BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Preyed on by armed men at beauty pageants and at school gates and then raped. Forced into sex slavery. Gang-raped as a punishment.
Colombian academic Maria Emma Wills has spent years collecting such testimonies from women and girls across the country in an effort to document the impact of sexual violence and other war crimes on civilians carried out by warring factions during the country’s 50-year-old war.
Her work, along with a team of other researchers at the National Centre for Historical Memory, a government-funded research group, is helping to break the taboo about sexual violence.
As Colombia struggles to emerge from its shadowy past, sexual violence against women and girls, which was mainly carried out by paramilitary groups during the 1990s and early 2000s, has so far gone largely unpunished. And the trauma it has left behind is only just being recognised.
Sexual violence is a common feature of most wars. But in Colombia it took on a different form, says Wills, because it was part of a “social order” imposed by right-wing paramilitaries in some regions of the country where they held power.
“The social order created by the paramilitaries really revolved around ruling daily life. They ruled between neighbours - ruled about how young girls should dress, how parties and ceremonies should be. And the body was ruled. I don’t know if social order was so created in other contexts around the world,” Wills told Thomson Reuters Foundation in a recent interview in Bogota.
“For example in the (Colombian) town of Rincon del Mar in the Caribbean, the paramilitaries were not just passing by, but they built a social order and they were the authority of the place. And within that authority they used rape as a way of punishing women who did not play by their rules.”
REBEL SEX CRIMES
So far little is known about the extent leftist rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) - the other main warring faction in the country’s conflict - perpetrated sexual violence against women and girls in areas they controlled.
Such crimes could be soon unearthed if the Colombian government and FARC guerrillas, who are negotiating a peace accord, sign a deal to end the war by the year’s end.
“We really have heard so little about the guerrillas. But we know the guerrillas and paramilitaries behaved differently and that they don’t use the same repertoire of violence. The paramilitaries were the worst for carrying out sexual violence. The testimonies of rapes we have found committed by guerrillas were not gang rapes, as the paramilitaries were known for,” said Wills.
“I’m sure that women will speak out, if and when the peace process takes place with the guerrillas. There’s a silence now because the guerrillas are still around and they are armed.”
SEXUAL VIOLENCE ENGRAINED
Sexual violence against women is part of a macho culture that is prevalent in Colombian society.
“A macho culture is the breeding ground that makes this is all possible. You have the macho culture that sort of approves of certain violent practices by men against women,” Wills said.
Around 30,000 paramilitary fighters laid down their arms following a controversial peace deal with the previous government of Alvaro Uribe.
Some have returned to a life of crime and joined organised crime networks, others have signed on to government-run rehabilitation programmes.
The key challenge that remains is “changing the patterns of violence men were indoctrinated in”, Wills says, so that violence against women does not continue in the home.
“If you have been socialised into this kind of (paramilitary) organisation and mentalities about women, it doesn’t just fade away because you don’t have a gun. You keep on being that social being that was produced by the armed organisation. It’s not a matter of sign here and you will be a better, more democratic person. How do we change engrained behaviour? No one is thinking about that,” she said.
“So one of the challenges that Colombia faces - not only for peace but to just have a fair democracy in Colombia - would be to think about what are we going to do with all these young men that went through all these experiences when they return home to their wives and girlfriends.”
One way is to focus on education, she says. Wills is working on how to include the volumes of research produced by the National Centre for Historical Memory, based on testimonies of victims, in school curriculums so that children are taught about what happened in a war that has killed over 200,000 civilians.
Another hidden issue is the shame surrounding sexual violence - not just the toll it takes on women but on the male family members of victims, too.
“There’s also shame among men. What happened to those men who weren’t able to protect their wives and daughters from violence and getting raped? Men feel shame, too, but that’s not being talked about,” said Wills.
Tackling sexual violence as part of Colombia’s conflict requires a wider debate about what it means to be a man, and the role of men in society and how they are perceived.
“I always say that there is something at stake in the war that is never seen as at stake and that’s masculinity. The land is at stake, political inclusion is at stake, but it’s also masculinity that’s at stake and it’s not consciously on the table.”