The war and the 500 thousand women victims of sexual violence

(Translated by Steve Cagan, a CSN Volunteer Translator. Edited by Teresa Welsh, CSN’s Volunteer Editor.)

Never again – Violence against women

Thursday, December 16, 2010

According to a study, in the last nine years 489,687 women have suffered rape, harassment, social imposition and forced prostitution in the conflict areas.

If the figures for sexual violence in Colombia published in the survey of the NGOs Oxfam, Casa de la Mujer [Women’s House—SC], Sisma Mujer and the Colectivo de Abogados José Alvear Restrepo [José Alvear Restrepo Legal Collective], among others, are correct, the country is confronting one of the worst dramas in the history of the conflict.

According to the document, 17.58 percent of the women in Colombia were victims of sexual violence between 2001 and 2009; that is to say, according to the projections of the survey, the total was 489,687 women.

The report calculated that 94,000 women had been raped, 50,000 had had a forced pregnancy or abortion, 175,000 had been victims of sexual harassment, 48,000 were forced to do domestic work, and that the armed groups had tried to regulate the social life of 327,000 of them.

The contrast between these figures and what the justice system has so far uncovered demonstrates that there is still a great deal that has to be done to reveal how far these crimes against women reach, and to punish the victimizers.

For Oxfam, the number of sexual crimes in Colombia is comparable to that of countries with prolonged internal conflicts and where crimes against women are used as a weapon of war. According to the report, “sexual violence is a habitual and frequent practice within the framework of the armed conflict.”

Oxfam interviewed women, and one of every five feels intimidated by the presence of armed men. In numerous cases of massacres there has been testimony of women who were victims of sexual violence.

An investigation in April of this year by CODHES, the Consultants on Human Rights and Displacement, got women survivors of two massacres, that of El Tigre in Putumayo and that of Chengue in Sucre to recount what happened to their villages and how they were victims of abuses by paramilitaries.

In Chengue, according to the report, several men of the Bloque de los Montes de María took advantage of the situation to try to abuse the women. One of them remembers: “Many armed men came into the house, they threw open the door. I was not able to move because I had fallen a week earlier; I was paralyzed. They all raped me and they threw me to the ground. I fainted.”

Another case, reported by the magazine Cambio, is that of Lucrecia,* who recounted that in 1995 a FARC guerrilla threatened her because her brother was carrying out his military service. He told her that if she did not sleep with her they would kill him. One day, she encountered another three guerrillas who raped her and told her that her brother deserved that punishment for not wanting to be with the FARC.

According to the study, the most common form of sexual violence is that of “regulation of social life.” In projections of this, Oxfam believes that this kind of crime touched 327,000 women. For example, paramilitaries and guerrillas prohibited women from dressing in some ways, they denied them entrance to billiard parlors or discotheques, and they controlled whom they went out with.

Investigators from Women for Peace [Mujeres por la Paz, MPP] told that they knew of various cases in Valledupar where “paras” burned young women with acid for wearing suggestive shirts or hip-hugger pants. “They are Colombian Taliban,” one of the NGO’s lawyers said.

The report offers a calculation that 49,000 women were obliged to do domestic service. In many areas of the country the paramilitaries and guerillas forced women to sign up to cook, to be nurses or to do cleaning. But few women denounced the crime, because they did not think it was one.

In Sucre, Marco Tulio Pérez, alias “El Oso” [“The Bear”] of the Bloque de los Montes de María of the AUC [The “United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia”—the paramilitaries—SC], was accused of forcing a woman who did not want to have sexual relations with him to do a week of service in his house. There are also cases where women were intimidated into sweeping the streets of the village. During his hearing, very few wanted to confront the demobilized paramilitary, since they had been threatened.

The study was done in 15 municipalities in Antioquia, Caldas, Coquetá, Córdoba, Bogotá, Meta, Magdalena, Huila, Nariño and Valle. They questioned 2,639 women from 15 to 44 years of age. Later, they projected the ages and statistical results of the study to the feminine population of 417 municipalities hurt by the violence, where nearly 2.8 million women live, in order to have global estimates.


One of the most worrisome results is that very few women see themselves as victims.

When the investigators from Oxfam and the Casa de la Mujer asked them if they had suffered because of these kinds of crimes, only 6.5 percent said “Yes.” The number rose to 17.5 percent, three times as much, when they explained to them that sexual violence also includes regulation of social life, forced domestic service, or forced abortion, prostitution, pregnancy or sterilization.

Thus, 60 percent of the women who are victims of forced sterilization do not believe that it is a form of sexual violence, and more than 44 percent do not consider sexual harassment a crime.


Fear is without doubt the main obstacle to the crimes being visible. The studio shows that 80 percent of the victims of some sort of sexual violence have not denounced what happened to them. Among the reasons are: “I prefer to leave it be” (47 percent), fear (29 percent), or lack of confidence in the justice system (7 percent), among others.

Furthermore, among the victims, 69 percent think that the presence of the armed groups is an obstacle to denouncing [the crimes]. And the fact is that despite the demobilization of the AUC, the [remote] regions are still held by criminal gangs and guerrilla groups.

That was the case of Ana*, who was raped by paramilitaries. As she recounts: “They did not ask anything. They took my husband out, in his underwear; they tied him up. They took me aside and abused me. The just called me bitch; that was the word I heard most. I begged them to consider my condition; I was pregnant. They laughed out loud.”

After fleeing to another location with her children, she had to demand a writ of protection in order to get the Prosecutor’s Office to open an investigation. Members of a public security organization found her and told her to meet them in the same area where she had been raped. Days later, a regional newspaper divulged her photo, her story and the village where she lived.

That day her problems began. They called her with threats several times. Ana also received a letter with an intimidating drawing: a cross, a revolver and an eagle; in the letter, they gave her 72 hours to leave the village. “There, I felt I was surrounded, I realized they were going to kill me.”

Ana’s story summarizes the dangers that lie in wait for the women who are victims of sexual abuse: threats, lack of investigation by the police, little accompaniment by the officials who are responsible for dealing with those crimes, displacement.

And if the figures revealed in the study by Oxfam and the Casa de la Mujer approach reality, getting their stories known, getting them investigated and having the guilty punished, is an enormous challenge and debt for the Colombian justice system.

  • The names of the victims were changed to protect them.

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