In eradicating sexual violence related to Colombia’s internal armed conflict, the main challenge now is translating resolve into tangible solutions in communities where the crime continues to occur, Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General on Sexual Violence said at the conclusion of her trip to the Latin American country.
“There is a direct correlation between poverty, access to justice, and sexual violence,” Zainab Hawa Bangura said in a statement issued yesterday, emphasizing the need to protect poor and uneducated women and girls who are especially vulnerable.
She summarized initiatives undertaken to address conflict-related sexual violence in Colombia including the adoption of what she called “groundbreaking legislation” in guaranteeing access to justice for victims of sexual violence. In meetings with the Minister of Defense and Chief of the Army Staff, Ms. Bangura pledged continued UN collaboration with the army and police to ensure implementation of policies to eradicate sexual violence.
During the four-day visit, she also met with communities and said that all the women and girls she spoke with had one common and resounding message: “They want sexual violence crimes that have been perpetrated against them to be acknowledged by all the parties involved in the conflict, and they want perpetrators to ensure that sexual violence will not be repeated.”
On her visit to Chocó, an area known for its Afro-Colombian population, she was distressed to hear about the clear links between armed groups, illegal mining, narco-trafficking and sexual violence. The sexual violence that is happening in Chocó must be understood in the context of the conflict and addressed as such.
This will require crucial institutional reforms. She said the Havana peace process has put in place an important mechanism to ensure a gender perspective and urged both the Government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People's Army (FARC) to ensure that the ongoing peace process and the eventual peace agreement explicitly address gender issues and sexual violence in the conflict. This must be a central priority of any poverty reduction and development strategy going forward, Ms. Bangura added.
“The women and girls who have experienced sexual violence also told me that to be able to pick up the pieces of their lives and reclaim their dignity, they must have opportunities for entrepreneurship and livelihood support for themselves and their families.”
She said she found it disturbing to hear about children between ages 12 and 15 years being forced by members of non-state armed groups and criminal gangs to serve as sex workers in mining areas. “These children were often referred to as ‘packages’ to service mining operations, and that they were replaced by ‘new packages’ when they become ‘too used’ or ‘too sick.’”
Ms. Bangura also expressed extreme concern about the “silent issue” of children born out of rape and urged that more be done to find out their unique challenges including psychosocial needs and support they require. After decades of conflict in Colombia there are several generations of such children and adults.
While the will and capacity exists to prosecute sexual violence crimes, the barriers for survivors to report and access justice are significant. It must be a priority to create the necessary protective environment for survivors to come forward, and the stigma of sexual violence must be redirected from the victims to the perpetrators.
Equally important is addressing the genuine fears communities harbor about the reintegration of fights: “There is one question I asked the communities in Chocó: Are they ready to accept the young people of the armed groups back into their communities; and are those young people ready to come back to their communities? The answer to both questions was 'NO!’”
On the flip side, the demobilized members of armed groups that Ms. Bangura met with have genuine concerns about being reintegrated into situations of poverty and destitution. Reconciliation cannot begin after the peace agreement is reached. It must be an immediate priority and requires investment at community level. Ultimately that is what will ensure durable peace.
Ms. Bangura also warned against “a deep culture of silence and denial” which still exists, emphasizing that breaking the silence on sexual violence in Colombia must be a conscious effort, and represents a critical step toward eradicating this scourge.