Blog post

Sexualized Violence in Colombia: how women are helped – and hindered

Andreas Schüller
Blog post

Ever since I began writing this blog, I planned to feature contributions from colleagues who inspire and motivate me. Today’s blog was written by Andreas Schüller. He heads the International Crimes and Accountability Program at the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR). Part of his work focuses on sexualized violence against women in the Colombian conflict.

The main hall of the planetarium in Bogotá, Colombia: shortly before Easter the Working Group of organizations monitoring the enforcement of the Constitutional Court’s decisions on sexualized violence in Colombia presented their new report. According to their statistics, over the last 15 years the Colombian authorities made convictions in less than 3% of cases of rape and sexual assaults. Today the hall is full; over 100 women from all over the country have come for the meeting. The women represent both the diversity and disunity in Colombia. Some of the participants have travelled a long way to be here – indigenous and afro-Colombian women, internally displaced women, women and activists from rural areas along with women engaged in political work in the capital Bogotá.

The focus of their discussion is the January 2015 decision from the Colombian Constitutional Court (Auto 009) on hundreds of cases of conflict-related sexualized violence still not addressed by the Colombian justice system despite an explicit order to do so from the highest court in 2008 (Auto 092). For its groundbreaking 2008 decision, the Constitutional Court analyzed almost 200 cases of sexualized violence by various groups of perpetrators – particularly by army members, paramilitaries and guerrilla fighters. The Court then obliged the Colombian state to take several measures and to prioritize the fight against sexualized violence. Yet little has been done.

The currently much-discussed peace talks between the government and the FARC rebel group played a secondary role for the women gathered at the planetarium. For them the main issue is the fact that the Colombian state has for years denied victims of sexualized violence a suitable place to register their complaints as well as individual protection and adequate psychosocial counseling.

The women and activists criticize that cases of sexualized violence rarely lead to criminal proceedings against the perpetrators and that the state is not doing enough to prevent further crimes. They also feel – and the Constitutional Court agrees – that the state is still lacking any strategy to address the sexualized violence related to the conflict that often also involves internal displacement. Repression has risen dramatically since 2015 – including against activists and human rights defenders, which brings us back to the peace talks. In Colombia many paramilitary and criminal groups are still using violence against social actors in an effort to mark out their territory before the end of the peace negotiations and ultimately to torpedo the talks.

The working group against sexualized violence will continue to fight, including on a legal level. Almost one year ago the organizations Sisma Mujer and CAJAR together with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) submitted a criminal complaint to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The complaint sets out representative cases of sexualized violence to show that in the Colombian justice system, politicians and the army are all failing to do enough to ensure these cases are finally stopped, investigated and properly addressed.

While the International Criminal Court is still in the preliminary examinations stage, Colombia’s legal, political and military approach to addressing the sexualized violence remains under international scrutiny. For the affected women and activists gathered at the Bogotá planetarium, one thing is clear: the Constitutional Court decisions, the peace talks and the international pressure are all tools to help enforce state obligations to guarantee the right to truth and justice.