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Women´s Rights and the Armed Conflict in Colombia

FRIDAY FILE: “The Colombian armed conflict has been going on for over 50 years and has developed alongside the situation of poverty in the country. Forced displacements, massacres of the Colombian people and other acts violating international humanitarian law are taking place, principally affecting women”.

By Gabriela De Cicco

AWID spoke with lawyer Luz E. Romero, founder and coordinator of the Colectivo Mujeres al Derecho (COLEMAD) which, from 2003, has centred its work on studying and addressing the situation in Colombia, the needs and rights of rural women affected by forced displacement and the overall armed conflict, as well as the responsibility of the State in these situations.

AWID: For over 40 years guerrilla groups, paramilitaries and government forces have been at the centre of the armed conflict in Colombia. Can you briefly contextualise the conflict?

Luz Estella Romero (L.E.R) There are different causes that have led to the armed conflict in Colombia. Some are political like the struggle between political parties in power and others who want to share that power; other reasons relate to social inequality and the unequal distribution of wealth in our country. This has led to various social groups, including farmers, taking up arms and engaging in belligerent processes, while seeking access to opportunities and social equality. Women have been involved in these processes since the beginning.

The Caribbean region is one of the most affected territories. Six of the eight departments are considered to have the highest prevalence of violence, are insecure and are high risk zones due to the presence of various armed actors who operate within the zone and commit attacks against civilians.

One of the outcomes of the inappropriately named “process of paramilitary demobilisation” under the “Justice and Peace” law, is that the government and other State authorities do not recognise that some paramilitary groups continue to be active. Rather, they name them “bandas criminales, Bacrim”(criminal bands), the most notorious within this grouping being the Águilas Negras (Black Eagles), which has threatened the Liga de Mujeres Desplazadas (League of Displaced Women) five times.

The country is in an institutional crisis. Paramilitary interests permeated many State institutions that gained force during the government of Uribe Vélez and they continue to prevail under the current Santos administration. For example, in the Congress of the Republic more than 70 of its 268 members are being or have been judged by the Supreme Court of Justice or have been detained due to links with the paramilitary, a phenomenon that has been called “parapolitics”. Military and other interventions by countries such as the U.S.A. means the conflict is not only considered an internal conflict but is classified as an international conflict.

AWID: How have women and girls been affected by the para/militarisation in Colombia? What has affected women and girls the most?

L.E.R.: Of the more than five million forcefully displaced persons, at the national level, 50.5% are women, 24.3% are female headed households, 49.6% are younger than 18 years, 4.7% are over 65 years of age, 4% belong to Indigenous groups, 9.7% are from the Afro-Colombian population, and 0.53% have some form of disability[i].

Women are affected by the conflict in multiple ways including physical violence and threats, separation from and the loss of loved ones, fiscal and economic insecurity and higher risks of sexual violence. In many of the territories controlled by the security forces, military, paramilitary and guerrillas, sexual violence against women is linked to the dispossession of land and is used as a war tactic, by which the wives of opposition soldiers are sexually assaulted

Violence against women is not just a phenomenon of the current armed conflict, but has been ongoing throughout history and continues today. Gender based violence (physical and psychological abuse, and sexual violence in the domestic sphere), discrimination, sexual harassment, the dispossession of property, of economic rights and other forms of violence against women take place and are exacerbated during conflicts and are used as weapons of war. Violence and poverty together have a major impact on rural and indigenous women in this region.

I will give you some numbers which demonstrate what is happening in Colombia. Between January and December 2010, 1 292 cases of femicide were reported, 15 123 cases were informed by sexological experts, that is to say, presumed sexual abuses in different modalities (these numbers correspond to cases investigated as presumed crimes); 43 280 women reported personal injuries to their bodies; 44 845 cases of violent crimes within a couple in which the victim is a women were reported; cases of violence against girls, boys and adolescents included 5 969 cases where the victims were female and 5 263 cases in which the victims were male.

Murders took place not only within the context of domestic violence, some femicides were motivated by the leaders of the communities in which the women live because of their role as human rights defenders.

AWID: What has been the effect of para/military actions on the rights of women in Colombia?

L.E.R.: The State justifies the arms race as “democratic security”, but continues to distance itself from the idea of human security. We must live up to our necks with soldiers, and armed police prepared to attack, yet this security is focused on protecting economic monopolies, politicians and the economic and political elite of the country.

As women we do not feel safe. The wave of violence and attacks in the context of the conflict that exists in Colombia has worsened over the past years and is widespread in the country.

The violence is manifested in continual threats via pamphlets from paramilitary groups; attacks by the police against social protests; disappearances and arrests of women community leaders; assassinations and femicides of women and specifically of women´s rights defenders; fights between guerrilla groups, the army and police, and in other regions attacks by paramilitary groups and drug trafficking groups.

AWID: Could you expand more on the ways in which forced displacement have affected women?

L.E.R.: In Colombia, women have been excluded from processes related to access to land titles and territory and decision making. As a result of this and along with the war conflict many women have been displaced and dispossessed of their land. This creates difficulties when trying to demonstrate their rights to the land, especially when they do not have the land titles, or do not know the size of the abandoned and seized property. The male family members who had this information, have been assassinated or have disappeared.

Women who were displaced as a result of the conflict have many challenges, including having to deal with judicial fees from banks and financial entities which are charging them for the credit debts incurred by the male family members. Neither the State nor the financial sector has taken account of the fact that the victims were forced to flee due to the armed conflict and had to abandon their land which was their only form of income generation and as a result they do not have the resources to pay the debts.

Women also face environmental problems, such as the recurring annual floods which affect the areas where the women currently live and have created new displacements. The State has done nothing to put in place policies to mitigate the risk and losses that these floods cause.

AWID: Are there any policies in place to address the needs of the displaced women?

L.E.R.: A public support policy does not exist, there are some isolated programmes but they do not respond to the needs of women and their families, nor do the programmes reach all of the affected population. The Constitutional Court has condemned this situation, and in the resolution of cases has called on the government to focus on creating a support system that acknowledges the magnitude of the problem.

I will give you the example of a few places where the women live and with whom COLEMAD, our collective, came to work with on the coast. The situation is devastating for the families living in inhumane establishments in the municipalities of Pueblo Viejo and Ciénaga, in the department of Magdalena (situated on the north coast of the country). The housing has been constructed with plank, zinc, cardboard and plastic. The homes are divided into rooms that together are no larger than one normal sized room, in which a minimum of three nuclear families live. This overcrowding generates insecure situations that augment the risks of sexual violence for women and girls. In the rainy season the homes are flooded as they are located at the shore of the swamps.

As these communities are based in isolated areas, access to health services is limited or nonexistent due to the lack of medical coverage or lack of economic resources to travel to health centres. This situation resulted in the death of a minor last year. As a result of displacement over the past 15 years more than 500 homes are affected by these dire conditions.

AWID: What has the State done to stop or prevent rights violations?

L.E.R.: Very little if anything. The State powers are concentrated on defending private property, large estates, the interests of prominent politicians and foreign economies. This demonstrates that the various free trade agreements that Colombia has or is negotiating with Canada, the European Union and the United States do not provide benefits for the small farming sector, but rather for the economic monopolies in the country, the foreign multinational companies and agribusinesses. In addition the majority of the national budget is spent on military and bureaucratic expenses.

Although the Courts of Justice have favoured sentences that support the rights of women, the Constitutional Court has sanctioned the “Law of Justice and Peace”, which results in many of the crimes committed and confessed by paramilitaries going unpunished and disregards the security forces as an armed and powerful actor.

Currently the Congress of the Republic is discussing Law 107 which relates to reparation and restitution of the victims of the conflict. This does include some benefits for women, but it is still lacking the substance to be considered a law for real truth, justice and reparation. Unfortunately it is like many of the laws in Colombia; in theory they contain progressive elements but they have few actual functional elements when put into practise.

Translation by Karen Murray

[i] These statistics were produced by the Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento (Human Rights and Displacement Consultancy)).