The United Nations Refugee Agency reported on Columbian women and their work to combat sexual abuse. Michelle Begue stated that women in Columbia are working through the court system to find justice in sexual abuse and rape cases.
Leonor Galeano and her 12-year-old daughter, for instance, had to flee their homes during fighting between the FARC rebels and the government.
When Galeano and her daughter settled into a new house in Southern Columbia, she befriended a local official. The official, without Galeano’s knowledge, raped her daughter several times.
Galeano’s daughter became pregnant. “Because we are displaced, people believe that we are worthless, that we don’t have the same rights,” Galeano stated.
In the half-century old armed conflict in Columbia, stories like these are common. 7.4 million people have been extirpated from the borders of their country. Mothers and daughters, like Leonor and her child, comprise the more than half of the displaced population.
Women and children are particularly vulnerable in these circumstances. People are concerned about the daily needs of survival, and lack social and familial support networks. This makes refugees of conflict, especially women and children, vulnerable to sexual exploitation.
“There is a deep relation between sexual violence and displacement… But sexual violence isn’t just a cause for displacement,” said Adri Villa, a community-based protection assistant at the United Nations Refugee Agency. “It sometimes occurs during and after displacement, once they have settled in their new home.”
No specific information exists on the total number of children and women victims of sexual violence in the 50+ year conflict in Columbia, but this is linked to a deeper problem: the lack of any official registry.
Individual citizens lack knowledge of their rights, resources, and connections to do anything about it. To combat this, women’s protection collectives have been forming independently.
One is in Putumayo province in the south. It is an umbrella of 66 groups which are advocating and enforcing the rights of women. This has proven difficult in a scenario in which “tens of thousands of displaced women [are] among nearly 146,000 victims of the armed conflict in the region bordering Ecuador.”
“The problem of sexual violence… is most prevalent among families who have been forcibly displaced, because they are in a state of greater vulnerability,” said Muriel Fatima, the President of the Life Weavers Women’s Alliance.
Life Weavers is a pilot project for peace in Columbia. The organisation gives empowerment workshops and counselling to women affected by sexual violence and abuse in the region.
As the Life Weavers Women’s Alliance has allied with the United Nations Refugee Agency, there has been an increased chance for the women survivors of rape and sexual violence to be able to fight for justice in a court system. This is largely due to generous financial resources from the UNHCR.
The UNHCR has been keeping its commitments and promises by doing so. In 2016, there was a peace agreement reached between the FARC rebels and the government. This has temporarily ended the hostilities between the two warring groups.
“I am thankful because with the help of the alliance and UNHCR I have survived,” Leonor Galeano said, “I consider myself a survivor, because I have moved forward.”