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Trying to Move Forward After 60 Years of Rape

The decades-long civil war in Colombia could end with the signing of a historic peace agreement next year. But the conflict hasn't ended for some 500,000 women and victims of sexual violence.

by Jenny McCall
Nov 3 2015, 4:30pm

Journalist Jineth Boydoya Lima in the rural area of Colombia. Photo courtesy of ABColombia

"On May 5 in 2003, in the indigenous territory of Betoyes, Colombia, soldiers allegedly posing as paramilitaries [...] raped four girls aged 11, 12, 15, and 16. The 16 year old was Omaira Fernández. She was six months pregnant at the time. Having raped her [...] they cut her open and extracted the foetus, cut it into pieces, and then threw the baby and its mother into the river."

That was an extract from a report by human rights organization ABColombia, highlighting just one example from thousands of the systematic rape and abuse endured by girls and women during Colombia's brutal 60-year conflict.

Read More: Sexual Assault by Police Officers Is Even More Common Than You Think

This savage internal war, described as the world's longest conflict, dates back to 1948. It escalated in 1964 when a group of peasants, organized by the Communist Party, rose up against the government and evolved into a powerful guerrilla army known as the FARC. This signalled the start of similar groups such as the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Popular Liberation Army (EPL). These groups dominated rural areas of Colombia, where there was less state control. Right-wing paramilitary groups, such as the AUC, were established by landowners and the drug lords in order to curb FARC attacks on their turf.

Both the FARC and paramilitary groups were funded by drug trafficking and kidnapping for ransom. They brought about countless human rights violations, such as the rape and torture of rural women, as well as the displacement of thousands. In a 2009 report from feminist organization Sisma Mujer, one displaced woman recalled, "Women were forced to strip naked [by the paramilitaries] and to dance in front of their husbands, many of the women were then raped [by paramilitaries in front of their husbands] and their screams were heard as far away as the next ranch."

Jineth Boydoya Lima walking with members of the rebel group, FARC. Photo courtesy of ABColombia

After five decades of conflict, Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos announced in August 2012 that peace talks would commence between his government and the FARC. In September this year, a historic agreement was finally reached between the warring sides, which will result in the signing of a peace deal next year, on March 23. The government and the FARC have agreed on four crucial points, one of which includes bringing to trial those who had committed the most serious human rights violations.

For the women and girls who were victims of the systematic rape and torture by members of the paramilitary, armed forces, and the FARC, it has been a long battle for justice. A leading voice in the case for justice has been that of journalist Jineth Boydoya Lima, the deputy editor of Colombia's second largest newspaper, El Tiempo.

All the time, as they raped me, I had a 9mm pistol to my head. I died inside and I died in that time.

Sitting in the ABColombia office, her hands clasped and wearing a red scarf around her neck, she describes the feelings she had as a journalist embarking on a career that would change her life.

"I was young and Colombia was very strong. There was a lot of drug trafficking as well as internal conflict; these were the issues I wanted to write about. In April 2000, there was a riot in the world's most dangerous prison and I was the only journalist allowed in. I wrote a report and what followed was a series of violent threats against me and my family."

Lima's report led to her kidnapping in May 2000. She was taken to a remote part of Colombia, raped by three men, and tortured for several days. "All the time, as they raped me, I had a 9mm pistol to my head. I died inside and I died in that time... I don't know why I wasn't killed. They left me in the road. I decided to return to the paper and my job as a journalist."

Contemplating suicide, she was offered exile by the Colombian government in order to protect her from further attacks. Jineth refused. In June, the authorities dropped the charges against Alejandro Cárdenas Orozco, a paramilitary fighter who confessed to taking part in the kidnap, and released him from prison. (Cárdenas retracted his confession in 2013.) Lima intends to appeal this decision.

Jineth Bedoya Lima, who was raped and attacked by paramilitaries. Photo courtesy of ABColombia

Continuing her investigations into drug trafficking, Lima set her sights on the FARC. This is where she faced her second attack alongside her photographer. "Three years after the first attack," she says, "I was doing research on the FARC. We travelled to the jungle zone, [I] was kidnapped, held for a week, and then set free."

Lima is one of thousands of women who have suffered during the ongoing conflict in Colombia. Her story, like countless others, delivers a cold blow even to the most hard-hearted of individuals. For many of the victims the most terrifying violence was done by the paramilitary, such as the AUC. Though they have demobilized, many of their fighters are still operational in Colombia.

That day I lost my virginity, my happiness and my desire to live.

In the same report by ABColombia, several women described, in detail, the abuse they endured at the hands of the paramilitary in Colombia. One 14-year-old girl remembers the moment she was raped: "That day I lost my virginity, my happiness and my desire to live." It happened on the road between Santiago de Cali, a city in south west Colombia and Buenaventura, a small city off Colombia's pacific coast. Four paramilitary soldiers gang raped her. When they had finished, they stabbed her five times in the breasts and twice in the genitals. They also beat her unconscious and left her for dead. She survived.

In additional to the physical trauma, there is also the psychological torment that women endure. Paula Andrea Caicedo was 15 years old when she was raped at the paramilitary headquarters in Nudo de Paramillo, the north west region of Colombia. When she told her family, they refused to believe her and she was shunned.

"They used to blame all the women, saying we asked for it, that we wanted it," she told ABColombia in the same report. Now 25 and raising two children alone, Caicedo said her life has been marked by depression. "Sometimes I feel like I want to kill myself, I feel like I'm worthless."

Read More: How the United States Is Hurting Rape Victims Around the World

In the last ten years alone, 500,000 women have been subjected to rape and torture. Over 49,000 children have also been victims of sexual violence during the conflict. For thousands of women, justice seems like a distant dream. Punishment levels are at an all-time low, with only two per cent of cases reported leading to actual convictions.

Advocates against sexual violence in conflict believe the judicial system in Colombia is ineffective. "It's almost impossible for them to have justice," said Thomas Mortensen, the country manager for Christian Aid. "Impunity is almost 100 per cent and even in high profile cases like that of Jineth Bedoya, the interests in not bringing about justice are incredibly strong. Also, the judicial system is inefficient and patriarchal."

Mortensen also states that previous government promises to investigate these crimes have failed every time. "The government has promised over and over again to investigate all human rights abuses and impunity is still high," he said. "The communities we work with are continuously threatened and generally nothing happens about it. It should also be kept in mind that state agents are responsible for numerous human rights violations and the interests in not investigating these are very strong."

The government has only one women negotiator. There was no other women part of the peace talks.

With the peace agreement about to be signed on March 23, the government and the FARC have agreed on four crucial points, one of which to investigate serious human rights violations, including sexual violence. However, campaigners worry that other rebel groups were left out of the peace talks, including ELN, the second-largest guerrilla group.

"Without a doubt the negotiations with FARC will reach agreement," Lima said, "but there will not necessary be peace in Colombia; the fact that the ELN was not involved in peace talks is important. The government and activists need to attack the structures of these groups."

Also noted was the lack of women around the peace negotiating table in Havana, given the thousands who have been impacted by sexual violence. "The government has only one women negotiator," Lima added. "There was no other women part of the peace talks."

In addition to this, despite the demobilization of paramilitary groups such as the AUC, they still operate in parts of Colombia. "What we don't want to see is they only prosecute guerrilla groups but also the state officials and the paramilitary," said Louise Winstanley, the program and advocacy manager for ABColombia. "Post-demobilized paramilitaries still operate and this is a worry. Another concern is that paramilitary bosses previously jailed, are due for release. The International Criminal Court need to keep monitoring this."

There is also the additional problem of increased violence, which Jineth believes will lead to more rape and abuse against women and children. "First of all I think—as with all conflict—the difficult part is the post-conflict [period]," Lima said. "I expect the violence to increase; we need to have a good contingency plan in place."

Allowing women to tell the truth of what happened to them is important, Winstanley added. "Reparations for victims involve the truth being told. Also a lot of women would like counselling."

For Jineth Boydoya Lima, ending conflict in Colombia will secure hope, but also justice. It means justice for the thousands of nameless women and children, who were caught up in the war and impacted by sexual violence. For Omaira Fernández, the young pregnant girl from Betoyes, it may also provide some form of peace at last.