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Colombia: transitional justice must include GBV

Fighting for the recognition of gender-based violence in Colombia’s transitional justice system



Despite its slow first few years of work, Colombia’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace has demonstrated a commitment to female victims of the Colombian armed conflict. However, it is important that progress continues, argues Miriam Rodero, a recent graduate from UCL’s International Relations of the Americas MSc.

‘That which isn’t named doesn’t exist,’ said Angélica Cocomá, a former lawyer at Women’s Link Worldwide, an organisation advocating for women’s sexual and reproductive rights in Colombia. 

Alongside many other women’s organisations, Women’s Link is fighting for the recognition of violence committed against women and girls during the country’s 50-year-long armed conflict. Failing to name gendered violations means they often remain invisible in post-conflict settings, and impunity prevails. Women’s Link hopes to avoid exactly that.

Colombia’s 2016 peace deal represented an important feat for women. Not only did women make up a high percentage of the negotiation team, but the peace deal adopted a gender focus that promised to address gender-based violence. 

Several transitional justice mechanisms were born from the peace accord to deal with mass human rights violations. This included a special tribunal: the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (or JEP), to investigate and prosecute crimes perpetrated by guerrilla group FARC-EP and the Colombian State. Thanks to the crucial work of women’s organisations with the JEP, important progress has been made for female victims of the armed conflict.

The Colombian conflict 

Gender violence was widespread throughout the Colombian conflict. Sexual violence was perpetrated by all armed actors, who often used rape to instil fear in civilian populations. Reproductive violence – a type of gender-based violence which has historically been neglected – was also prevalent in Colombia. In guerrilla groups such as FARC-EP, forced abortions and forced contraception were perpetrated against female combatants, who were forbidden from having children. Paramilitary groups also enforced pregnancies on civilian women and girls they had raped and sexually enslaved.

Helena’s story of forced abortion in Colombia. Video from Women’s Link Worldwide.

Women’s organizations in Colombia have worked hard to advance the understanding that gender-based violence can cover more than just sexual violence. 

Cristina Rosero, for example, is the legal advisor at El Centro de Derechos Reproductivos, an international organization that focuses on advancing reproductive rights. Cristina spoke about the importance of recognizing the term ‘reproductive violence’ as a step forwards: ‘We want people to understand that [during conflict] women experience more than just sexual violence.’

Alongside Women’s Link Worldwide and La Mesa por la Vida y la Salud de las Mujeres, a Colombian organization that also protects women’s reproductive rights, El Centro’s work with transitional justice institutions has been crucial in promoting nuanced understandings of gender-based violence in Colombia.

The Truth Commission – a non-judicial mechanism also resulting from the 2016 peace deal – included a range of gendered violations in its final report on 28 June 2022. The report is the first of its kind in recognizing sexual violence and reproductive violence as well as political violence against women during the conflict, detailing attacks against sex workers, for example, and the gendered dimensions of forced displacement amongst other violations.

The JEP’s work

The JEP’s gender focus aims to identify how gender impacted experiences of the conflict, whilst shedding light on a type of violence that is often rendered ‘invisible, normalised and naturalised’ during war. It considers gender-based violence as something that is interlinked with other violations. As Diana Pérez from the JEP’s Investigation and Accusation Unit points out, applying a gender focus to her work means ‘recognising that violence was embedded in a power dynamic that privileged men.’ 

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The JEP initially opened six ‘macro-cases’ to advance accountability for grave human rights violations. These were organized either by types of violations perpetrated (kidnappings, extra-judicial killings, forced recruitment) or by areas of the country in which violence was most concentrated (Nariño, Urabá, Cauca, and Valle del Cauca). Gender-based violence has been addressed in many of these cases.

Sexual violence was investigated as part of case 01 on FARC-EP kidnappings, to recognise rape, sexual slavery, and forced prostitution perpetrated against victims of kidnappings, in addition to forced pregnancy and forced sterilization. The JEP concluded these violations constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity, in line with standards in international criminal law. Ex-FARC-EP commanders have subsequently accepted these charges  – including those relating to sexual violence.

In case 07, gender-based violence is being investigated as one of the main patterns of violence that occurred alongside the forced recruitment of children by FARC-EP. The JEP has explicitly mentioned it is investigating forced abortion and contraception – in addition to rape, sexual slavery, and sexual abuse – demonstrating a willingness to address violations of reproductive autonomy, too. The JEP’s decision to include reproductive violence in both case 01 and case 07 sets an important precedent for transitional justice systems worldwide which have historically neglected this type of violence, despite its prevalence in conflict settings.

JEP receive report about sexual violence during the conflict and other about gender violence in the Montes de María. Photo: Isabel Valdés Arias
The JEP receive reports from the Red Nacional de Mujeres Defensoras de DDHH and Sima Mujer about sexual violence during the conflict and gender violence in the Montes de María. Photo: Isabel Valdés Arias/JEP

Despite these developments, a range of women’s and victims organizations in Colombia have criticised the JEP’s inadequate strategy for addressing gender-based violence. 

‘The crimes which are most visible and being investigated the most [in the JEP] are kidnappings, forced disappearance, torture… ‘classic’ crimes, if you will,’ said Cocomá.

Last year, the coalition Alianza Cinco Claves, which includes Women’s Link, called for the opening of a macro-case solely dedicated to investigating gendered crimes. The JEP finally announced it would open case 11 on ‘sexual violence and crimes based on gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity’ in July 2022. This will address violations which have not yet been included in existing macro-cases and will incorporate thousands more victims of gender-based violence into the JEP’s work.  

What next?

Despite its slow first few years of work, the JEP has demonstrated a commitment to female victims of the Colombian armed conflict. The institution has been responsive to women’s organizations by opening a case solely for gender-based violence, whilst adopting an intersectional approach and considering how this violence was interlinked with other violations. The JEP therefore aims to listen to, include, and seek justice for as many girls and women as possible.

As we look towards a future that could be brighter for many girls and women across Colombia, it is also important to look back and ensure victims of the armed conflict are not forgotten. 

However, it is important that progress continues. In spite of the limitations of international law and the challenges involved in prosecuting gendered crimes, the JEP must continue to encourage participation from female victims, avoid re-victimization in trials, and perhaps push the boundaries of what international law is equipped to deal with.

‘The JEP’s job isn’t easy,’ said Rosero, ‘but it does have the necessary tools. What it needs is a full commitment to truth-seeking and its gender focus.’

In many ways, Colombia is turning a new page for women’s rights. The first Afro-Colombian female Vice President, Francia Márquez, was inaugurated alongside President Gustavo Petro in August 2020. Meanwhile, abortion was decriminalized in Colombia in March this year thanks to the crucial work of women’s organizations, making it one of the countries in the Americas with the most progressive abortion laws.

As we look towards a future that could be brighter for many girls and women across Colombia, it is also important to look back and ensure victims of the armed conflict are not forgotten. Transitional justice is not just about bringing perpetrators to justice, it is also about giving a voice to those who lost one, rebuilding societal trust, and fostering reconciliation – and that can only be achieved with the inclusion of all victims.

Main image: Helena, a woman who suffered reproductive violence in the ranks of the FARC. ©Laura Martínez Valero, Women’s Link Worldwide.