Statement by United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zainab Hawa Bangura: Breaking the Silence on Sexual Violence in Colombia

Bogota, Colombia

3 March 2015

”Breaking the silence on sexual violence in Colombia – a commitment to restore dignity and peace to all Colombians”

Today I conclude a four day mission to Colombia, my first to this country. I have come on the invitation of the Government, and I wish to thank the Colombian authorities for the constructive spirit in which this visit has been conducted.

My main purpose has been to better understand the circumstances of sexual violence related to the internal armed conflict in Colombia, to learn about the significant progress that has been made over the past years to prevent and respond to this devastating crime, and to understand the challenges that remain.

Clearly, some of the initiatives undertaken to address conflict-related sexual violence in Colombia represent important innovations. These include the adoption of groundbreaking legislation such as Law 1448 of 2011 on Victims and Land Restitution, as well as Law 1719 of 2014, which is a milestone in guaranteeing access to justice for victims of sexual violence and identifying sexual violence as a “crime against humanity.” In addition to that, I heard about the reparation program for victims of sexual violence, which is a unique initiative and expression of the fundamental commitment and will of the Colombian State to care for survivors.

In my meeting with the Minister of Defense and Chief of the Army Staff they highlighted significant developments in policy and guidance on sexual violence to the armed forces. The United Nations looks forward to the continued collaboration with the Army and Police to ensure the practical implementation of these policies.

These efforts can be a source of inspiration for the region and the world. One of the strategic priorities of my mandate is to foster cross-regional experience sharing and country-to-country exchanges, and Colombia can play a central role in this regard, with the clear political will and determination of President Santos and aspirations of the Government to eradicate sexual violence, and commitment to practical implementation of laws and policies on the ground.

Yet, some work still remains to be done. The main challenge is how to turn the resolve into tangible solutions in communities where this crime continues to occur — protection for poor and uneducated women and girls who are especially vulnerable, for members of ethnic and other minorities, civil society leaders and human rights defenders who are among those targeted. There is a direct correlation between poverty, access to justice, and sexual violence and broader human rights violations.

I had the opportunity to visit Quibdó in the department of Chocó. I found there a microcosm of Colombian society in its remarkable cultural and ethnic diversity — Afro-Colombians, Indigenous community, and mestizos living together. But all the women and girls had one common and resounding message: they want sexual violence crimes that have been perpetrated against them to be acknowledged by all the parties involved in the conflict, and they want perpetrators to ensure that sexual violence will not be repeated.

All the parties must make this commitment as a vital first step towards peace and reconciliation. But crucial institutional reforms, including in the judiciary, will also be required to ensure non-repetition, as well as ensuring the presence of State institutions in remote areas.

I also saw in Chocó that each community has its own fears and challenges and these diverse perspectives must be taken into consideration in the peace process that is now ongoing in Havana, Cuba.

The Havana peace process has put in place an important mechanism to ensure a gender perspective. I urge both the Government and FARC to ensure that the ongoing peace process and the eventual peace agreement explicitly address gender issues and sexual violence in the conflict. At the same time, it is crucial that other armed groups also commit to peace, law and order. Ultimately the peace process must encompass all the parties to the conflict.

The women and girls who have experienced sexual violence also told me that to be able to pick up the pieces of their lives and reclaim their dignity, they must have opportunities for entrepreneurship and livelihood support for themselves and their families. This must be a central priority of any poverty reduction and development strategy going forward. The ongoing discussion regarding peace-building and the post-conflict scenario should continue to include the gender perspective and sexual violence considerations at its heart and not as an afterthought.

In Chocó I was distressed to hear about the clear links between armed groups, illegal mining, narco-trafficking and sexual violence. The sexual violence that is happening in Chocó must be understood in the context of the conflict and addressed as such.

I heard about children between ages 12 and 15 years being forced by members of non-state armed groups and criminal gangs to serve as sex workers in mining areas. That these children were often referred to as “packages” to service mining operations, and that they were replaced by “new packages” when they become “too used” or “too sick”.

I am extremely concerned about the silent issue of children born out of rape. After decades of conflict in Colombia there are several generations of such children and adults. What are the unique challenges that they face?  What are their psychosocial needs and what other support do they require? Unfortunately this represents a significant gap in our knowledge which hampers our response.

In my meeting with demobilized girls I heard that among their motivations for joining the armed groups was discrimination and sexual abuse in their communities or homes. This will have to be considered in terms of their reintegration. I also heard about sexual violence occurring within the armed groups. It is critical that this is acknowledged by FARC and other armed groups. We have to understand this better in order to ensure that these girls and women receive the psychosocial and other care that they require.

From my meetings with relevant Government agencies and officials and the Judiciary, it is clear that will and capacity exists to prosecute sexual violence crimes. But the barriers for survivors to report and access justice are significant. This has resulted in under-reporting of sexual violence crimes. It must be a priority to create the necessary protective environment for survivors to come forward, and the stigma of sexual violence must be redirected from the victims to the perpetrators. Above all, the impunity for sexual violence must be broken if we are to turn the tide.

There is one question I asked the communities in Chocó: Are they ready to accept the young people of the armed groups back into their communities and are those young people ready to come back to their communities? The answer to both questions was ”NO!’ Communities harbor genuine fears about the reintegration of fighters. And the demobilized members of armed groups that I met have genuine concerns about being reintegrated into poverty and destitution.

I believe that the project of reconciliation cannot begin after the peace agreement is reached. It must be an immediate priority and requires investment at community level. Ultimately that is what will ensure durable peace.

The sustained and courageous efforts of civil society organizations have been critical to ensure the growing visibility of sexual violence in Colombia. However, from my conversations with survivors from different parts of the country it is evident that a deep culture of silence and denial still exists. Members of the Colombian Constitutional Court with whom I met referred to sexual violence as “un-confessable” crimes. They cited the example of an infamous member of a para-military group who confessed to the murder of more than 200 people. But when asked if he had raped women, he was silent. Breaking the silence on sexual violence in Colombia must be a conscious effort, and represents a critical step toward eradicating this scourge.

My visit has given me an insight into the complexity of the Colombian situation and the significant challenges to address sexual violence.

I reiterate the solidarity and support of the United Nations to help the Government and people of Colombia to address this problem. I do leave with a strong sense of hope because of the will and capacity of the Government as well as the remarkable depth and vibrancy of the Colombian civil society.

It is my hope that the confidence built through this visit may yield agreement on areas of cooperation between the national authorities and the United Nations. The United Nations system in Colombia and my Office look forward to following up on some of the issues that have been highlighted, and to support the Government and all relevant stakeholder to make a tangible difference in the lives of vulnerable women, girls, boys and men.

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La Neice Collins

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