After more than 50 years of conflict, Colombia has established May 25 as a National Day for the Dignity of Women Victims of Sexual Violence caused by the internal armed conflict. It is a day to remember the appalling suffering experienced by countless women, whose plight has until now been largely ignored.

Stop Press: As if to emphasize the dangers confronting women, Salud Hernández-Mora, columnist for the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo and correspondent for the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, went missing in El Tarra on May 21. Two journalists from the RCN network who went to look for her have also been reported missing.

On 25 May 2000, journalist Jineth Bedoya Lima was abducted, tortured and raped by paramilitaries while she was covering a story on forced disappearances and arms trafficking inside La Modelo prison, in the heart of the capital city, Bogota.

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Jineth Bodoya Lima. Photo: ABColombia

Jineth remained silent for years, but is now one of the main spokespeople on the issue of sexual violence in conflict in Colombia, including representing victims at the Havana peace talks, and campaigning alongside Christian Aid partners Sisma Mujer and ABColombia.

On the release of their report, Colombia: women, conflict-related sexual violence and the peace process, Jineth said: “I felt ashamed. The damage they did to my soul will never go away.  But now, I can talk about what happened to me. I realised that I could be the voice of thousands of women who have been victims of sexual violence, and that’s what gives me strength today.”

As part of her reparation and in recognition of her brave and influential fight for justice the president of Colombia, declared May 25, the date of her abduction, as the National Day for the Dignity of Women Victims of Sexual Violence caused by the Internal Armed Conflict.

After more than 15 years and alleged serious errors into the investigation of her case only two of her attackers have been charged. With the support of Sisma Mujer, former paramilitary fighter Mario Jaimes Mejia was handed a 28-year prison term for Jineth’s kidnap, torture and rape earlier this year.  This followed the 11-year prison sentence of Alejandro Cárdenas Orozco, who was also found guilty of her kidnap and torture.

However her fight for justice continues. On May 11 she formally returned her financial compensation from the state – saying that the only reparation she asks for is the truth, and that the state still need to take responsibility for what she has been through.

Jineth said to El Espectador: “Today, I give back this compensation to that State, which has not been able to find justice and truth in my case and in the thousands of cases like mine, where we have suffered sexual violence.”

Jineth’s story is one of countless experiences faced by women in Colombia today, but the overwhelming majority are denied access to justice. Despite adopting a protective legal framework for women’s rights, more than 98 per cent of perpetrators of sexual violence in Colombia go unpunished.

The Constitutional Court of Colombia has described sexual violence as a generalised, habitual, extensive, sistematic and invisible practice carried out by all groups in the armed conflict. The paramilitary groups have been identified as the worst perpetrators, followed by the state security forces then the guerilla groups, according to the report from ABColombia and Sisma Mujer.

The establishment of the National Day for the Dignity of Women Victims of Sexual Violence, and the inclusion of sexual violence in the peace talks in Havana, aimed at ending the armed conflict, demonstrate how public awareness of the issue is slowly growing. Womens Rights organisations recoginise important steps in the right direction, such as a special jurisdiction for peace agreed by the Government and the FARC,  which states that there will be no amnesty for perpetrators of sexual violence. However, these organisations believe it does not go far enough, as it does not address all the existing obstacles preventing women survivors from reporting crimes, including lack of protection against retaliation, weak legal support and limited psycological support.

The problem remains as marked as ever, if not worse. Despite the fact the Government and the FARC, the main insurgent group, have been engaged in peace talks since 2012, and the peace talks began this year with the second largest guerilla group the ELN, there is evidence of increased sexual violence in the country.  Following a freedom of information request made by Claudia Mejia of Sisma Mujer, the National Institute of Forensic Services revealed that they recorded a 93 per cent increase of sexual violence in the context of the conflict.  However, this could be a result of more women reporting the crimes.

There is a long way to go, but the continued efforts of strong female leaders such as Jineth, and the work of women’s rights organisations such as Sisma Mujer, show that truth and justice for victims of sexual violence is possible.

You can read more about Christian Aid’s work in Colombia here.

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