are particularly targeted," says Lee.

Lacking reliable statistics

Rapes and other types of sexual violence are rarely reported. In that regard, Colombia is hardly an exception. "Women are embarrassed and afraid," says the Amnesty International representative. The are no structures in place for victims to turn to. And in the areas where the conflict continues, death threats and other kinds of reprisals are common toward anyone who dares speak out.

A lack of reliable statistics makes it difficult to evaluate the scale of the problem. "Unlike in the conflicts in Rwanda or Yugoslavia, armed groups in Colombia apparently haven't carried out wide scale group rapes. The fact that the cases are more spread out in Colombia makes them more difficult to identify," says historian Elisa Tarnala.

The official – albeit incomplete – statistics that are available do not distinguish between cases of domestic violence and violence linked specifically to the armed conflict. And when it comes to war-related sexual violence committed against men, there are no official statistics whatsoever.

President Juan Manuel Santos – who succeeded Alvaro Uribe in August, 2010 – declares that he is very concerned about human rights. "There's been progress in terms of the official discourse," says Lee. "But we have yet to see real improvements in bringing to justice those responsible for human rights abuses, such as sexual violence against women."

Read the original article in French

Photo - Amnesty International

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