Sexual Violence in Colombia: the role of the government and their legal obligations

Sexual violence in conflict is not a new phenomenon.  Rape and other forms of sexual violence have been used as weapons of war against innocent women, men, girls and boys in conflicts across the world, so much so that the practice has almost become normalised and treated as an inevitable consequence of conflict, and so is a difficult issue to address. 

On Monday 17th February, Britain’s foreign minister, William Hague, visited Bogota, urging world leaders to prioritise tackling sexual violence and rape in armed conflict.  The first visit by a British foreign minister to Colombia in 27 years, the event aimed to raise awareness about sexual violence in war zones as Hague emphasised the importance of changing “global attitudes to these crimes” and focusing global efforts on prosecuting those responsible.

“These crimes must no longer be regarded as something that simply happens in conflict zones. The suffering of women must never again be treated as an issue of secondary importance, and survivors must never be shunned and abandoned for they should be supported and freed from stigma,” Hague commented whilst announcing the UK government’s commitment to allocating funds to train Colombian prosecutors to deal with cases of sexual violence.

In the Colombian context, armed groups have committed sex crimes and exploited women as sex slaves, using sexual violence to instil fear among communities, dehumanise the victims, and impose social and military control in various areas.  In these cases there has almost been total impunity.  Women’s rights groups continuously call on the Colombian government to do more to provide justice and support to survivors of sexual violence and punish gender-related crimes perpetrated by Colombia’s armed forces and guerrilla forces.  In a landmark 2008 ruling, Colombia’s Constitutional Court concluded that “sexual violence against women is a habitual, extensive, systematic and invisible practice in the Colombian armed conflict.”  However, the proliferation and prevalence of sexual violence demonstrates the lack of will and resources available to address the issue.

Conflict related sexual violence needs to be understood in its social and cultural context.  Colombia’s strongly patriarchal system continues alongside other factors such as poverty and social, political and economic marginalisation that create a permissive context for the use of violence against women.  Addressing this issue will involve a huge movement of cultural reconsideration as there is no single isolated factor that must be tackled, rather a multitude of issues and mentalities.  However, the acknowledgement of sexual violence in conflict as a serious breach of international law and of fundamental human rights is a step in the right direction. 

In September 2013, 113 countries convened at the United Nations in support of the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict.  Among other things, this declaration called for adequate funding for sexual violence prevention and response efforts, comprehensive, improved, and timely medical and psychosocial care for survivors, the exclusion of crimes of sexual violence from amnesty provisions in peace accords, the full participation of women in all decision-making processes during conflict, post-conflict, and peace time, strengthened regional efforts to prevent and respond to rape in war, military and police training on prevention and protection obligations, and improved collection and access to data and evidence of sexual violence during conflict.  An International Protocol on the Investigation and Documentation of Sexual Violence in conflict has also been proposed which hopefully the G8 will agree on late this year.

Declarations raise awareness and encourage States, and indeed the public, to engage in debates surrounding controversial topics.  However they must not become a veil for states to hide behind and perpetuate their inertia.  The true measure of dedication to a cause is action and Colombia must demonstrate its commitment by enacting policies and programmes according to the new international standards.  

Hannah Matthews

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