The Invisible Army of Women Fighting Sexual Violence in Colombia
In a country where gender-based violence has become normalized and the government hasn’t done nearly enough to help, women are stepping up to support each other.
Isabel* first started walking with her head down to hide her bruised eyes. Then, it became a matter of convenience. She would look at the ground to avoid eye contact with men as she moved through the streets of Buenaventura, Colombia, a sprawling Afro-Colombian port city on the country’s Pacific coast. “My husband was very jealous,” said Isabel, a tall woman with broad shoulders who just turned 62. “I was a good, hardworking woman, but that didn’t matter.”
In fact, in 35 years of marriage, Isabel could do almost nothing right. Her husband would punch or throw her across the room for the slightest of mistakes, she said; any object within reach could become a weapon. Isabel remembers him going after their four kids with whips.
At one point early on in the abuse, Isabel decided she should try reporting her husband to the police, which had a special section for violence in the home. She went to the station, and they brought her husband in for questioning. But he spun their spats to make it seem like she was the one causing problems. Isabel left embarrassed and never returned. She thought about leaving him but she was scared. She had little income and there were no jobs. How would I take care of my kids? she wondered.
The marriage finally ended six years ago, when her youngest son got big enough to defend himself. Her husband took the opportunity to go live with a woman he’d had on the side. Isabel continued walking with her head down. “I still had a lot of shame,” she recalled.
Then, about a year later, a friend convinced her to go to Bogotá for a workshop hosted by a women’s group for survivors of domestic abuse and sexual violence. They meditated, she drew, they laughed. “One of the things that happens with us abuse victims is that we don’t value ourselves,” she said. Through the workshop, Isabel said, “I started to love myself again.”
Something else changed too. Back in Buenaventura, a city inundated by poverty, violence, and displacement from Colombia’s 52-year civil war, Isabel started noticing how many other women were walking with their heads down. She stopped brushing off gossip about women who were having a “hard time” with their boyfriends. She began paying attention to the whispers about the girls who’d been attacked by the groups of paramilitaries – right-wing death squads formed to fight Colombia’s leftist FARC rebels – lording over Buenaventura.
“I wanted to help those women,” said Isabel, “I knew how they felt.” So she started reaching out, one by one, to women she thought might be survivors of domestic or sexual violence. Within months, she was overwhelmed. “There were so many women and the stories were so bad,” said Isabel, “I never knew.”
Gender-based violence has become, according to the World Health Organization, ” a global health problem of epidemic proportions.” It cuts across geographic, ethnic, class, and racial lines. Certain factors, however, can exacerbate the problem. One of those factors is prolonged civil war. In Colombia, all of the war’s armed factions have been found to use rape or sexual abuse to penalize those who break rules, to humiliate women members of rival groups, or to punish perceived enemy sympathizers. According to a report from the non-governmental organization Oxfam International, 36 percent of Colombian women have suffered sexual assault by a stranger. Colombia’s Constitutional Court has declared gender-based violence to be a “habitual, extended, systematic and invisible practice in the Colombian armed conflict.”
The problem doesn’t stop there. “We discovered that when there is a large armed presence, it’s possible that the armed actors are the ones who start sexual violence, but then everyone rapes,” says Pilar Rueda Jimenez, who consults from Colombia for the International Organization for Migration on gender and was involved in the movement to bring war-related sexual violence to light a decade ago. She was also an adviser on gender to the peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the country’s FARC rebels in Havana. “Teachers, police, everyone. It’s like a merry-go-round of abuse that is completely hidden,” she said.
War can also exacerbate abuse in the home. Colombia has the second highest rate of domestic violence against women in Latin America (behind Bolivia), and the country’s figures have been described as “massively” underreported. In part, it’s because generations have grown accustomed to resolving conflict with force, says Gimena Sanchez, an expert on Colombia at the D.C.-based Washington Office of Latin American Affairs (WOLA). “The political and economic conflict has been internalized in relationships between men and women,” she said. After decades of this, violence against women both in and outside the home has become dangerously normalized in Colombia. People have grown so accustomed to it that it borders on being considered a regular part of life.
Until recently, the Colombian state has been uninterested in or unable to keep women safe. For most of the war, rape and assault as a tool of war was a silent epidemic. It only became known after several survivors of rape by paramilitaries spoke out 10 years ago.
The survivors’ movement pressed the government to reform Colombian law, which at the time barely recognized rape as a crime. New legislation, passed in 2014, abolished a statute of limitations on gender-based crimes and established a revamped legal system to provide survivors with quicker and easier access to assistance. In 2015, the government followed up with an anti-femicide law, which made the killing of a woman by a man because of her gender a crime more serious than murder. These laws make the country among the world’s most proactive nations in combatting gender-based violence – on paper. But a host of factors related to the war hamper the state’s ability to be an effective force against abuse.
And so it is everyday women like Isabel who have taken up the fight against gender-based violence in the country. Isabel does not run an organization and is not particularly well-known outside her neighborhood. Rather, she is one of an invisible army of individuals that acts as a support system and political advocate for their sisters in suffering. These women rely on the resources and knowledge of national and international women’s organizations, but are, for the most part, unsung and uncompensated for their efforts.
“We are basically doing the work of the government,” Isabel told me in April. “If we don’t do it, no one else will.”
That work might get more complicated in the coming years. Colombia is on the brink of change. In September, after more than three years of negotiations, the government and the FARC signed a historic peace accord. On Oct. 2, voters struck down the deal in a nationwide referendum by the slimmest of margins. (Voter objection was centered on the clause giving amnesty to the FARC for war-related crimes and Hurricane Matthew-related storms suppressed voter turnout. Many Colombians were left stunned).
Still, an official end is near. All sides have vowed to abide by the existing ceasefire and get back to the negotiating table. The international community signaled its encouragement for Colombia to keep working to end the Western Hemisphere’s longest running war by awarding Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos the Nobel Peace Prize five days after the referendum failed.
But if other post-conflict societies are any indication, peace won’t mean things get better. “Women sometimes tell us the most violent period they experienced was immediately after the conflict,” said Jacqueline O’Neill, director for the Institute of Inclusive Security, a Washington, D.C.-based organization focused on women’s participation in peace processes. She said researchers who study post-conflict societies consider increased gender-based violence – particularly on the domestic front – a troubling norm because returning from war can be an emasculating experience. Soldiers were able to both provide for their families and wielded power over others. Afterward, they are often stripped of both. This is compounded by post-traumatic stress and, said O’Neill, it’s not uncommon for men to lash out against their partners in response.
Isabel stood looking out from the entrance of her home, a bare-bones structure of brick and concrete that lacks a front wall. A downpour was turning the sloping dirt pathway out front into a series of muddy streams. “I need to get to the Ombudsman,” she said, to no one in particular. For the past several weeks, Isabel had been working with Patricia*, whose husband beats her regularly. Isabel believes she is close to persuading Patricia to report him and wanted to give a heads up to the office where she’d take her – the regional Ombudsman, which serves as catchall for citizen concerns from rape to police abuse to consumer complaints. The storm was complicating her plans.
Isabel has smooth skin, a warm smile, and muscular arms. After a few minutes, she seemed resigned to waiting out the weather. She pulled a plastic chair toward her and sat down, slowly. Her knees have been giving her trouble recently. Her reading glasses, missing one arm, wobbled on her nose.
Isabel has gained a reputation in her neighborhood for being the person you want in situations like these and Patricia’s sister came to her to ask for help. Isabel takes referrals from women’s groups based in Bogotá too. “They will call me and say, ‘I have a friend, she needs to report what’s going on. Go with her please so that she doesn’t feel intimidated and so that she feels supported,'” Isabel said. I asked if it’s ever hard to locate someone. She shook her head. Around here, she told me, “everyone knows everyone.”
Patricia’s sister arranged for Isabel to visit Patricia’s home when she knew the husband would not be around. Since then, the two have met to talk at the Casa de la Mujer, a local community center that offers a variety of resources such as reproductive health workshops and space for private conversations. I never met Patricia, but Isabel told me Patricia is very scared about what how the husband will react if she reports his abuse. Despite this, she’s leaning toward doing it, in part because she’s more terrified of what could happen if she doesn’t.
There are other factors that make women like Patricia hesitant to report abuse in Colombia, including a deep distrust of the police, the court system, and the state at large. This, Colombians say, is a byproduct of the war. The conflict has claimed more than 220,000 lives – over 80 percent civilian – and has the world’s highest number of internally displaced people, outpacing Syria. When it comes to gender-based crimes, as many as 97 percent of these acts go unpunished.
In a city like Buenaventura, where turf wars and drug cartel rivalries put the city among Colombia’s most violent, there’s a heightened distrust of government institutions because of historic collusion between local authorities and illegal armed groups. “There is great fear of reporting any crime in that area because five seconds later, one of them is showing up at your house trying to kill you,” said Sanchez of the D.C.-based human rights organization WOLA.
Isabel works against these obstacles by taking women to the one office that has a trustworthy reputation: the Ombudsman. Many people in Colombia told me it’s the highest regarded of the government spaces because it’s not closely linked to cartels, and when it comes to crimes against women, they treat women decently.
In Buenaventura, the head of the Ombudsman’s office is a stoic young woman with freckles and red hair named Lina María Gutierrez. Gutierrez told me her office’s first response, in the case of gender-based violence complaints, is to “make [the survivor] feel very brave. People have a lot of fear, and when someone comes to report, it’s a great act of courage.” These women are then directed to their one staffer who handles all gender-related complaints. This staffer encourages the woman to report her case, accompanies her to the police or DA’s office, and then pressures the authorities for a timely response. Women are also entitled to free counseling, subsidized by the government. Since the Ombudsman has no in-house therapists, they rely on a network of counselors and other non-government organizations to provide psychological assistance to women survivors. (Elsewhere in the country, men direct Ombudsman offices and are still highly regarded. The trust Colombians place in this institution does not seem to be related to gender.)
Gutierrez said the one person who deals with gender cases, including the women Isabel brings in, is sufficient for dealing with the current demand. That, she said, is actually the problem. In her opinion, too few women are seeking assistance. “If you look at the [local] stats for gender-based violence, there is almost nothing registered,” she said. Rather, she spoke of a metaphorical “sub-registry of acts that happen and go unreported.” Case in point, she said: The day before we spoke, she had attended to a woman who had been sexually assaulted by someone connected to a powerful gang. The woman came to the office for moral support but refused to file charges. She was planning instead to flee.
Katherine Valencia stepped into the pants of a thick black jumpsuit and pulled her arms through the top half. Her name is embroidered on the front and a small Colombian flag is sewn onto the right upper arm. On the other arm, it reads “GERICOT,” the private police academy where Valencia, 23, is a full-time student. She sat on the end of her bed to lace up her black storm trooper boots. Then she stood up, at attention, clasping her hands behind her back. I asked if she liked wearing it. Her clenched jaw released into a wide smile: “I love it,” she said.
Valencia is studying police forensics, a course that combines investigation and crime scene analysis. She wants to catch and punish criminals, especially those who target women. “I want to resolve the problems that we as women are hit with and that keep us down,” she told me.
Valencia chose to go into this field out of personal experience. When she was in high school, Buenaventura was overrun by paramilitaries. The port city had become the newest bloody battleground in the Colombian war: In the first decade of the 21st century, Buenaventura registered close to a thousand forced disappearances. No one was surprised when, around 2010, mass graves started turning up in the outskirts of the city.
Valencia kept her head down. She almost never left the house except to go to school, play an occasional game of soccer, and work at her parent’s shop, a kiosk that sold things like hot dogs, batteries, and cards to recharge photo credits. But a group of paramilitaries started showing up at her store, charging a “safety tax” and wanting free stuff. She and her parents always obliged. One day, Valencia got fed up. She demanded payment for a bottle of alcohol. That night, four of the men were waiting for her on the corner after her shift. They grabbed her, hit her repeatedly, and raped her. Valencia was 16.
Valencia didn’t report the incident at the time. Instead, she started acting out in school and mouthing off at home. To take her mind off “the bad things” that had happened to her (she told me that starting at age 9, she was physically abused by someone close to her), she would sit alone by the river near her house. She was desperate to leave Buenaventura, so when she turned 18, she headed to Quito, Ecuador, with a cousin who had lined up work. But the job turned out to be in a brothel and Valencia fled the situation. The Ecuadorian police picked her up for illegally entering the country shortly after and she was held for three days, during which time she says she was raped again. (She never pressed charges.)
When she was released, she was broke and returned home. She hadn’t finished high school and didn’t feel like going back. “Being raped made me feel like I was less of a person, less of a woman,” she said.
Soon after her return, she met Isabel, who lived in an adjacent neighborhood. Isabel did not know Valencia’s history, but certain behaviors, such as how the younger woman often held herself – arms crossed, curling forward, as if to brace herself against unwanted contact – made Isabel suspect sexual abuse.
Colombia has many women’s organizations and networks, each of which run their own workshops throughout the country. The workshops typically have two goals. First, said Luz Dary Santiesteban, a Buenaventura representative of Madres por la Vida, a national women’s group that runs these kinds of sessions, they aim to give women a space to speak about their experiences. “When the conflict beats you down, when a person is raped, or when people are killed, the heart dries up,” she told me. “We say, ‘Here is this shoulder, so that you can cry. When you feel like you can talk, you can talk with us because your pain is our pain.'”
The other piece of the session is a call to action: The facilitators walk women through their rights and the laws pertaining to domestic and sexual abuse. They encourage women to report the crimes. Some groups, such the Network of Women Victims and Professionals based in Bogotá, bring local officials to the workshop to take crime reports there. They do this, said Angela Maria Escobar of the Network, so “women don’t have to go to the government; the government comes to them.”
Soon after Isabel and Valencia met, there was a workshop hosted at Casa de la Mujer. There, the women drew and spoke about their experiences. “The workshop was hard because it dug up my past,” Valencia told me, “but now I am not ashamed to say that I was raped.” She said that she’s remained close to a few of the other women. “They support me and help me psychologically. This gives me more motivation to move forward with my life,” she said.
There were no government officials present at her workshop, but Isabel convinced her it was important tell the authorities about the paramilitary rape regardless. She went to the Ombudsman first, but even their accompaniment didn’t shield Valencia from problematic treatment from the police. The officers “would say ‘the supposed crime’ or ‘supposedly they raped you,'” Valencia told me. She said she knows it’s the police’s job to investigate a crime before concluding anything, but when “they put everything in doubt, it makes you move backward in your healing.”
She was required to undergo an invasive medical examination, at her own expense, even though the rape had taken place years earlier. But she was less bothered by the exam than by the doctor who performed it. “He asked me how I felt when I was raped, if I liked it or not,” she told me.
She was also promised counseling by the Ombudsman’s office. After an initial meeting with a psychologist, she was given a referral for a therapist. For weeks, Valencia called the number on the paper to set up an appointment. That was in 2015. “I’m still waiting for a call back,” she said.
That’s not the way it’s supposed to happen, according to Sen. Ángela Robledo, of Colombia’s Green Party, who helped draft the country’s 2014 legislation. She said that the new law established sensitivity-training sessions for police and other authorities who come into contact with gender-based violence survivors in order to prevent “re-victimization.” Robledo recognized that things couldn’t change overnight (Valencia had her troubling experience with the police just a few months after the new law took effect) and hoped that in the long run, the new legislation would be powerful.
Valencia wasn’t too sure about the specifics of the new legislation but was intent on doing her part to make change. She said the workshop and the relationships she formed “gave me the strength to try to make sure what happened to me never happens to another woman again. Or if it has already happened, to be able to support or help her in the ways I have been supported. That’s why I’m doing judicial investigation. I want to be there for the people who don’t have the strength to say, ‘This happened to me.'”
One day, Isabel introduced me to Beatrice*. According to Isabel, Beatrice’s husband has her “terrorized” and Isabel has been trying to help her leave the marriage. Beatrice agreed to speak with me, but when we sat down for an interview, she told me her relationship was “fine.” Afterward, Isabel, who had left us alone to converse, sighed. “Beatrice is not ready,” she told me. Beatrice finds reasons to put off reporting the abuse, she said. Recently, it’s been that her husband’s mother has heart problems and she doesn’t want to upset her.
Isabel is also worried about statements Beatrice has made about her husband’s behavior being “normal” and not worth reporting. Madres por la Vida representative Santiesteban said that perspective is common among abused women in Colombia. Part of their workshops is aimed at helping women “understand and know what sexual violence is,” she said. Through a series of scenarios, they explain what distinguishes a rape from sex and what it means to be abused – physically or emotionally – by your husband.
Roxanne Krystalli, a U.S.-based researcher on gender, violence, and transitional justice in Colombia, says women’s groups in the country must spell out what constitutes sexual abuse due to the normalization of such behavior. Normalization, she explained, is a survival mechanism: When assault and tragedy are commonplace, people cope by shifting their perspective on what’s shocking and what’s not. On the one hand, she said, normalization is helpful because life would be unbearable if every act of recurring violence caused deep emotional upheaval. On the other, it’s dangerous because when injustice becomes acceptable, those perpetrating the abuse benefit.
Thankfully, this acceptance, in time, can be unlearned. But there is another more foreboding obstacle in women’s escape from violence: economic reality. Isabel told me that her efforts – being a comforting ear for survivors, getting them into workshops – are nothing but a “Band-aid” solution if there isn’t an opportunity for wages that enable women to support families on their own. Isabel rarely makes money on what she spends most of her time doing; few of the NGOs have paid positions and she’s never been lucky enough to get one. At one point, she started her own organization, but she left because of infighting. These days, she makes enough to live on by reselling Red Bull knockoff drinks that she buys wholesale.
There should be jobs available. Colombia is replete with natural resources, including ample land for agriculture, an accessible Pacific coastline, and minerals for mining. Those who benefit from these resources have benefited greatly. But those left out remain stagnant: Less than 1 percent of the population owns more than 60 percent of the land.
In Buenaventura, the millions of dollars generated annually from the country’s most important port – which handles 60 percent of the country’s legitimate trade and arguably an equal share of its drug trafficking – never make it to the majority of the city’s population. Buenaventura is home some of the country’s poorest slums in the country. Eighty percent of the city’s 370,000 residents live in poverty and its unemployment rate is 40 percent.
One day, I visited the Buenaventura Victim’s Attention Center, a government outpost for anyone whose life has been harmed by the conflict, be it through displacement, job loss, or war-related death of a relative. It was a hot, sticky morning, and the line stretched around the side of the building. They were almost all women, some of whom had traveled a day down river from the Chocó Valley. The women I spoke with were waiting for their checks – the government gives a small amount of compensation to war victims – and several wanted jobs. Occasionally an employee would come outside, calling out a list of courses that had openings. The women would roll their eyes after she was back inside. Training was fine, they said. But if there’s no one to employ them with their new skills, what’s the point?
Gainful employment for men is important too. Despite the peace deal’s rejection at the ballot, the country is continuing to prepare for the demobilization of tens of thousands of fighters. Whether or not men who return find reasonable jobs impacts the issue of gender-based violence, according to Krystalli. “If returning combatants feel useful and if they can provide for their family, that matters,” she said, explaining that when men feel shame because they are unable to provide for their families, the risk of domestic violence grows.
The transition from armed actor to productive citizen has been tested in Buenavetura for years – and has not gone well. Colombia’s main paramilitary groups disbanded five years ago. Many relocated to Buenaventura because their families were there or because they hoped for jobs at the port. Those jobs never materialized, and instead, Colombia’s most brutal gangs took root in the city in order to control the drug trade that flows in and out of that port. It’s widely known that former paramilitary members – lacking other job opportunities – bled into the ranks of the cartels. From 2013 to 2015, Buenaventura was seen as Colombian’s most violent city and an international human rights crisis. The city became infamous for its casas de pique, or chop-houses, where cartels would torture and dismember rivals. Pieces of breasts and female butts were scattered around the city, and there are some women’s groups who believe that gender-based violence is worse in Buenaventura than in other areas because of all the former fighters who populate the area.
Isabel is not sure – she’s never lived anywhere else, and she’ll stay unless an opportunity arises for school or professional training. She’d like to do a social work program or something in a related field, in Bogota or abroad, but she can’t without a scholarship. On my last day in Buenaventura, I asked if she was scared. According to the London-based organization Justice For Colombia, 534 political activists – more than two per week – were killed in Colombia between 2011 and 2015. Angélica Bello, the first woman to denounce sexual violence in the war, was stalked for years, raped in retribution for her work, and committed suicide in 2013.
Isabel said that when she first began her work, she got threats. Men she assumed to be paramilitaries or cartel members would knock on her door at night. She’d hide with the lights off and they’d yell: “Watch yourself! Leave those women alone. Keep out of where you don’t belong.” At some point, the threats stopped. Isabel doesn’t know if the reprieve is temporary or permanent. So for now, she keeps at her work and walking with her head held high. “I’ll do this for as long as I can,” she said.
*Names have been changed Jean Friedman-Rudovsky was a 2016 Adelante Latin America Reporting Fellow with the International Women’s Media Foundation. Follow Jean on Twitter.