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Three years after peace agreement with rebels, Colombian women continue to suffer violence

By Kimberley Brown

Clemencia Carabali did not know the number that appeared on her phone when it rang last June. She didn’t recognise the man’s voice on the other end of the call.

“If you don’t leave the territory by 5 p.m. today, you’re a dead woman,” Carabali recalled the man saying.

Violence against women is endemic in many small Colombian communities.

Carabali reported the call to Colombian police, but also didn’t leave. The incident is still under investigation, but Carabali said knowing that her community is watching out for her that makes her feel more comfortable.

Carabali suspects the threat came as a result of her work as a women’s rights defender in the Colombian state of Cauca. She works mainly with Afro-Colombian women, teaching them about their rights — as women, Afro-descendants and victims of war — and how to demand them.

The goal is to empower women so they can build a strong community and be able to defend themselves, especially after being constant victims of violence and displacement during the country’s more than 50 years of conflict.

“Women here were disappeared and assassinated. [Armed men] would arrive at people’s homes and force the husband outside, so they could rape his wife – often two or three men at a time. And many stayed pregnant without wanting it,” Carabali said.

“Those were really hard times. We thought the world was going to end,” she added

The north of Cauca has been relatively calm since the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government began peace negotiations in 2012, and signed a final peace agreement in August 2016.

But after receiving multiple threats last year, Carabali worries that the violence, particularly attacks and violence against women, may return.

Clemencia Carabali is a leader in fighting for the rights of women and Afro-Colombians, in the town of Santander de Quilochao

More than 340 human rights defenders in Colombia were killed from the beginning of 2016 to mid-August 2018 — mostly by paramilitaries trying to squash community activism.

Rights defenders who are women also face gender-specific threats and violence, including rape and threats against their children, according to the United Nations.

This comes as women continue to try to cope with the scars of the conflict.

A report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, found that armed groups regularly targeted women in Colombia as a war strategy. Different forms of sexual, psychological and physical violence were used to “dehumanise” women and spread terror among the community, as a way to control the local population with Afro-Colombian and indigenous women being particularly vulnerable.

“Women have been the primarily affected, or principle victims of war,” Edna Mosquera, a representative with UN Women in Cauca, told Al Jazeera.

Not only have their bodies been targeted and used as trophies, Mosquera said, but women also bear a heavy emotional and psychological burden since their role in society as the “primary caretaker” continues during times of conflict. This means women are often the ones in charge of keeping the family together, figuring out how to survive after being displaced, leading searches for disappeared relatives, all at the expense of their own mental health.

A study by the Ruta Pacifica de las Mujeres, a Colombia-based women’s rights organisation, found that generally women are encouraged by society to ignore their own affectations in order to care for others. This often leads to a higher risk of “sickness, permanent stress, depression, suicide, poverty, and hopelessness”, among other side effects.

These distinct war wounds were why women’s rights organisations pushed to include a sub-commission on gender in the peace agreements, the first deal of its kind to do so. The sub-commission ensures that a gender focus is applied to all points in the peace agreements, to respond to the specific needs of women and LGBTI victims. This includes a gender focus on rural development plans and victims’ rights and reparations — the first and fourth points in the peace agreement.

The gender sub-commission encourages women like Carabali, supporting their efforts in empowering women locally and engaging them in the peace process.

“Because of the role we have, in the family, the community and society in general” women have always been and must continue to be “peace builders”, Carabali said.

Mosquera added this focus on gender is extremely important, as it helps sensitise people about gender violence in the country, both during the war and in society at large, which is a much a broader issue.

Violence against women a societal norm

But women also face violence and threats outside of the context of war. More than 20,000 women were sexually assaulted in the country in 2017 alone, according to Medicina Legal, Colombia’s national forensics institute. The vast majority of offenders were stepfathers, fathers, neighbours or uncles of the victims. More than 74 percent of survivors were girls under the age of 14. That same year, 144 women were killed by their partner or former partner, a crime also considered femicide.

“This is a societal illness,” said Carlos Eduardo Valdes Moreno, director-general of Medicina Legal, adding that violence against women is something learned and reproduced in the home, starting from childhood.

In the north of Cauca, Carabali said women often don’t report these crimes to the police because it’s unlikely the offender will be detained or charged, leaving victims more vulnerable. According to the Attorney General’s Office, five percent of the 26,270 reported cases of sexual violence in 2017 led to a criminal conviction.

“This is a structural issue,” said Mosquera, “We are not in a configuration of peace, and much less in terms of the private lives of women, because that requires a structural change that is not being made.”

‘Clearly, the oppressor is stronger’

Women’s rights groups are not optimistic that the government of Ivan Duque, who took office in August, will bring peace for women. During his campaign, the far-right candidate avoided debates about women’s rights, and suggested that putting young girls to work early to teach them responsibility is one way to avoid teen pregnancies. Duque, a vocal critic of the peace deal, has also promised to change parts of the 2016 accord.

In November, Duque signed a Plan of Timely Action (PTA), which promises more support and protection for human rights defenders to stop the mass assassinations. But critics say the PTA strongly resembles a plan created by former President Juan Manuel Santos last July, which achieved little results. As of April 2, the Washington Office of Latin America said there have already been 44 reported cases of murdered human rights workers this year.

Additionally, a 2018 report by the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame in the United States, found that the sections of the peace deal focused on gender have been the least implemented. Women also play a small role in the decision-making process.

Despite the challenges, rights defenders like Carabali vow to continue their work and fight for women’s rights.

“We’re trying to plant a small seed so that something changes,” she said. “It’s not easy because, clearly, the oppressor is stronger, but you have to keep going.”
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Credit: Al Jazeera, www.aljazeera.com