Women's Day 2009: The Work of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees with Displaced Women and Young Girls in Colombia
In all armed conflict, women are more at risk of becoming victims of gender violence and sexual abuse. In Colombia, where violence and sexual exploitation are among the most frequent causes of forced displacement, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees is working with state authorities and with displaced persons to help identify the roots of the problem.
Ibague, Colombia, March 5, 2009 (UNHCR) – Women and young girls comprise more than a third of the displaced population of Colombia, one of the largest in the world with more than 2.8 million registered cases. The reasons are not coincidental. In the conflict, many have suffered violence directly related to the fact that they are women.
Last December Elvira (named changed for her protection), along with her two daughters aged 18 and 15, arrived in Ibague, a town located in central Colombia. Her family used to live on a farm in a rural area with a high presence of illegal armed actors. With the passage of time, as her daughters were growing up, Elvira became increasingly nervous since everyone in the region knew that many young girls had been captured by these armed groups to serve as combatants or as sex slaves.
“My husband did not want to leave the farm and we talked about this a lot. He beat me, but where I come from this is what men do.” Elvira explained that she had worried about going to the city alone with her daughters without any way to support herself and them, but she finally left after her 15-year-old niece, who lived on a farm near to hers, was captured. “My husband would not allow us to take the mule, so we walked for two days,” she added.
They first went to a small town where troops from the army were installed. Elvira believed that would provide a certain measure of security for her family. Soon her older daughter got involved in a relationship with one of the soldiers. Shortly after the battalion left, the family received death threats and was declared a “military objective” by one of the groups of illegal armed actors who viewed the relationship between the young girl and the soldier as “collaborating with the enemy.”
Stigmatization and persecution as retaliation for a real or perceived relationship with armed actors or with the armed forces of the state is one of the risk factors identified by the Colombian Constitutional Court in Auto 092 of 2008 for the protection of the rights of displaced women. Other risks include sexual violence and abuse resulting from the conflict, risk of sexual exploitation and slavery, forced recruitment, and the persecution of leaders of women’s organizations, among others.
“Sexual violence against women is an habitual practice that extends, systematically and invisibly, throughout the context of the armed conflict in Colombia, as are sexual exploitation and abuse on the part of the illegal armed actors, and, in some isolated cases, on the part of individual agents of the Public Forces” said the Court in Auto 092 of 2008.
In effect, violence against women is one of the causes of forced displacements in Colombia; half of displaced women report being victims of gender violence. Few prevention mechanisms have been put into practice, partly because many victims come from marginal areas where conflict is heavy and where the presence of civil agencies of the state is low.
“The lack of the presence of the civil agencies of the state can have a negative impact especially on women: the lack of access to education and health care, for example, are recognized factors for serious risk and in rural areas few mechanisms exist for reporting abuse and violence,” said Jean-Noel Wetterwald, UNHCR representative in Colombia, who added that her agency is focusing this year on establishing prevention efforts in priority areas around the country.
Last year, UNHCR conducted participatory diagnoses with approximately 300 women in Colombia to determine the specific challenges that confront them before and during their displacement and their resulting needs. Statistics are very difficult to gather given the remoteness of the locations affected and the sensitivity of the subject matter, but there is enough information to understand that the situation is critical.
According to the calculations, 30% of women do not have access to prenatal care; pregnancy among adolescents is estimated at 37% and more than half of displaced women report abuse by their spouse or partner. About half of displaced families are headed by women who are without resources to sustain themselves economically. Women rarely hold title to their lands or personal property and, in particular, indigenous people and Afro-Colombians have no documents of identification. The majority of women who have suffered violence do not know where to look for protection or to report abuse.
UNHCR is focusing on promoting prevention activities in high risk areas such as organizing documentation campaigns with the National Register to provide identification to women in conflict zones. At the larger, national level, UNHRC supports creation and capacity building of women’s rights groups and trains local functionaries in the treatment of cases of gender violence. Also, it supports the construction of shelters and boarding schools in conflict zones for young people to study under conditions of safety.
By Marie-Helene Verney