Sexual Violence In War: Listening And Healing — And Never Again
Three women who were victims of sexual violence during the Colombian Civil War recount their stories of struggle and survival. They speak up in the hopes that the judiciary will open a new case to bring justice to them and many more survivors of sexual abuse perpetrated during the conflict.
BOGOTA – Jennifer, Ludirlena and Diana suffered a living death at the hands of their aggressors. It was their self-love and resilience that saved them, after experiencing sexual violence during the nation’s civil war.
The Colombian government forgot about these women. But now, they are champions in a battle towards justice and dignity. With different perspectives, they manage to find a connection, something that will unite them forever: advocating so that no one else experiences what they endured.
All sides in the war perpetrated sexual violence. But in the case of these three women, it was specifically the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and United Self-Defences of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary groups who exerted power over their bodies, through the cruelty of their crimes.
These were not isolated incidents and, to the shame of our society, they remain a massive, forgotten outrage.
According to official records, during the war in Colombia there were 15,760 victims of sexual violence . Of that total, 61.8% were women, and another 30.8% were young girls and teenagers. Unfortunately, underreporting plays a significant role in these numbers. Organizations such as the Network of Women Victims and Professionals, the collective Focal Groups - Men Victims of Sexual Violence and the British organization All Survivors Project estimate that the real number may be as much as three times higher.
The three protagonists in our story show how armed conflict has marked the lives of thousands of women in Colombia . They are three voices among many that have come together to demand the opening of a "macro-case," or investigation into sexual violence through Colombia’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), which would uncover the patterns of sexual and gender-based crimes among armed groups which have devastated entire communities.
Jennifer Torres: a face of sexual violence inside the ranks
At the age of 12, Jennifer joined the FARC guerilla group, and lived in the mountains of Valle del Cauca. She states that she was not forced to join the group, but did so in order to escape her violent home life.
Within four months of her time in the ranks, a mid-level commander named Vicente, known as Mataperros ("Dog killer") began to stalk and rape her relentlessly. He did so under the intimidating premise of “It’s her word against mine."
“He raped me. He did so almost every night for about two years. I had left my home to escape the sexual abuse perpetrated by my step-father, but in the guerilla group I encountered some terrifying acts of violence, to which nobody gave sufficient attention. Talking about what I was experiencing would have been a great risk, and so the abuse of my body became commonplace. The nurse who attended to us would regularly administer injections which pleased the commander because he could continue his violations without worrying over the risk of pregnancy. I was so young, yet my life was already unlivable. Some years passed and I grew tired of watching my comrades be killed in battle, but I grew even more tired of the life the commander had forced me into living," Jennifer says.
My life’s purpose now is to ensure that no other person experiences what I have.
In 2008, at just 15 years old, Jennifer abandoned her position in FARC. Destiny took her to Bogotá , where a familial defender in Puente Aranda decreed that Jennifer would be protected by the El Buen Pastor prison until she reached adulthood.
“The opposite happened. They sent me to the prison as a supposed temporary protection measure, but in that place the abuse started again. A group of women followed me constantly, and one of them specifically wanted to be next to me all the time. She raped me on numerous occasions. I reported it, but the only response I received was that it was something we former guerillas deserved."
As an adult, she sought every avenue to report what had happened to her, in both the guerilla group and the prison, but was never successful. Jennifer’s life was redirected towards seeking truth and justice for women who were victims of sexual abuse within armed groups. For her, the only path lies with the JEP, a transitional justice system intended to hold participants in the conflict to account for crimes they committed.
“We, and those we represent, deserve at the very least the opening of a macro-case on sexual violence. It would acknowledge and legitimize the fact that sexual abuse was a constant practice during the Colombian conflict. The ordinary justice system mistreated me when I reported, and all I wanted was to be heard. I shouldn’t have gone through this, and my life’s purpose now is to ensure that no other person experiences what I have.”
Protesters demonstrate in the streets across the country to oppose government policies and police violence in Colombia, May 19, 2021.
Ludirlena Pérez: when one forgives the unforgivable
Ludirlena does not know how she’s still alive. Over 20 years ago, she was raped by a guerilla member with Front 43 of the FARC in Puerto Lleras. Then, in Dec. 2004, she was raped and impaled by four of the paramilitaries from the Centauros Bloc of the AUC.
That second attack, which nearly killed her, left her with 139 stitches and a sexually transmitted infection. Since then, she has never stopped fighting. In her demands, she hears the voice of thousands of women who have gone through similar traumas and have, due to different circumstances, been forced to remain silent.
“Words are my instrument to reclaim my dignity. To my dismay, this has been one of the few mechanisms at my disposal to make people aware of what happened to me. The state has downplayed my claims, never provided me with proper care and normalized what I’ve been through," Ludirlena said.
Before the arrival of the JEP transitional justice system, Ludirlena had no support. She was stigmatized, and those who wanted to silence her outweighed those who listened. With patience and love for her own body, she found all the answers she had been looking for.
“After the attack from the paramilitaries, I was left with gonorrhea and expecting a child. That pregnancy was risky from all perspectives, but when I wanted to have an abortion , doctors and nurses were only judgemental. The healthcare system isolated me and when I did have an abortion, it was in my home, under the worst conditions. I stood up and kept going," she said. "My fight couldn’t end there, and I knew I had to continue until the truth was exposed.”
Her call for the JEP to urgently open the case goes hand-in-hand with the forgiveness she has given to her aggressors. “The Investigation and Prosecution unit of the JEP were the first to listen to me seriously. Before that, I attended hearings where individuals from the Centauros denied or claimed not to remember what they had done to me. At that time, no one knew that I had been at the edge of committing suicide from the pain of all I had experienced. Thankfully, that didn’t happen, and now my task is to demand justice, to have them investigate the criminal pattern of sexual abuse , and to ensure that the voices of many women and girls like me, who have had legitimate claims silenced, reach the courts. I forgave my abusers, because I cannot live with hatred in my heart. There is no condition to my personal forgiveness, but I want it to be accompanied by recognition, justice and truth,” she added.
Diana Tobón: three lives
In 1998, the Tobón Henao family lived in the municipality of Nariño. Their farm was on a hill with a view of the entire town, which was deeply attractive to the FARC. It would make it possible to observe whether the army was approaching, monitor the population and control the area.
Whilst I was doing my best to survive, I tried to seek justice.
The guerilla group wanted to take over the house, so they made the Henao family live through a waking nightmare. One day, Diana experienced one of the greatest horrors of her life. “At that time, I was a little boy, almost 13 years old. I went to the patio to pick up a hose and that is where four guerilla members attacked and raped me . They said that they were attracted to my sexual orientation, which was unlike that of my friends in the town. That was one of the greatest acts of cowardice I had witnessed in my life. I had to stay quiet about my attack in order to save my life, but soon afterwards I watched the same guerillas recruiting my brothers. Because of that pain, my father suffered a fatal heart attack.”
Because of what had transpired, Diana and her mother moved away from Nariño to Medellín, where they hoped to restart their lives. “I lost my mother shortly afterwards due to her grief over the loss of my father and brothers. I took the step that I had always wanted to take, to become a transgender woman, and I wanted everything to be okay for me, but in my mind I was tormented by the memories of my rape. I left Medellín for Bogota but still found no opportunities, so I was homeless for over two years,” said Diana.
A group of transgender women whom Diana encountered took her off the streets and introduced her to the world of sex work. “It’s horrible that transgender women are always associated with either prostitution or hairdressing, but that’s still how I found my start. Whilst I was doing my best to survive, I tried to seek justice, but authorities mocked me to my face. They degraded me and said that kind of thing didn’t happen to people like me. My first life ended when they raped me and took my brothers away. My second life ended when I transitioned into a woman, and the third is happening right now, as I seek justice.”
Institutions have not given Diana the answers she seeks. She never learned the whereabouts of her brothers, or the identities of those who raped her when she was a minor. Her last hope resides in the JEP listening to her story. “Now, I am a spokesperson for several transgender women who also experienced what I went through. Today, many people feel uncomfortable with our stories, and very few are interested in what happened to us. A macro-case would be a sign of respect, a demonstration that our experiences matter and that the war treated us like garbage. They owe us the truth, and believe me when I say that the LGBTQ community will stand up bravely to demand to be heard once and for all,” she said.
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