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Colombian authorities fail survivors of sexual violence

The Colombian authorities have failed to tackle the lack of justice for women and girl survivors during the country's long-running armed conflict, Amnesty International said in a new report today.

“Women and girls in Colombia are often treated as trophies of war. They are raped and sexually abused by all the warring parties as a way to silence and punish them,” said Susan Lee, Americas Director at Amnesty International.

“Since President Santos took office in 2010, the government has made clear commitments to tackle the human rights crisis but we have yet to see real improvements in bringing to justice those responsible for human rights abuses, such as sexual violence against women.”

Amnesty International’s report, ‘This is what we demand. Justice!’ Impunity for sexual violence against women in Colombia’s armed conflict, documents how the rights of survivors of sexual violence to truth, justice and reparation continue to be denied by the authorities.

The lack of reliable official statistics, and the fear around reporting such crimes, make it very difficult to evaluate the true scale of the problem. The statistics available do not clearly indicate cases of sexual violence against women and girls that may be conflict-related.

In 2010, the National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Science carried out 20,142 examinations into suspected cases of sexual violence, compared to 12,732 in 2000. But only 109 of these were classified as being related to the conflict, underlining the invisibility of such crimes.

Even when women muster the courage to report a case of rape or sexual violence, these are rarely investigated effectively.

Barriers to justice include a historical lack of political will to combat impunity, ineffective protection measures for witnesses and survivors, poor gender training for judicial officials, and a lack of definitions in the national legislation on rape as a crime under international law.

Indigenous women survivors of sexual violence suffer additional hurdles, including a lack of translators, difficulties in travelling between remote areas and places where they can get official assistance, and the significant presence of combatants in the areas where they live.

“The Colombian authorities must implement an action plan to end sexual violence, including measures to combat discrimination against women and girls and to put a stop to the impunity which ensures that those responsible for such crimes are not brought to justice,” said Susan Lee.

Colombia’s security forces, paramilitaries and guerrilla groups have all targetted women and girls to exploit them as sexual slaves and to effect revenge on adversaries.

Sexual violence sows terror within communities and forces whole families to flee their homes, allowing land to be appropriated.

Women and girls from Indigenous, Afro-descendent and peasant farmer communities, those forcibly displaced by fighting and those living in poverty are particular targets of sexual violence. Women human rights defenders and their families are particular targets of threats and intimidation.

Amnesty International spoke to many rape survivors in Colombia, some of whom sought to report the crimes to the authorities.

Carolina (not her real name) was a community leader in a town in Caldas Department, north west Colombia. When in 2007 Carolina’s son was raped by a boy linked to the paramilitaries, she reported the crime to the authorities.

Members of the paramilitary group tried to get her to withdraw her complaint. When she refused, they threatened her and forced her to watch them mutilate some of their victims. In May 2007, Carolina was kidnapped and raped by eight paramilitaries. She subsequently discovered she was pregnant as a result of the rape. When the paramilitary commander found out, he ordered his men to beat her; she lost the baby.

In June 2007, the protection programme of the Office of the Attorney General rehoused her in another town. But the threats continued and so she was eventually relocated elsewhere. She was in the protection programme for a year, but is no longer receiving protection.

The case continued to be investigated in Caldas Department and the prosecutor called on Carolina to testify in the town where the crime took place and where the perpetrators still lived.

In September 2008, and after pressure from women’s NGOs, the case was transferred to the Human Rights Unit of the Office of the Attorney General in Bogotá. However, the Unit has never called Carolina to testify.

In August 2010, the prosecutor was removed from the case. The new prosecutor has apparently only recently begun to review Carolina’s case.

Amnesty International called on the Colombian authorities to develop a comprehensive strategy - in consultation with local organizations - to ensure effective prevention, investigation and prosecution of conflict-related violence against women, and to provide remedies to the victims.

"The Colombian authorities must take decisive action to ensure those responsible for crimes of sexual violence, many of which are either war crimes or crimes against humanity, are brought to  justice. If the authorities continue to fail in doing so, the International Criminal Court should step in."

Download the full Report : ‘This is what we demand. Justice!’ Impunity for sexual violence against women in Colombia’s armed conflict


Colombia: Impunity for conflict-related sexual violence against women Facts and Figures

Millions of women, men and children have been forcibly displaced, unlawfully killed, tortured, raped, taken captive or been the victims of enforced disappearances during Colombia’s 45-year- long conflict. According to Colombian human rights organization CODHES, more than 280,000 people were forcibly displaced in 2010. Amnesty International estimates that over the last 25 years, between 3 and 5 million people have been internally displaced in Colombia.  The Office of the Attorney General is investigating more than 27,000 cases of enforced disappearance committed during the course of the hostilities, although the true number of enforced disappearances is thought to be significantly higher Human rights defenders, community leaders, trade unionists, peasant farmers, Indigenous Peoples and Afro-descendent communities, and those living in areas of strategic importance to the warring parties or of interest to national and multinational mining, agro-industrial or energy concerns, have been particular targets of abuse.

Parties to the conflict

For more than 45-years Colombia’s internal armed conflict has pitted the security forces and paramilitaries against a range of left-wing guerrilla groups. All the warring parties continue to be responsible for widespread and serious crimes under international law and human rights violations, many of which amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity. The deliberate and systematic failure to distinguish between civilians and combatants has been one of the hallmarks of the conflict. Guerrilla groups continue to commit serious human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law, including unlawful killings, hostage-taking and the recruitment of children into combat units. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) is estimated to have 9,000 combatants in many parts of the country but particularly in the eastern departments of Meta, Guaviare, Vichada, Casanare and Arauca, as well as in the southern departments of Caquetá, Putumayo, Valle del Cauca, Cauca and Nariño. The National Liberation Army (ELN) is estimated to have 2,500-3,000 combatants, and a similar number of militia members. This guerrilla group is strongest in the eastern departments of Arauca, Casanare and Boyacá but also has a presence in other parts of the country, such as Norte de Santander, Cesar, Santander, the Magdalena Medio region, Chocó, Nariño and Cauca. Paramilitary groups, which continue to operate despite government claims to the contrary, and sometimes in collusion with the security forces, are responsible for committing serious human rights violations, especially against human rights defenders, community leaders and trade unionists. They are also responsible for “social cleansing” operations in poor urban neighbourhoods, where the victims are often young people accused of being petty criminals, drug addicts or sex workers. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are also targeted. There is strong evidence that the number of combatants participating in these groups is increasing, that such groups are becoming more violent, and that they are undergoing a process of consolidation, with smaller groups being swallowed up by larger ones. Paramilitary groups have increased their presence across the country in the last three years and now operate in most of Colombia's departments (provinces). Research suggests these groups now have some 7,000 combatants and a support network of between 8,200 and 14,500, and that they have in recent years undergone a process of consolidation (Instituto de Estudios para el Desarollo y la Paz, INDEPAZ)

Sexual violence against women and girls

In 2010, the National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Science carried out 20,142 examinations into suspected cases of sexual violence, compared to 12,732 in 2000. Women and girls accounted for 84% of the total. Of the more than 20,000 examinations carried out, 17,318 (over 85 %) were on those under the age of 18. However, only 109 of all the examinations carried out in 2010 were thought to be conflict related. Given the likelihood of serious under-reporting this number is certainly considerably higher. 73% of physically ill-treated women did not report the violence they suffered (National Demography and Health Survey on all cases of sexual violence against women, May 2011). 70% of women victims of physical violence and 81.7% of victims of sexual assault did not go to any institution to make a complaint about the attack (Colombia’s Ombudsman’s Office, report on all cases of sexual violence, 2010). 82.1% of victims of conflict-related sexual violence don’t report it (Oxfam and Casa de la Mujer). Of 183 cases of sexual violence which the Constitutional Court ordered the Attorney General to investigate in 2008, guerrilla groups are thought to be the perpetrators in 8.5 per cent of cases, the security forces accounted for 19.4 per cent, paramilitaries for 45.8 per cent, unidentified illegal armed groups for 4.5 per cent, common criminals for 4 per cent and a family member for 1.5 per cent, while in 16.4 per cent of cases the group to which the alleged perpetrator belonged could not be ascertained. Very few cases are investigated. According to statistics from the Office of the Attorney General, in addition to the 183 cases of sexual violence which the Constitutional Court ordered the Attorney General to investigate, only a further 68 cases of conflict-related sexual violence are under investigation.

Justice and Peace Process

Under the terms of the “Justice and Peace Law”, some 10 per cent of the more than 30,000 paramilitaries who supposedly demobilized in a government-sponsored process that began in 2003 qualify for significantly reduced prison sentences in return for laying down their arms, confessing to human rights violations and returning stolen land and property. It purportedly resulted in tens of thousands of front-line combatants laying down their arms, but left untouched the extensive and powerful political and economic structures built up over decades by the paramilitaries and their allies in business, politics and the military. Some 90 per cent of the tens of thousands of paramilitaries who supposedly demobilized were never investigated for human rights violations and were thus free to return to their communities. By the end of March 2011, paramilitaries in the Justice and Peace process had admitted to more than 57,000 crimes; only 86 of these were crimes of sexual violence.


AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL MEDIA BRIEFING Index: AMR 23/028/2011 EMBARGO: 21 September 2011, 05:01 Hs GMT (01:01 Hs Bogotá Time)

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