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No silence, no impunity: Survivors of sexual violence in Colombia

25 May 2016 is the second national day in Colombia that recognizes women survivors of sexual violence during the internal conflict. This year IFEX takes a look at how journalist Jineth Bedoya Lima, whose case is emblematic of the lack of justice and respect afforded to victims, and local organisations are working to raise the voices of survivors who will not be silenced

Women march through Bogotá, Colombia to demand an end to violence against women
Women march through Bogotá, Colombia to demand an end to violence against women

UN Women via Flickr

The internal armed conflict in Colombia has taken a toll on the country and the millions of Colombians whose lives it has touched. One subset of those impacted is women victims of sexual violence who were attacked and violated during the conflict. Between 1985 and 2014, 7,353 victims of sexual violence were registered. Today, 25 May 2016, marks the second National Day for the Dignity of Women Victims of Sexual Violence caused by the Internal Armed Conflict. To observe the day, IFEX takes a look at where things stand in Colombia and celebrates the people who are bravely speaking out and holding authorities accountable for improving the lives of survivors.

The decades of ongoing conflict have created victims and survivors of many types, and among them are thousands of women survivors of sexual violence. Recent peace talks between the government and the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), the country's largest rebel group, have started to address key topics necessary for a stable and lasting peace. One of these is recognising victims of the conflict, their human rights and the truth of what took place.

Sexual violence has been identified as a systemic tool of intimidation and silencing that was used during the conflict. To recognise survivors' stories and struggles, in 2014, the Colombian government set aside 25 May as the National Day for the Dignity of Women Victims of Sexual Violence caused by the Internal Armed Conflict. The date was chosen to commemorate the same day in 2000 when journalist Jineth Bedoya Lima was brutally kidnapped, tortured and raped in the course of her investigation into violence at a maximum-security prison involving state officials and paramilitary groups. As part of her advocacy work on behalf of all victims of sexual violence, she suggested that the day be reserved as a symbol of collective reparations for all women victims.

Other moves toward recognition and reparations include a 2014 law by President Juan Manuel Santos on access to justice for victims, which enhances the status of sexual violence survivors, allowing them to receive reparations, psychosocial support and free medical care. In 2014, 2,081 women received compensation from the National Unit for Victim Reparations. The law also recognises the fact that sexual violence is a crime against humanity, and for this, the law has been commended by the UN Secretary General for Sexual Violence in Conflict.

Jineth Bedoya Lima speaks at the IACHR in April 2016
Jineth Bedoya Lima speaks at the IACHR in April 2016

Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos

While reparations on behalf of the government are a step towards healing, justice for survivors in these cases remains elusive. Jineth knows this all too well; now 16 years after her attack, she is only beginning to see signs of accountability in her case. Since 2011, the lawyers at Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP), a local Colombian organisation and IFEX member, have been her legal champions and helped her take her case to the Inter American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). In 2015, the IACHR accepted her case, obliging the Colombian State to provide information on its responsibility in the violation of Jineth's rights to judicial protection and freedom of expression.

At the time of her assault, Jineth was told that she was being attacked because of her work as a journalist and that it was a message to the press to stop reporting on government and paramilitary activities. For the first nine years after her assault, the tool of sexual violence as a silencing force worked. Before 2009, Jineth did not speak about her rape, until she realized that she was among millions of victims of the internal war and was asked by OXFAM to be the voice of a report on sexual violence in Colombia. In the same year, Jineth founded the campaign “No Es Hora de Callar” (It's Not Time To Be Silent), which seeks to raise awareness and condemn violence against women – especially sexual assaults within the framework of the Colombian conflict.

Jineth is not alone in her work. Within Colombia, organisations have sprung up to raise public awareness of violence against women and girls, and it is to their credit that survivors have a voice and a supportive network ready to hear their stories. Groups like Sisma Mujer, which has developed guides for women victims of violence to access justice in various sectors of Colombian society, and Casa de la Mujer, which has worked on the issue of women's access to information in Colombia, are part of a web of support holding up survivors like Jineth.

In 2015 – when one of the suspects in Jineth's attack was briefly released – Sisma Mujer, Ruta Pacífica de la Mujeres and others released statements condemning the Attorney General's decision. The same organisations tweeted in support of Jineth earlier this month, when she decided to return government compensation, a decision motivated by the vast contradiction in the authorities' treatment of her case.

[The tweet above reads: How much money do you need to make up for the pain of loss and rape? ‪@jbedoyalima‬‬ Reasons for her decision #5Keys]

[The tweet above reads: @jbedoyalima has our absolute support.
Reparations, justice and dignity of victims are not things that can be bought

When IFEX asked Red Colombiana de Periodistas con Visión de Género what 25 May means to them, they stated: “It is a day that allows journalists to focus on a call that brings attention to the issue of sexual violence against women and, as the name suggests, appeals for dignity for victims. It is a day for society to be informed and create a process for awareness and to contribute to a solution.”

Another organisation in Colombia, Women's Link Worldwide, told IFEX that 25 May "Is an opportunity for us to express our profound admiration for survivors who, despite all the challenges, continue their tireless struggle for the enforcement of their rights to justice and health. Instead of feeling daunted, this struggle has transformed them into agents of change in the country."

The Red Colombiana also asserted their belief that in order to tackle the problem of women being silenced, there must be a cultural revolution in all institutions – and society at large – to change the ideas and actions surrounding the issue of equal rights for women. They stressed that there should be neither silence, nor impunity, and that women need to be able to make reports, as well as receive justice, in a timely manner.

Together, Jineth— as the voice of this movement – and numerous organisations have made statements on the peace process and condemned recent attacks on women's rights defenders.

Jineth is hosting the 2nd Festival for the Life of Women (II Festival por la Vida de las Mujeres) on 24 and 25 May at the Central University of Bogotá where there will be conversations among survivors of sexual assault and the launch of an OXFAM-initiated CD dedicated to “avanzadoras”: forward-thinking women who are working to make change. Public events like this are an embodiment of Jineth's campaign slogan and provide supportive spaces for women to speak about their experiences. In doing so, they defy their attackers who sought to silence them.

Erin Woycik is the IFEX Section Editor for the Americas.

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