Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Afro-Colombian Women Continue to Face Unspeakable Violence during Armed Conflict

About 30,000 protesters turned out in the predominantly Afro-descendant city of Buenaventura in March to protest the ongoing violence perpetrated by armed groups. Photo Credit: Palenque el Congal via PCN.

CALI, COLOMBIASince 2013, Charo Mina Rojas has helped register 42 cases of sexual violence and internal displacement perpetrated against Afro-Colombian women in two cities alone. As of today, however, Ms. Mina Rojas has not received word from the Colombian authorities as to whether the cases are even being investigated.

With investigations stalled or never undertaken, the perpetrators of sexual violencewho are in many cases members of paramilitary groupsare free to continue persecuting their victims, often threatening to kill them if the go to the authorities. In the predominantly black city of Tumaco, many survivors of sexual violence have refused to talk about their experiences for fear that they will be killed for doing so.

Many of these women are vocal community activists whom paramilitary groups consider guerrillas and therefore their enemies. To protect them, Ms. Mina Rojas and the Global Rights’ partner organization she represents, the Kuagro Ri Changaina Ri PCN, spirit the women out of their homes and into safe houses in other cities. One woman, a community activist from Buenaventura, had to be relocated 80 miles from her home to stay with relatives in Cali. Despite the woman being relocated, paramilitaries hunted her down and shot her in the leg one day while she was walking in the street. The Kuagro, which is a women’s collective that is part of a 100-member Afro-Colombian coalition called Black Communities Processes, had registered the case with the authorities in Buenaventura and Cali, but it never received adequate attention.

Although it is clear Afro-Colombian women have suffered more than any other group since the outbreak of the Colombian conflict in 1964, the Colombian government is not doing enough to address the ongoing and culturally-specific issues these women face, Ms. Mina Rojas said. A major stumbling block is the fact that the Colombian government does not collect racially-specific data when documenting cases of sexual violence and displacement. As a result, the government does not know how and by what degree the armed conflict has affected the Afro-Colombian community. This failure to effectively identify and deal with Afro-specific issues is a violation of the Colombian constitution, which in 1991 recognized Afro-Colombians as a unique collective entitled to special rights.

Ms. Mina Rojas said that outside political pressure must be applied to the Colombian government for any substantial change to take place. To that end, Global Rights, the Kuagro and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) organized a five-day visit by IACHR president, Tracy Robinson, to speak directly with dozens of Afro-Colombian women activists from Buenaventura, Tumaco, Cali and the Caribbean and North Cauca regions. 

The visit, which lasted from Sept. 24 to Oct. 3 and also included meetings with LGBTI activists, provided the IACHR, in particular its Rapporteurship on the Rights of Women, a unique opportunity to gather information for its upcoming regional report on the rights of women in the region that has a particular focus on Afro-descendants. It also gave the IACHR and its president a chance to see whether progress had been made in addressing the situation of Afro-Colombian women following official recommendations the IACHR made to Colombia in March 2013 in light of testimonies given to the Commission during a thematic hearing in Washington requested by Global Rights and Kuagro. 
Charo Mina Rojas

“The Rapporteur was greatly alarmed by information received confirming the pernicious effect of the armed conflict on the integrity, lives, and territories of Afro-descendant women,” The IACHR said in an official statement released Oct. 10. “The Rapporteur reminds the State [i.e. Colombia] of its obligation to take into account the multiple forms of discrimination consistently faced by afro-descendant women on the basis of their sex, race and condition of poverty, and to facilitate their participation in the development of legislation and interventions relevant to their human rights.”

The meetings Global Rights and the Kuagro arranged also had a strong impact on the leaders of the Afro-descendant women’s groups, many of whom feel ignored by the Colombian government and the international community.

“It was actually very important for them because they have very little opportunity to mobilize all the way to Washington to present their cases and their situation in front of the president of the Inter-American Commision for Human Rights,” Ms. Mina Rojas said. “For them to have the opportunity to meet with her was crucial…it made them feel like they were being listened to.”

As of 2013, there were 4.7 million internally-displaced persons in Colombia due to the ongoing armed conflict, according to the most recent government figures. Afro-Colombians make up about 26 percent of Colombia’s population and represent at least 30 percent of the total number of internally-displaced persons, according to a report published by Global Rights and AFRODES in 2010. Half of the Afro-Colombians who have been displaced are women.

Afro-Colombians are particularly vulernable to displacement because they live in predominantly black communities situated in resource-rich and militarily-strategic areas that armed groups have forcefully seized during the conflict. Afro-Colombians are also more impacted by violence and displacement because they are typically poorer than the rest of the country and thus cannot easily relocate to safer parts of the country.

In addition to internal displacement, Afro-Colombian women—and Colombian women in general—continue to suffer from gender-based violence due to the ongoing conflict. A March 2014 report on conflict-related sexual violence released by the United Nations Security Council noted the severity of the issue in Colombia. The report also notes that women and girls of Afro-Colombian descent have been “disproportiantely affected.”

“The sexual exploitation of women and girls in areas under the influence of illegal armed groups… remains a grave concern,” the report says. “In this context, incidents indicate that sexual violence is perpetrated as a strategy to assert territorial control, to intimidate women leaders and human rights defenders and to intimidate the civilian population as a method of social control. Some survivors report having been displaced and raped repeatedly. Survivors reporting incidents of sexual violence to the authorities and service providers also reported receiving subsequent threats against them and their families, some of which resulted in forced displacement. The continuing presence of survivors and perpetrators in the same community represents an ongoing security risk, creates acute psychological trauma owing to prolonged intimidation and hinders reporting and access to justice and services.”

Another major issue is the impunity with which perpetrators of sexual violence operate. According to a report released in November 2013, only one in five cases of sexual violence are reported and of the cases reported, only two percent end in sentencing for the perpetrator.

Ms. Mina Rojas, however, is confident that if the IACHR continues to apply political pressure on the Colombian government, the government will be compelled to engage with the Afro-Colombian leaders to adequately address the myriad issues facing Afro-Colombian women. Ms. Mina Rojas is also hopeful that because of how impacted Ms. Robinson was by her visit with Afro-Colombian women activists, the IACHR will grant a thematic hearing in March 2015 to publically discuss the issue in Washington with Colombian officials and civil society.

The visit of the IACHR to Colombia also garnered media attention. It was covered in Colombia’s largest news publication, El Tiempo, and in El Pais, the leading paper in the Pacific Region, where most Afro-Colombians live.

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