BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Britain's foreign minister William Hague has urged world leaders to make tackling sexual violence and rape in armed conflicts a top global priority.
Speaking in Bogota on Monday at an event to raise awareness about sexual violence in war zones, British Foreign Secretary Hague said “global attitudes to these crimes” must change and more efforts must be focused on prosecuting those responsible.
“These crimes must no longer be regarded as something that simply happens in conflict zones. The suffering of women must never again be treated as an issue of secondary importance, and survivors must never be shunned and abandoned for they should be supported and freed from stigma,” Hague said during a two-day visit to Colombia, marking the first trip by a British foreign minister to the Andean nation in 27 years.
From Colombia, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, sexual violence has been used against hundreds of thousands of women, girls, men and boys as a weapon of war, a problem that perpetuates poverty, fuels conflict and hampers reconciliation, Hague said.
For five decades Colombia has been mired in fighting between state security forces, drug-running leftist rebels, and right-wing paramilitaries initially created to fight leftist rebels but later heavily involved in the cocaine trade.
Armed groups have committed sex crimes against women and rape, exploiting them sex slaves and using sexual violence to instill fear among communities, get revenge, and impose social and military control in an area, local rights groups say.
In a landmark 2008 ruling, Colombia’s Constitutional Court concluded that “sexual violence against women is a habitual, extensive, systematic and invisible practice in the Colombian armed conflict.”
“I’m aware of one survey that estimated that between 2001 and 2009 almost half a million Colombian women were victims of sexual violence associated with the conflict,” Hague said, flanked by Colombia’s defence minister and other dignitaries.
Hague announced the UK government has allocated funds to help train Colombian prosecutors deal with cases of sexual violence.
Colombian authorities say they are making progress on investigating cases of sexual violence committed by armed groups during the conflict.
“I would like to highlight that sexual violence is a high priority issue in the attorney general’s office. We recognise the disproportionate impact and discrimination women face in the context of (Colombia’s) conflict,” Colombia’s deputy attorney general, Jorge Perdomo, said at the event.
But women’s rights groups called on the Colombian government to do more to provide justice and support to survivors of sexual violence and punish gender-related crimes perpetrated by Colombia’s armed forces.
“There’s almost total impunity regarding cases of sexual violence,” said Claudia Mejia at the event, who heads Sisma Woman, a rights group. “State security forces continue to be the main agents behind sexual violence in the conflict.”