Women are more than victims: they are peacemakers

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Members of a support group for survivors of sexual violence create a circle with their hands, Bogotá, Colombia, March 2011. The letters on the hands of the women in a circle form the words "No al abuso sexual" (No to sexual abuse). They are a group of women who have been victims of sexual violence in the armed conflict in Colombia who meet regularly.

Members of a support group for survivors of sexual violence create a circle with their hands, Bogotá, Colombia, March 2011.
The letters on the hands of the women in a circle form the words “No al abuso sexual” (No to sexual abuse). They are a group of women who have been victims of sexual violence in the armed conflict in Colombia who meet regularly.

By: Janine Aguilera, Identity and Discrimination Unit Intern

Rape and sexual violence against women have been used as a tactic of war in Colombia since the beginnings of the armed conflict, more than 50 years.

Colombian women have been systematically raped or sexually assaulted for variety of purposes, including intimidation, humiliation, forced-displacement, extracting information, and rewarding soldiers. Rape and sexual violence have been also used as a strategy to assert social control, and a weapon against women’s rights defenders who raise their voices in support of land restitution.

According to the Sole Victim’s Registry of Colombia (Registro Único de Víctimas), within the context of war, 50% of the 7,512,561 victims of conflict-related crimes have been women. The National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences (Instituto Nacional de Medicina Legal y Ciencias Forenses, INMLCF) has documented 51,600 women victims of sexual violence during the last three years, though actual numbers are certainly much higher since, according to the “The Five Keys” (Las Cinco Claves) an alliance of women’s rights organizations in Colombia, the high level of impunity for these crimes has led a widespread under-reporting among the victims with an estimated 80% not reporting the crime.

Rape and sexual violence are crimes of war and crimes against humanity recognized by the International Criminal Court Statute of 1998. The United Nations Security Council has also recognized that rape as a weapon of war can be a threat to the international security.

Women are the most likely victims of such crimes, but—importantly—they are also critical actors in preventing such violence and establishing peace.

The UN Security Council reaffirmed the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts and in peace-building in Resolution 1325, which emphasizes the importance of women’s equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security, and the need to increase women’s role in decision-making with regard to conflict prevention and resolution.

A colourful awareness mural on the streets of Mocoa bears the message: "Woman is like Mother Earth. Her nature must not be violated."

A colourful awareness mural on the streets of Mocoa bears the message: “Woman is like Mother Earth. Her nature must not be violated.”

Yet despite international efforts to promote women’s participation in making peace, the peace talks between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which began three years ago in Cuba, have not fully taken into account the participation of those who are disproportionately and uniquely affected by the conflict: women.

Recently, the FARC and the government signed agreement on transitional justice; it’s a hopeful first step, but it has raised concern amongst human rights activists that not all human rights abusers will face justice—including those who may be guilty of rape and assault against women during conflict.

Though women are 50% of victims of war, and 51% of the population, women only make up 37% of the current representatives of the government in the peace talks and 43% of the current representatives of the FARC.

Furthermore, only 28% of the 3,576 proposals for peace that the civil society has sent to the table of negotiations have been made by women.

In 2014, after two years of decision making on political participation, victims, anti-drug policy, and land reform, the table of peace negotiations decided to create a Gender Sub Commission composed of women representatives from the FARC-EP as well as the government. Yet its participation has been limited “to make recommendations” on gender issues in order to help the final agreement achieve a fair approach—women must be given more than an advisory role in these talks.

Students celebrating International Women's Day hold Colombian flags and flowers during march to demand the release of dozens of kidnapped children, Bogota.

Students celebrating International Women’s Day hold Colombian flags and flowers during march to demand the release of dozens of kidnapped children, Bogota.

Without strong and full inclusion of women in this process, we risk these talks and any agreements from these talks not adequately representing women or recognizing the specific trauma experienced by women during this conflict. Agreements that do not take women’s voices and experiences into account could result in the tacit acceptance of rape and other forms of sexual violence as an unavoidable part of war and perpetrators who may go unpunished for their crimes against women. Any talks must fully recognize the violence perpetuated against women during conflict—including rape—and must hold perpetrators fully accountable. What’s more, the physical and mental health services necessary for women to move forward with their lives must be central to any solutions, as must services for male ex-combatants to ensure that violence from the conflict does not continue in homes and communities.

Women are influential peace-builders. In Colombia, women have been a target of war for half of a century, they account for more than half of the population, and they have been uniquely adversely affected by armed conflict. As such, more than being heard as one of the groups of victims, women should be full participants in the peace talks to ensure that their issues are correctly addressed during this critical time of change so that they can help to create a lasting and equitable peace, deeply-rooted in respect for all people’s human rights.

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