Women, Conflict-related Sexual Violence and the Peace Process

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Executive Summary

The magnitude of conflict-related sexual violence against women in Colombia is yet to be fully understood. It is a crime that is massively underreported. Where it is reported women encounter major obstacles to accessing the justice system including extremely high levels of impunity. Yet despite these obstacles and at considerable personal cost, Colombian women are speaking out and demanding rights to truth, justice and reparation and guarantees of non-repetition. In speaking out they encounter threats and risks to their physical security and that of their families. These risks extend to the women defenders who support survivors. Yet without the support and dedicated work of women defenders and the organisations they represent none of these cases would ever be prosecuted.

To comprehend the full impact of conflict-related sexual violence it is important to understand the social and cultural context of this crime. In addition to patriarchal systems based on domination and gender discrimination, other factors such as social, political and economic marginalisation need to be taken into account. For indigenous and afro-Colombian women these factors combine with historical attitudes linked to slavery and racial discrimination. Impunity acts to reinforce, rather than challenge these pre-existing norms and patterns of discrimination against women, both inside and outside of the conflict.

Women’s groups collating and analysing data on conflict-related sexual violence agree with the conclusions of the Colombian Constitutional Court that this is a crime perpetrated by all armed actors and that it is ‘an habitual, extensive, systematic and invisible practice’. A survey undertaken by women’s organisations spanning a nine year period (2000-2009) estimated that 12,809 women were victims of conflict rape, 1,575 women had been forced into prostitution, 4,415 had forced pregnancies and 1,810 had forced abortions.1

Whilst this report focuses primarily on conflict-related sexual violence, it recognises the pervasive nature of all forms of violence against women in Colombia including femicide (Colombia has the tenth highest femicide rate in the world).2 It also recognises that the same attitudes and cultural beliefs driving sexual violence against women in conflict are present in domestic life. This is one of the major reasons why these crimes cannot be amnestied in a peace process. If this occurs, it would give a message of acceptance of these crimes, and of the social, economic and cultural systems that sustain violence against women and girls. Whilst this report does not cover sexual violence against men and boys, it does recognise that conflict and domestic sexual violence are also perpetrated against them, although to a lesser extent.

Sexual violence by state and non-state armed actors

All armed actors engage in sexual violence against women but there are some distinctive uses between the actors which are explored in this report. Women’s bodies have been used in this conflict to achieve military objectives and as spoils of war. However, in Colombia, a distinctive use for sexual violence against women is also prevalent, that of exercising social and territorial control.3 Use of sexual violence to impose social and territorial control over the everyday activities of women is not generally a strategy used by guerrilla groups,4 but it is extensively used by paramilitary groups, including BACRIM (paramilitary groups that continued after the demobilisation process).5

Conflict-related sexual violence is also seen in forced prostitution of women in businesses controlled by paramilitaries, which in turn has links into a complex network of organised crime. This complexity was recognised in a 2013 UN report identifying correlations between illegal extraction of natural resources, incidents of sexual violence and military activity.6

Meanwhile the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armados Revolucionarias de Colombia-FARC) have a policy of insistence on the use of contraception and forced abortion for their rank and file troops. According to the Ministry of Defence’s Humanitarian Care Group for the Demobilised, between 2012 and 2013, 43 of 244 demobilised female fighters reported they had been forced to have abortions.7 The guerrilla also uses sexual violence in the forced recruitment of girls as combatants, in order to render sexual services, and as ‘payment’ to protect other members of their family.8