Author: Micaela Rostov
“My name is Angela María Escobar, coordinator of the Network of Women Victims and Professionals in Colombia, and I was a victim of sexual violence during the armed conflict.”
|Angela in the Russell Senate office building.
Photo by Micaela Rostov.
Oxfam America, together with the Latin America Working Group (LAWG), organized a visit to Washington, D.C. for Angela and other Colombian women’s rights activists in July 2018 to present the findings of a collaborative study on sexual violence during the Colombian armed conflict. The women also advocated for victims of sexual violence, discussed the role of women in the peace accords, and urged the United States to ensure that the new Colombian government protects and fulfills the accords in their totality.
“I was raped three times: once when I was 14, another time at age 35 by three paramilitaries, and again at 42 by a partner.” Throughout the week, as she repeatedly told her story, outlined the difficulties that victims of sexual assault face in Colombia, and expressed her concerns for the future of the peace accords, Angela’s voice never wavered. “I am a woman who overcame.”
In Colombia, “impunity is institutionalized,” said Angela. After a woman is raped, she “has to prove to officials that she is innocent.” Between 2010 and 2015, 875,437 Colombian women living in conflict affected regions were direct victims of sexual violence. But despite the enormous magnitude of sexual violence, only 20% of survivors reported their abuses to the authorities. According to Angela, the “total impunity” that remains for those who commit acts of sexual violence is a major reason for the lack of reporting. In fact, of the reported cases, 97 percent of those accused remained unpunished.
In addition to impunity, Angela explained that women refrain from speaking out because of the threats to themselves and their loved ones. “We are kept in silence for so many years. The greatest threat is that if we tell, they will kill our families or they will kill us… it is better to stay quiet and take care of our families so that nothing happens to them.”
But Colombian victims of sexual assault are silenced by more than the threat of retribution, they are also silenced by the fear of stigmatization. For Angela, “to speak is to prevent.” Consequently, “We are encouraging more women to speak out. We are raising awareness in society that we are not at fault. And above all, we are sensitizing our families, because we are very stigmatized by our families.”
“I am a woman who overcame.”
She also emphasized the positive impact of Rape and Other Violence: Get My Body Out of the War, a campaign started by organizations of women, feminists, victims and human rights defenders in 2009 to visibilize sexual violence in the armed conflict and demand justice for victims. “The campaign was something wonderful for us because it has allowed us to break the silence, to shatter the fear, to end the stigma and the shame that sexual violence has generated within us. The campaign also showed us that we are not alone.”
But despite the gains over the past few years, Angela is very concerned. “Everything that we have achieved as women’s organizations [during the peace negotiations] has been rejected.” As the new government led by Iván Duque is on the precipice of taking power, there is genuine fear amongst the victims of sexual violence about their ability to access justice moving forward.
“In the JEP [Special Jurisdiction for Peace] we have the most hope; it’s the only chance for restorative justice.” But the incoming government’s plans to modify the JEP, as well as other parts of the accords, are putting victims of the armed conflict in a more vulnerable position. If military members are tried in special courtrooms, “we [the victims] are never going to know the full truth.” This will have detrimental implications for the guarantee of non-recurrence and for the psychological wellbeing of those whose rights were violated.“What we ask, as victims, is to know the truth.”
|Left to right: Angela, Marta Londoño (Oxfam Colombia),
Jenny Neme (DiPaz), Lisa Haugaard (LAWG), and
Olga Sánchez (Casa de la Mujer). Photo by Micaela Rostov.
Angela is especially worried because among the proposed changes to the JEP, one already made by Congress affects cases of sexual violence against minors, for which sentences will be determined by the ordinary justice system rather than by the JEP. This eliminates the incentive for perpetrators to confess crimes of sexual violence against minors in the JEP—meaning that victims will have to rely on the ordinary justice system, where there is “total impunity” and “many hardships” for victims. “We do not know a single case that has been resolved in the ordinary justice system. The majority of women were victims of sexual violence while underage, thus these women are never going to know the complete truth.”
However, sexual violence is not Angela’s only concern. Now, as an advocate, Angela faces additional threats due to the increasing violence against social leaders. A recent report revealed a “painful statistic: between January 1st, 2016 and June 30th of this year, 311 leaders and human rights defenders were assassinated in Colombia. We, as organizations, are at risk.”
“We bring with us the serious concerns of all of the victims of the armed conflict. We want what was agreed upon in Havana, the implementation of the accords, to be fulfilled. Because if not, there are great risks. We ask the United States to ensure that President Duque and his administration comply fully with the accords, maintaining the victims and the comprehensive system for truth, justice, reparations, and the guarantee of non recurrence at the center.”