This case note is a part of our series of case notes that document the occurrence of sexual violence in violent conflict. The case note contains explicit mentions of different forms of sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.
Background of the Conflict
The roots of the Colombian conflict go back to La Violencia, which followed the assassination of liberal political leader Jorge Eliecer Gaitan in 1948 and the anti-communist repression in rural Colombia in the 1960s (Leech 2009). The latter incident motivated liberal and communist militants to form the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) (Murillo and Avirama 2004).
The Colombian conflict began on May 27, 1964 and has remained a low-intensity, asymmetric war between the government of Colombia, far-right paramilitary groups, various crime syndicates and far-left guerrilla groups like the FARC, the National Liberation Army (ELN), and the Popular Liberation Army (EPL). These groups are engaged in battle among one another to gain greater influence in the country (Crisis Group 2014). International actors such as multinational corporations, Cuba, the United States of America, and the drug trafficking industry have also contributed to the conflict.
While all agents are involved in the armed conflict for greater influence, each is motivated by different reasons and factors. The FARC and several guerrilla movements contend that they are fighting for the rights of the poor in Colombia and to protect them from government violence, and that they intend to pursue social justice through communism. The Colombian government contends that it is fighting for stability and the protection of its citizens’ rights and interests. Most paramilitary groups claim to be reacting to the threat of the guerrilla movements.
The conflict has claimed 220,000 lives between 1958 and 2013, most of whom are civilians (Historical Memory Group 2013). It has displaced over 5 million civilians, and has generated the world’s second-largest population of internally-displaced persons (Historical Memory Group 2013). On June 23, 2016, the Colombian Government and the FARC rebels signed a historic ceasefire deal that took the battling sides a step closer toward ending nearly five decades of conflict (Maaß and Pilz, 2016). However, the deal was rejected in a plebiscite that was conducted in October. A revised deal was signed in the month that followed, and was unanimously approved by the Congress and House of Representatives.
Prevalence of Sexual Violence
Sexual violence was used as a weapon of war by all the armed groups involved in the armed conflict – be that state military forces, paramilitaries, or guerrilla groups (Oxfam 2009). It was one of the major causes of forced displacement, with 2 out of 10 women being forced to flee particular regions or the country itself, because of sexual violence (Oxfam 2009). While there has been no official registry to collect data on the number of women and children who have been victims of sexual violence in the Colombian conflict, there have been a few efforts to identify statistical records. According to the campaign ‘Rape and Other Violence: Leave my Body out of the War,’ which studied the situation in Colombia from 2001 to 2009, found that on average, 54,410 women per year had faced conflict-related sexual violence in Colombia. There were high instances of child prostitution and sex trafficking, as well (US Office on Colombia, ABColombia, and Sisma Mujer n.d.).
Basis of the Use of Sexual Violence
Sexual violence was used as a means of social control, particularly by paramilitary groups (US Office on Colombia, ABColombia, and Sisma Mujer n.d.). It was deployed as a means of torture and punishment, targeting women belonging to any of the opposing sides, or perceived as belonging to opposing sides. It was also used to terrorize communities and achieve military objectives. In many instances, sexual violence and rape were used to exact revenge or intimidation to terrorize the enemy. It was also oftentimes correlated with economic interests in the region – large-scale mining, agribusiness, and drug trafficking – wherein the number of incidents rose when soldiers were brought in to protect mega-projects or where military presence was high. Several women and girls were also subject to sexual slavery by the guerrillas, where women and girls were forcibly recruited to render sexual services to the combatants (US Office on Colombia, ABColombia, and Sisma Mujer n.d.). On many occasions, sexual violence was used by guerrilla groups to recruit women as combatants (IACHR. n.d.). It was used as a means to control natural resources and territories, where women were subject to sexual violence as a means of dehumanizing her and her family and community, so the perpetrators could control their land or resources (IACHR. n.d.).
In order to provide administrative reparations to the millions of victims of the armed conflict, in 2011 the Colombian government created Law 1448, also called the Victims and Land Restitution Law. It established a mixed-reparations policy, combining land restitution through the courts and a bureaucratic reparations mechanism (Flisi 2016). By 2015, over 5,500 victims of sexual violence had been financially compensated and 1,600 had participated in the Victim Unit’s psychological recovery program. In 2014, Law 1719/2014, titled Access to Justice and Other Matters for Victims of Sexual Violence and Especially of Sexual Violence Related to the Armed Conflict was passed – it expanded the definition of sexual violence and identified a range of other forms of sexual assault aside from rape and violent sexual intercourse. Despite the progress achieved, the implementation remains uneven (Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict n.d.). Colombia’s National Centre for Historical Memory has identified 15,079 victims of sexual violence, of whom just over half were under 18 at the time of offence – although it notes that actual numbers may be far higher, given the stigma around reportage (Thomson Reuters Foundation 2017). According to the Centre, most cases have gone unpunished.
"War and Drugs in Colombia – International Crisis Group". Crisisgroup.org. http:/www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/latin-america-caribbean/andes/colombia/011-war-and-drugs-in-colombia.aspx?alt_lang=es
Garry Leech (2009). Beyond Bogota: Diary of a Drug War Journalist. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Gregor Maaß; Mario Pilz (July 23, 2016). "Returning to everyday life". D+C/Development+Cooperation. http://www.dandc.eu/en/article/study-identifies-measures-reintegrate-victims-colombias-civil-war-everyday-life
Historical Memory Group (2013). "Enough Already!" Colombia: Memories of War and Dignity (PDF) (in Spanish). The National Center for Historical Memory's (NCHM).
IACHR. (n.d.) Violence And Discrimination Against Women In The Armed Conflict In Colombia Violence And Discrimination Against Women In The Armed Conflict In Colombia. www.cidh.oas.org/women/Colombia06eng/part3co.htm
Isabella Flisi (2016). Reparations for Wartime Sexual Violence: Colombia’s Ambitious Program. https://www.passblue.com/2016/07/18/reparations-for-wartime-sexual-violence-in-colombia-moving-past-good-enough/
Mario A. Murillo; Jesús Rey Avirama (2004). Colombia and the United States: war, unrest, and destabilization. Seven Stories Press.
Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict (n.d.) Colombia. https://www.un.org/sexualviolenceinconflict/countries/colombia/
Oxfam Briefing Paper: Sexual violence in Colombia (September 8, 2009) https://oxfamilibrary.openrepository.com/bitstream/handle/10546/114593/bp-sexual-violence-colombia-090909-en.pdf
Thomson Reuters Foundation. 2017. Colombia's war-time rape victims silenced and without justice - report. https://reliefweb.int/report/colombia/colombias-war-time-rape-victims-silenced-and-without-justice-report
US Office on Colombia, ABColombia, and Sisma Mujer (n.d.). "Colombia: Women, ConflictRelated Sexual Violence and the Peace Process." https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/ABColombia_Conflict_related_sexual_violence_report.pdf