Background of the conflict and key challenges
The Colombian conflict began in 1964 when the government, right-wing paramilitary organisations, crime syndicates, and left-wing guerrilla groups attempted to establish influence over Colombia. By 2013, more than 220.000 people had died, most of them civilians, and over five million civilians were internally displaced.
Although conflict-related sexual violence was a widespread tactic of war during this period, these crimes have been particularly under-reported due to major obstacles limiting access to the legal system in the country. Thus, the magnitude of this practice is yet to be fully understood. In Colombia, the levels of impunity for the perpetrators are extremely high; even today, access to health care for survivors of sexual violence continues to be a challenge.
In 2016, after more than five decades of conflict, the Government of Colombia and the FARC–EP signed the final peace agreement, which included numerous provisions on gender equality and women’s rights. Although several of these provisions addressed conflict-related sexual violence, their implementation has been rather limited.
Today, despite all the obstacles and stigmatisation, Colombian women are speaking out and demanding truth, justice, reparations and guarantees of non-repetition.
Colombia has consistently taken positive steps to tackle sexual violence and promote gender equality. In 2008, the Colombian government passed the Gender Equality Law (1257/2008) and in 2014, it passed a law to ensure access to justice to victims of sexual violence, especially in cases of conflict-related sexual violence. Although these laws provide a legal and policy framework, implementation lacks a clear strategy, coordination across departments and political will.
An important and positive development was the creation of the Comprehensive System of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Non-Repetition to shed light on the truth about the armed conflict, guarantee justice to the victims and seek accountability for the crimes committed during the war. Under this system, the Colombian government has implemented a rights-based reparations and assistance process for the people affected by the armed conflict, including survivors of sexual violence. However, instances where victims have received reparations remain an exception, rather than the rule.
Women’s organisations in Colombia have stated that women continue to face risks when reporting this crime and a variety of obstacles to accessing justice, including the absence of an efficient and reliable registering system for the testimonies of the victims and an overall lack of healthcare and psycho-social support.
In 2019, the UN Secretary-General urged the Government of Colombia to implement action plans to address violence in former conflict areas, particularly those related to assisting victims of conflict-related sexual violence and ensuring their protection and formal access to reparations. The Government was further encouraged to ensure accountability for the perpetrators of crimes of sexual violence and to allocate adequate resources to improve institutional capacity.
Red de Mujeres Victimas y Profesionales is a network of women and organisations that upholds the rights of women who were victims of conflict-related sexual violence in Colombia. The network has grown and today it has more than 665 members across the country, including large numbers of indigenous women.
Red de Mujeres Victimas y Profesionales has two priority areas: women’s empowerment and leadership, and violence against women. The network seeks to empower survivors by assisting them emotionally but also by educating them on their country’s legislation so that survivors understand their rights. This group of survivors and professionals is also working together to raise awareness among younger generations to the causes and consequences of sexual violence as well as to promote peace in Colombia.
The network’s remarkable achievements throughout the years are a result of their strength and success in advocating for changes in laws and policies regarding sexual violence. Red de Mujeres Victimas y Profesionales participated in the victims’ delegations that were included in the peace negotiations in Havana and they managed to have conflict-related sexual violence recognised as a violation of women’s rights in the peace accord. They have also been consulted and helped to design Law 1719 on access to justice and other matters for victims of sexual violence and especially sexual violence related to the armed conflict.
With the purpose of seeking justice for survivors of sexual violence, the network has organised 19 collective days in which 1238 victims, both men and women, reported to authorities the crimes of sexual violence they suffered during the armed conflict.
In addition, the network presented the first report to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace and a citizen action before the Constitutional Court so that crimes of sexual violence would not be excluded from the Special Jurisdiction for Peace and they succeeded.