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Colombia: representing women victims of the armed conflict

The intricacies and impact of language used in discourse about women victims



Through a study comparing the language used by Colombian broadsheet El Tiempo and pacifist feminist organisation La Ruta Pacífica when talking about victims of the violent conflict in Colombia, Isabelle Gribomont demonstrates how no discourse is ever objective, and that language can impact the ways in which victims are understood and treated in a (post-)conflict society.

In March 2021, the Colombian state was on trial at the Interamerican Court of Human Rights to determine the state’s responsibility in the abduction, rape, and torture of journalist Jineth Bedoya in the year 2000. During the first day of the trial’s public hearings, Colombian state representatives took the unprecedented decision to withdraw from the court, alleging partiality from the judges. This withdrawal was a slap in the face to the thousands of victims of sexual violence fighting for justice in Colombia. What’s more, it highlights an institutional lack of willingness to address gender-based violence. 

Twenty years ago, at the time of the attack, Bedoya was already a prestigious journalist, investigating the arms, drug and human trafficking taking place between paramilitary groups. The justice system did not comply when Bedoya requested protection following an increased number of threats. After she was abducted and raped, Bedoya was forced to make a declaration detailing the crimes in court on up to a dozen occasions, but the perpetrators were not duly investigated. To this day, out of the twenty criminals implicated, only three have been sentenced.

The Bedoya case, among countless others, exemplifies the complicity of the state in this human rights crisis. If this is the treatment received by a world-renowned journalist who fought for justice for two decades, what can be hoped for the countless women who, without Bedoya’s means and platform, have been more successfully silenced by the state?

Throughout the conflict, from the 1960s until today, women have been the primary victims. Millions have suffered psychological, physical and sexual violence at the hands of legal and illegal armed actors. This systemic violence has been routinely used by enemy groups to weaken, intimidate, humiliate and coerce women and their families. In addition to lasting physical and psychological trauma, victims are often stigmatised and marginalised within their communities. For decades, victims of the conflict, particularly women victims of sexual assault, have been fighting for justice, recognition and reparation. 

La Ruta Pacífica de las Mujeres is a pacifist feminist movement and a national political organisation highlighting the impact of the conflict on women.

In response to the lack of institutional support for women in conflict zones, several organisations have arisen to advocate for them. Among these is La Ruta Pacífica de las Mujeres, a pacifist and feminist organisation and movement, founded in 1996. La Ruta led the Commission for Truth and Memory of the Women Victims of the Armed Conflict (Comisión de Verdad y Memoria de las Mujeres Víctimas del Conflicto Armado), a commission conducted in collaboration with survivors of the conflict which focused on truth, justice and reparations. In their many reports and communiqués, La Ruta relays the voices and experiences of the victims.

Pacifist women’s organisation vs. Colombian press

Although a large proportion of the Colombian population has been personally affected by the conflict, the media has been its key interpreter. So to better understand the way La Ruta recognises victims of the conflict, it is useful to compare its public discourse to that of the Colombian press. Taking the mainstream media as a counterpoint to La Ruta can highlight the differences between the victims’ own voices and their representation in the discourse which most largely contributed to shaping public opinion.

My analysis compares documents published online by La Ruta since 2006, with a body of relevant articles published during the same period by El Tiempo, the daily broadsheet newspaper which has the highest circulation in Colombia — and where Jineth Bedoya works as an editor. 

How do the two outlets represent victims’ subjectivity?

A comparison between the lists of verbs which are most significantly associated with the word ‘victim’ as grammatical subject already suggests that victims are represented in La Ruta with far more compassion than in El Tiempo’s rhetoric, which conversely contains dehumanising elements.

La Ruta, in its communications, include lengthy accounts and analyses of victims’ experiences. This can be measured through its use of verbs characterising speech-acts, such as ‘narrar’ (to narrate), ‘destacar’ (to highlight), ‘revelar’ (to reveal), and ‘contar’ (to tell). In contrast, El Tiempo most significantly uses verbs such as ‘clamar’ (to cry out), ‘reclamar’ (to claim/to demand), ‘solicitar’ (to request) and ‘relatar’ (to tell/to narrate). With the exception of ‘relatar’, these verbs show that El Tiempo represents the victims’ voices as demanding, without dedicating the same attention to the realities leading up to these demands.

In addition, victims in El Tiempo are more consistently the subject of verbs with passive connotations, such as ‘pertenecer’ (to belong), ‘desistir’ (to desist), ‘recibir’ (to receive), ‘merecer’ (to deserve), and ‘tener’ (to have). Meanwhile, none of the verbs in the list from La Ruta imply a similar lack of agency, with the notable exception of ‘sufrir’ (to suffer) and ‘padecer’ (to suffer/to endure), which, contrary to the aforementioned verbs, convey the victims’ experience. 

In contrast, verbs from La Ruta such as ‘encontrar’ (to find), ‘identificar’ (to identify), ‘participar’ (to participate), ‘decidir’ (to decide) and ‘confrontar’ (to confront) all suggest an empowered subject. The only verb from El Tiempo which refers to the victim’s subjectivity is ‘esperar’ (to wait/to hope for) while the list from La Ruta includes ‘desear’ (to wish), ‘padecer’ (to suffer from/to endure), ‘sentir’ (to feel), ‘sufrir’ (to suffer) and ‘vivir (to live)’. This discrepancy confirms that El Tiempo does not grant much space to the victim’s subjectivity.

Out of these twenty verbs most strongly associated with the word ‘victim’ as subject in each discourse, only two verbs appear in both lists: ‘denunciar’ (to report) and ‘necesitar’ (to need). However, when observing their use in context, different connotations emerge.

Examples of sentences about victims using ‘denunciar’ and ‘necesitar’ in La Ruta:

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Las conexiones especialmente del ejército o la policía y de grupos paramilitares después de denuncias ante la fiscalía u otras instituciones muestran el grado de control al que son sometidas las víctimas que denuncian a esos perpetradores
Connections, especially between the army or police and paramilitary groups after complaints to the prosecutor’s office or other institutions, show the degree of control to which victims who report these perpetrators are subjected.

En la mayoría de los casos el miedo y las amenazas hacen que las mujeres  víctimas no denuncien o no les puedan dar seguimiento.
In most cases, fear and threats prevent women victims from reporting or following up.

Muchas víctimas necesitan un acompañamiento individual o colectivo , pero también un marco social de reconocimiento que ayude a ir dejando atrás el impacto traumático.
Many victims need individual or collective accompaniment, but also a social framework of recognition to help them move beyond the traumatic impact.

Examples of sentences about victims using ‘denunciar’ and ‘necesitar’ in El Tiempo:

Tal vez porque las víctimas no denuncian a sus atacantes, como pasa en la mayoría de los casos, por temor o vergüenza, o porque la violación es vista más como una agresión física ‘normal’ que como un delito. 

Perhaps because victims do not report their attackers, as happens in most cases, out of fear or shame, or because rape is seen more as a ‘normal’ physical assault than as a crime. 

Otro obstáculo fue que las  víctimas no denunciaron por miedo […]. 
Another obstacle was that the victims did not report out of fear […]. 

Las  víctimas  necesitan reparación, verdad y justicia y los grandes victimarios son las Farc’, declaró el candidato presidencial Óscar Iván Zuluaga.
‘The victims need reparation, truth and justice and the big perpetrators are the FARC,’ declared presidential candidate Óscar Iván Zuluaga. 

While in La Ruta, the focus is largely on the consequences that victims who report crimes must face, El Tiempo rarely presents the denunciations from the victim’s perspective. Often, they focus more on faulting the victims who do not report, than on explaining why they might not feel safe to do so. Similarly, La Ruta relays the victim’s need for recognition and support. Meanwhile, in El Tiempo, although the victims are the grammatical subject of the sentence, the real focus is often on other actors, whether the perpetrators or politicians pushing a certain narrative.

The need for alternative narratives

Quantitative linguistic analyses have the potential to reveal much more about the portrayal and interpretation of the conflict presented by different sources. However, this simple comparison between verbs consistently taking the word ‘victim’ as their subject already highlights the lack of empathy displayed by the press and the need for alternative narratives, like the one provided by La Ruta. Observing how these two voices differ linguistically showcases that no discourse is ever objective and that language can impact the ways in which victims are understood and treated in a (post-)conflict society. 

‘in spite of the work of journalists such as Bedoya, the pervasive portrayal of victims in the mainstream media has contributed to desensitising the public to their ordeal, both at the hands of the perpetrators and the Colombian government.

In spite of the work of journalists such as Bedoya, the pervasive portrayal of victims in the mainstream media has contributed to desensitising the public to their ordeal, both at the hands of the perpetrators and the Colombian government. As proven by the recent events at the Interamerican Court of Human Rights, it is as crucial as ever for alternative voices to emerge. Victims of the conflict have long problematised the narrative shared by the mainstream media and, by forming organisations such as La Ruta, opted to define themselves rather than letting others define them.

The research presented in this article is supported by Professor Claire Taylor’s AHRC grant for the project ‘Memory, Victims, and Representation of the Colombian Conflict.’ Isabelle Gribomont is a Digital Humanities Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Liverpool. She has a background in Latin American studies and her research interests include corpus linguistics and Natural Language Processing methods for discourse analysis.

Main image: screenshot from ‘MEMORIA PARA LA VIDA‘, La Ruta Pacifica, 2013.

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