I sat down with Mercedes on a sleepy afternoon in Medellin, Colombia. She was nervous. I was exhausted. Mercedes was my 60th interview with women and girls in Colombia – all of whom survived sexual or family violence, and all of whom had fled their close-knit rural communities for large, anonymous cities because of serious threats to them or their family.
Sexual violence against women and girls has been called a habitual practice in Colombia’s five decades of warfare between the military, guerrillas, and paramilitaries. But in interviewing these displaced women and girls, I realized that the terror and violence does not end for them when they flee armed groups. Leaving their villages and moving to cities only exacerbates the economic, social, and cultural vulnerabilities that make them susceptible to violence.
As Mercedes’ story unfolded, it followed a tragic pattern I had heard from numerous other Colombian woman. They faced the same risks and the same government neglect, experienced the same pitfalls. It began when guerrilla groups tried to recruit Mercedes’ husband.
Mercedes lived in a small agricultural village with her husband and four children before coming to the modern and bustling city of Medellin. In the “campo,” or countryside, families grow their own food and raise their own livestock. Despite all of the challenges of rural poverty, many of the women I met spoke longingly of the fruit trees they had in their gardens. Communities are close-knit, and family members support one another. Women can rely on neighbors and friends to share child-care duties. Older generations teach younger people necessary skills.
Like most families who flee to cities, Mercedes’ left quickly under threat of violence.
Guerrilla groups tried to recruit Mercedes’s husband in 1997. Afraid, the family left in the middle of the night for another town, leaving their belongings behind. They were too frightened to tell anyone – even the government.
In 2004, paramilitaries accused her husband of being a guerrilla sympathizer. One night, they killed him. Shortly thereafter, Mercedes’s 16-year-old daughter, Beatriz, was raped. Mercedes fled with her children to Medellin. She told me that she was too frightened to report that they had been forced to flee to the government and to seek the food aid she would have been entitled to. She also did not know her daughter could receive free post-rape medical treatment. Instead, her daughter became pregnant as a result of the rape and had a child.
Mercedes tried to piece together a life for her children in Medellin, but her lack of skills made it hard to find a job. Eventually, she found work on a farm outside of Medellin.
At that point in her account, Mercedes hesitated to continue with her story, but she pressed on, saying that a member of a paramilitary group – at this point, her voice dropped to a whisper – raped her in late 2009. Mercedes didn’t call the police or seek out a doctor. “I kept silent for all the reasons you can think of,” she told me, “for the rage, the fear, everything that one feels after something like this happens. I didn’t tell anyone, not my family, no one.”
When Mercedes became certain she was pregnant, she was concerned about how she would continue to work and feed her children and this new baby. She went to the municipal human rights ombudsman, who told her she could seek an abortion. For her, this offer of medical care came too late. Mercedes said she would have tried to prevent the pregnancy using emergency contraception had she known about this option. But she was four months pregnant at that point and decided not to have an abortion.
The ombudsman referred Mercedes to a unit of the prosecutor’s office. She gave her testimony, but Mercedes told me sadly that no one has been punished for this crime. She was also referred to a local non-governmental organization for psychological support. But her daughter, Beatriz, provided her the most important support – she knew what it was like to be pregnant following rape.
Then Beatriz was killed in the crossfire of neighborhood fighting. There is an on-going investigation, but Mercedes told me that no one has been punished.
With the help of a local nongovernmental organization, Mercedes finally declared her forced displacement – 15 years and 5 additional displacements since the first time she and her husband packed up their children and fled in the night. But the government determined she didn’t qualify as displaced. She doesn’t understand why.
In March, her two youngest children were placed in a government welfare institution, until she finds a job and can better support them. She misses them very much.
Mercedes is resigned to her fate. She believes no one will be punished for anything– for her displacement, her husband’s murder, her daughter’s rape, her rape, her daughter’s murder. “The truth is, the state isn’t looking for justice for me…”
Before beginning this research, it would have been hard for me to imagine that one family could experience so much tragedy. But after speaking with more than 80 women and girls, it became clear that many women had similar experiences. Some had been raped multiple times, and many had lost husbands, fathers or children in the conflict. But when they fled the conflict areas, they didn’t find the safety they needed. Instead, they entered another world of less visible risks, where they struggle to feed, house, and educate their children. The violence they hoped to leave behind followed them.
What you probably would not guess from hearing Mercedes’s story is that Colombia has strong laws on violence against women, and the state has funded centers to help victims. Yet women like Mercedes slip through the cracks—often because these services are not geared toward the displaced. And women like Mercedes don’t trust the government – they’ve seen their family members raped or killed and that the government has not held anyone responsible. But, hopefully, this will change. Human Rights Watch is working with people preparing a draft law to help sexual violence victims access justice. The bill will help ensure that victims will not face threats or violence for reporting crimes against them. It also would call on the government to provide psychosocial support to victims. Human Rights Watch has met repeatedly with the people drafting the law, sharing our research as it unfolds. The bill is to be introduced in the Colombian Congress in late July.
Human Rights Watch expects to release a report in the fall about how Colombia can protect these women better and give them improved access to health services. While the government has new laws and policies to help women like Mercedes, it needs to ensure that the victims know about these opportunities and that they can feel safe asking for help.
Mercedes and I finished our interview over cups of herbal tea. She told me about how beautiful her teenage sons are – helping her around the house and helping to work for food. But, she left me with a plea. “All that has happened to me is difficult, but what’s worse is the fear that remains with me … It’s a malignancy,” she said. “Ever since I left my beautiful little village, I have not found a tranquil place to rest.”