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Women participate in a demonstration in Bogota on International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. (James Stapleton/Jesuit Refugee Service)

(Bogotá, Rome) April 22, 2013 – When young mother Rosa Elvira Cely was found dead last year after being brutally tortured and raped by common criminals, thousands joined a march in the Colombian capital to demand justice. For a moment it seemed as if the general public had woken up to one of the most horrendous consequences of the more than 50-year conflict, widespread violence against women.

While Rosa's rape and murder were laid bare for all to see, more than 82 percent of the nearly 500,000 Colombian women subjected to sexual violence during the period 2001-2009 never reported these crimes; half of whom did not even consider themselves victims. It was as if the equivalent of the entire female population of a medium-sized city had been sexually abused in nine years. Not surprisingly, the incidence of sexual violence was higher in municipalities with an active presence of the armed forces, guerrilla and paramilitary groups; places where impunity ran riot.

The tendency to view violence against women as a societal ill, divorced from the conflict, fails to recognize the fundamental role of conflict in creating a culture of violence. In the midst of brutality, impunity reigns and violence is normalized by its victims as the only available response. Recognizing all forms of sexual violence as such has to be a first step towards ending it; but the long-term goal has to be a peaceful and just solution.

During its height, the conflict touched almost every strata of Colombian society. But increased military intervention has displaced the violence to isolated regions and marginalized communities. Mass displacement has turned into individual displacement; paramilitary groups began a demobilization process – only to rearm under new names – conveniently offering the authorities an opportunity to treat violence from conflict as common crime. Despite brief media outbursts, the victims are becoming ever more invisible.

"They don't think they're entitled to justice or reparation; it's made invisible. They think if it happened to me, it happened has to others; they normalize it. They focus on rebuilding their lives and the lives of their families", said Ana*, an experienced member of a Colombian NGO whose staff have been threatened by illegally armed groups in the past for their human rights work.

In areas with a presence of illegally armed groups, the social lives of women are frequently controlled; forced domestic labour, sexual harassment and even forced sterilization are not uncommon. Women and girls who join illegally armed groups frequently experience sexual or psychological violence. Those who oppose these groups, risk the wrath of armed illegal and legal groups, or powerful families. This brutality against women, particularly sexual violence, forms part of the strategy of conflict; one fueled by economic and political interests.

Take Angélica Bello whose daughters were kidnapped, raped and forcibly displaced by armed groups in response to their mother's activity in the left-wing party, Unión Patriótica. Subsequently, she became an internationally renowned human rights defender of conflict-affected women, only to suffer the same fate as her daughters. In mid-February she was found dead in mysterious circumstances; if she committed suicide as official reports suggest, it highlights the lack of state support for victims of sexual violence; if she was murdered, it sends a message to other defenders.

Moreover, there is a tacit acceptance by the state of these circumstances; though the specifics are rarely discussed publicly in the media, the dynamics are clear to local communities. In the absence of the rule of law, people are forced to resort to armed groups in resolving disputes, and even to make a living. Tolerance of violence becomes the norm, opening the way for other anti-social activities, sexual violence and exploitation.

"Illegal groups exercise control in the most displaced communities, in a sort of uneasy alliance with the state. Many families are forced to flee when state actors hear they‘re cooperating with illegally armed groups. But in response to the question 'why did you go to this or that group,' they say to find land, get an education, a job; the groups act as quasi states and impunity flourishes," Ana added.

Interviews with demobilized women have revealed that many had suffered sexual abuse – from fathers, brothers and other relatives – in early childhood. Many women and girls voluntarily join armed groups in an attempt to escape domestic violence.

And this is where the context of the conflict and the society it produced has become interconnected. Violence in and tolerated by families is a daily occurrence. It not only affects women, but also young girls under the noses of their parents who normalize the situation, failing to protect their daughters from sexual abuse.

"I know cases where individuals are so afraid of their aggressors that they remain silent and this can go on for years. The aggressors could have been given access to the girls by their fathers, brothers, someone in their family. They're not going to testify, they normalize the acts, they internalize them," Ana explained.

Forcibly displaced, sometimes repeatedly, women commonly find themselves in the most marginalized peripheral communities, on the edge of cities. As the household heads of large families, women from all over the country struggle to get by in low paid causal employment, with little or no support from the state.

"The violence against women is structural. The unequal distribution of wealth led to armed conflict, abuse of authority and power, and displacement. This displacement, disproportionately affecting women, causes misery. Women don't speak about it because they're traumatised, because of the pain of living through it again, they look on in silence. They prioritize other things, lost loved ones and land, survival. It becomes part of them. As a way of protecting themselves, many women focus on their immediate needs," Ana continued.

After being raped Rosa called the emergency services for assistance, when she arrived in hospital four hours later it was too late. 

Responsive social services may have helped save Rosa's life, and better laws would convict more perpetrators. Ending impunity in Colombia means protecting 55,000 women a year; i.e. 150 a day or six an hour; that does not happen by tinkering at the edges.

by James Stapleton, Jesuit Refugee Service International Communications Coordinator and Professor of Human Rights in the Rome Center of the Loyola University Chicago. The information on sexual violence in the article was collected by the author during a visit to Colombia last November and December.

This article was first published in El Mundo.

*This name has been changed for reasons for reasons of security.

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