(Washington, DC) – Colombia’s laws on violence against women are not adequately protecting victims displaced by the armed conflict, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today. Approximately two million internally displaced women and girls face high rates of rape and domestic violence. Daunting obstacles impede displaced victims’ access to healthcare, justice, and protection services.
The 101-page report, “Rights Out of Reach: Obstacles to Health, Justice, and Protection for Displaced Victims of Gender-Based Violence in Colombia,”documents how recent improvements in Colombia’s laws, policies, and programs on rape and domestic violence have not translated into more effective justice, healthcare, and protection for displaced women and girls. More than half of the country’s roughly four million displaced are female.
“For many displaced women and girls, the hardships of displacement are compounded by the trauma of rape and domestic violence,” said Amanda Klasing, women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “And despite good laws and policies that have been enacted in recent years, they still face enormous difficulty in getting the medical attention they’re entitled to. And, they rarely see their abusers brought to justice.”
Colombia has high reported rates of rape and domestic violence generally, and national surveys have found even higher rates among the displaced. A 2011 government sponsored survey found that almost 48 percent of displaced women reported suffering domestic violence, and more than 9 percent reported being raped by someone other than their partner. This compares to 37 percent of women in the general population who reported intimate partner violence, and 6 percent who reported rape by someone other than their partner, in a 2010 national survey. Official data on violence against women is limited, however, especially on sexual violence related to the conflict and displacement. Human Rights Watch calls on the government to collect this data, to better adapt its laws and policies to protect displaced women and girls.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 80 displaced women and girls, nearly all of whom were victims of rape or domestic violence, living in 4 major cities, along with more than 100 government officials, health care practitioners, rights advocates, service providers, and other civil society representatives who have worked extensively with victims of rape or domestic violence.
One displaced woman interviewed by Human Rights Watch was raped five times over the course of a decade; her sister was also raped, along with her sister’s 5-year-old daughter.
“When rapists get away with their crimes, it not only undermines Colombia’s laws on sexual violence but encourages the perpetrators to rape again,” said Klasing.
Delays and Denial of Care
Uprooted from their homes and mostly impoverished, displaced women and girls who become victims of rape and domestic violence are often unfamiliar with health and justice institutions in their new locations. Many have little money for transportation and other costs to seek services, lack trust in government authorities, and fear retribution from their attackers.
Immediate health services are crucial for victims of rape and domestic violence, yet displaced women and girls described delays, denial of care, and mistreatment by health care providers. They told Human Rights Watch that medical facilities failed to screen for signs of abuse, hospital staff sometimes violated confidentiality and mistreated victims. Some health workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch lacked basic knowledge regarding handling rape and domestic violence cases, and said they received little training on how to deal with displaced victims. In several cases, health facilities delayed care beyond when time-sensitive treatment to prevent pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections would work.
Victims also faced serious obstacles when seeking justice, including mistreatment by authorities and evidentiary challenges. Victims and advocates told Human Rights Watch that officials sometimes asked rape victims humiliating questions about past sexual history, what the victim was wearing, and what she did to provoke the attack.
“If you do file a formal complaint about [it] at the family commissioners, they say, ‘He hit you because you must have done something,’” a member of a Cartagena women’s working group told Human Rights Watch.
While gender-based violence cases can be investigated without physical evidence, victims told Human Rights Watch that prosecutors seemed unwilling to pursue cases that lacked such evidence. In some instances, victims said they could not produce physical evidence due to delays in accessing forensic testing. For example, one rape victim said it took 10 days for the forensic medical agency to examine her, at which point no physical evidence remained.
Humanitarian assistance programs for the displaced do not adequately take into account how domestic violence can pose a barrier to accessing aid. To access humanitarian assistance, including food, housing, and health care, families must officially register as displaced. When a husband registers the family in his name, as is often the case, victims of domestic violence can feel trapped. Women can change their registration after leaving abusive husbands, but women often do not know this. Several domestic violence victims said they felt they had to choose between staying in abusive households or losing humanitarian assistance necessary to survive.
Good Laws, Poor Implementation
Colombia has one of the most advanced legal and policy frameworks in the region to address violence against women and girls. For example, a 2008 law to prevent and punish violence against women recognizes that all government entities have the duty to work in coordination to provide integrated services to women victims of violence. The law extends important rights, including that victims should receive information, services, protection, and reparations.
Colombia’s criminal code, laws on the rights of the displaced, and Constitutional Court rulings also address rights and remedies for victims of violence against women.
Colombia also has innovative protection measures for victims of gender-based violence and for human rights defenders. These programs offer essential, sometimes life-saving support. Yet displaced women leaders – as well as rights advocates and service providers – identified shortcomings in how these measures work specifically for displaced women. One important concern is that children are not in practice covered by protection measures assigned to them by the National Protection Unit, despite threats against them and despite a ministry of interior protocol allowing them to be covered.
Human Rights Watch recommends that the Colombian government take steps to close the gaps in laws and policies to help displaced women who are victims of sexual and domestic violence by:
- Establishing an independent commission to conduct a rigorous review of current practices in institutions that directly provide care or services;
- Collecting accurate data regarding the scope of gender-based violence related to the conflict and displacement;
- Expanding, strengthening, and ensuring continuity of training programs for health and justice system employees;
- Carrying out public awareness campaigns to familiarize displaced women and girls with their rights and the services available to them; and
- Passing pending legislation on access to justice for victims of sexual violence to facilitate successful prosecution of perpetrators of gender-based violence crimes.
A bill pending in Colombia’s Congress would promote access to justice for victims of sexual violence, with an emphasis on the armed conflict. The proposed law would amend Colombia’s criminal code to bring provisions related to sexual violence more closely in line with international standards. It also enumerates a range of important rights and guarantees for victims of sexual violence. For example, it would entitle victims to receive copies of official documents related to their case. Their sexual history should be excluded as evidence where irrelevant and may prejudice the case, and services should be in accessible locations that are clean, safe, comfortable, and private. The bill also encourages judicial officers to exercise their ex officio power to investigate sexual violence crimes to avoid impunity.
“The bill is crucially important as it would address major gaps in the existing law – gaps that enable humiliation of victims and impunity for perpetrators,” said Klasing. “Once it’s passed, however, the challenge will remain ensuring effective implementation.”
Selected testimony from the report
“Seeking medical attention for the [sexual] violence was difficult. Ten days later, I was finally able to get help.” – Monica N. (pseudonym), Bogotá, February 22, 2012. Monica went to a hospital immediately after she was raped in 2011 in Bogotá, but was only given an appointment with the gynecological specialist 10 days later. By the time she received treatment, she had developed a fungal infection of the vagina from the rape. Her doctors did not inform her about emergency contraception to prevent unwanted pregnancy.
“There was no orientation. No route where I needed to go. No one said what happens at each step.” – Viviana N. (pseudonym), Cali, May 7, 2012. Viviana, displaced to Cali, filed a criminal complaint with a prosecutor in 2007 saying that her husband had beaten her for years. The prosecutor provided no information about referrals, including for health services.
“They [doctors] don’t believe the women. They will ask them questions to see if they are lying about the rape.” – Paola A. Salgado Piedrahita, lawyer, La Mesa por la Vida y la Salud de las Mujeres, May 10, 2012. Paola has worked with dozens of victims of rape seeking legal access to abortion and connects them with free legal representation.
“This man will kill me and nothing will happen.” – Dolores G. (pseudonym), Cartagena, April 24, 2012. Dolores’s displaced family moved to Cartagena in 2002, where her husband beat her severely. She sought help from police and prosecutors, but they offered no protection. She left her husband, but he tracked her down and raped her at knife-point. She fled back to her hometown, but after threats from armed men, went back to her husband in Cartagena and endured six more years of abuse.