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In Northern Colombia, Women and Girls Endure Astonishing Violence and Need Immediate Protection and Cash Assistance

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By Cassondra Puls, Women’s Refugee Commission, and Catalina Vargas, CARE Colombia

At Colombia’s border with Venezuela, women and girls face daily risks to their health and lives to survive and provide for themselves and their families. In September 2021, CARE Colombia field staff spoke to more than 80 women in Ocaña, Norte de Santander, Colombia, about their lives and exposure to violence. Women described deprivations and violations, including high levels of gender-based violence (GBV), with few services or aid to turn to.

As the COVID-19 crisis swept across the globe, the pandemic exacerbated the humanitarian situation in northern Colombia. On the border with Venezuela, criminal syndicates fight for control over land, oil, and the drug trade at the expense of the population. As a result, human trafficking, massacres, assassinations, and other acts of violence have increased— and the impacts of these overlapping crises on women and girls in the Norte de Santander region are profound. Levels of violence against women — already extreme — are worsening, and services and aid for women remain inadequate.

This is what the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC) and CARE have found in our project in Ocaña, a town of 100,000 where over 40,000 are displaced people and migrants, most of them women and children. Our project’s local partner — whose name is being withheld to keep them from becoming a target of violence — is delivering services focused on survivors of GBV. The services include one-on-one psychosocial and legal support, along with cash assistance of US$100 per survivor, to improve survivors’ safety and meet their needs.

In an assessment we carried out in September 2021 with 82 displaced Colombian and migrant Venezuelan women, we found that almost all (90 percent) met the risk and vulnerability profile that qualified them for GBV services with cash assistance. Seventy percent reported threats, intimidation, and other forms of psychological abuse, while 71 percent reported experiencing physical abuse, and 56 percent told us they had been blackmailed by partners and relatives through control of financial resources to keep them from leaving abusive relationships. The assessment aligned with other reporting from the region: that GBV is rampant and relentless, and targets women and girls who often are economically dependent on their abusers and vulnerable to exploitation.

In the patriarchal culture of Norte de Santander, safe economic opportunities are limited, making women dependent on male partners, who can be abusive, for basic needs. In our assessment, women, Colombian and Venezuelan alike, described emotional abuse, physical violence, and forced sex at the hands of intimate partners and their own relatives to have a degree of economic security — or else face rights violations, sexual exploitation, and risks of disappearance and death in the broader community. For example, some Venezuelan migrant women had to accept shelter from male strangers — a vulnerable position that could lead to domestic servitude or forced physical and sexual labor at coca plantations.

Women we spoke to who did flee from abusers, especially Venezuelan migrants with fewer support networks, were struggling to clothe themselves and their children. This forced some women to engage themselves, or their daughters, in transactional sex work to pay for basic needs. Those who crossed borders in search of employment risked being kidnapped by criminals controlling crossings. With little recourse, women feared that they or their children would be forced into armed groups or become victims offemicide.

These are real fears. In Norte de Santander, threats, physical abuse, and sexual violence against women escalate into murder with little consequence to the perpetrator. Femicide, the murder of women based on their gender, is a leading cause of death for Venezuelan women and girls in Colombia. Femicide across Colombia dramatically increased during COVID-19, including in Norte de Santander, where, as of July 2021, there were 10 reported cases of femicide.

In the face of extreme levels of violence targeting women and girls, our assessment tried to map existing services — but found few other services or sources of relief for GBV survivors in Ocaña. Government agencies were overwhelmed and lacked resources to protect women and respond to high levels of GBV. This is a situation that calls for civil society and humanitarian organizations to step in to fill the gaps in women’s protection. Yet, at the time of our assessment, there were only two other organizations providing relief in Ocaña: one provides school kits and the other offers livelihood trainings.

The conflict in northern Colombia is a humanitarian crisis, one that disproportionately victimizes women and girls, and available services are shamefully inadequate to meet needs. CARE and WRC call on relevant national and international actors to negotiate safe, principled humanitarian access to women, girls, and other populations in need of assistance in conflict-affected regions of Norte de Santander. These actors should strengthen existing coordination mechanisms, or put new ones in place if needed, to ensure that government actors and humanitarian organizations can support women’s protection, livelihoods, and resilience.

A comprehensive humanitarian response in Norte de Santander — comprised of government agencies supported by civil society — must prioritize GBV response services. Trained GBV case workers are a lifeline in the face of threats of violence and murder. GBV programs that provide access to cash assistance can support women in recovering from trauma, and then with access to financial resources to change their circumstances.

National authorities must meet their commitments to protect civilians and displaced people. No matter how complex a crisis, until peace comes, it is the responsibility of the government and international community to protect the rights and lives of women and girls.