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Colombia's displaced women sexually abused and forced into early motherhood

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 2 Apr 2008 16:18 GMT
Author: Ruth Gidley
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If you're a Colombian girl displaced by the war, there's almost a one in three chance you'll have at least one baby before your 20th birthday. And over your lifetime, there's a one in five chance you'll be raped.

Occasionally the four-decade-long civil war hits the international spotlight when guerrillas release some hostages or paramilitaries give up their weapons, but on the whole, not much has changed for millions of people caught up in the crossfire.

Colombia still has the second-highest internal displacement rate in the world after Sudan, with estimates ranging from 1.9 million to almost 4 million. That's about 6 percent of the population.

"The steady stream of families fleeing their land and settling in cities goes almost unnoticed," Barbara Hintermann, head of delegation in Colombia for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said in a statement. "The plight of those who have lost everything because of the armed conflict is rarely discussed in public."

Displacement of people who live on the land isn't just a by-product of war, Monica Alzate from Oklahoma University writes in the March issue of Disasters journal. It's a deliberate strategy to get them out of the way of armed groups fighting for strategic territory to cultivate and process lucrative illegal drug crops or smuggle weapons into the country.

The ICRC's country report for 2007, released this week, says it's registering fewer cases of whole communities being forced off their land by the conflict between soldiers, leftist rebels, cocaine smugglers and far-right paramilitary militias, but higher numbers of individual families being displaced.

REASONS TO FLEE

More than half of individual families who flee go because of death threats. Pressure to collaborate with an armed group is the next most common reason, followed by the need to get away from the threat of someone in the family being forcibly recruited to fight.

By contrast, the top motive when entire communities leave is military clashes. Death threats are the number two reason.

"We're talking about peasants for the most part, people who live on the land and could have three meals a day, living relatively well,"says ICRC spokesman Yves Heller. "Then they're displaced, and they lose so much. They lose their possessions, they lose their dignity."

Leaving behind their land and everything they know and own, most families who make the journey from countryside to cramped city slums slide down the social scale into poverty that's virtually impossible to escape. And 70 percent of displaced people never go back, the ICRC says.

More than one in four internally displaced families are headed by single parents, usually mothers, according to the ICRC. "In a lot of cases their partners are missing, have died in combat, or simply left,"Heller says.

The first few months are the hardest, he says, when people are still incredibly scared, and struggling so hard to make ends meet that many families are malnourished.

People don't want to go out, and sometimes ask others to get their groceries, frightened that armed groups will follow and word will get out about where they've gone.

EMOTIONAL TOLL

"We often underestimate the psychological effects Â? they're hard to assess, and hard to evaluate,"Heller says.

The state's got better at helping displaced people in the last 10 years, and Colombia's laws are pretty progressive, Heller says. But even with school costs covered by the state, it's hard for parents to find money for uniforms and notebooks.

About 80 percent of internally displaced people live in extreme poverty, Alzate quotes 2004 research, and barely a fifth access medical services.

The reality for many families faced with the priority of putting food on the table is that children might have to go out to work.

Alzate's research shows that six out of 10 displaced children go to school Â? not such a low number Â? but most drop out well before the end of high school.

While boys are often drawn to gangs, girls can get pulled into prostitution, especially in areas frequented by tourists.

Wherever they are, displaced women are easy prey to sexual exploitation and abuse - from partners, relatives, neighbours, landlords and strangers and many become mothers at a very young age.

While 20 percent of Colombian teenage girls have been pregnant, that figure goes up to 30 percent for internally displaced girls.

Alzate quotes reports in the national press that one in five internally displaced women has been raped.

BIGGER PICTURE

These statistics are shocking, but Alzate's point is that levels of violence against women are shocking all over Colombia, and few women have access to any kind of sexual health services. It's especially hard for women who are illiterate, and women from Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities, all of whom make up a sizable portion of Colombia's displaced population.

So it's horrific that 52 percent of internally displaced women have experienced violence, but you have to bear in mind that 41 percent of all Colombian women have experienced violence, according to Ministry of Protection figures.

Likewise, one in five of all Colombian women have experienced domestic abuse, a figure which soars above 50 percent for displaced women.

Women don't know about their rights, and a 2004 study found more than eight in 10 young, sexually active displaced people weren't using any sort of contraception.

That's what happens, Alzate argues, in a culture where women are expected to live under the protection of a man, even if he's the one who hurts them.

Women aren't aware they have a right to say no to sex with their partners, and just over half of Colombian women who've ever been married have had at least one unintended pregnancy, researchers found in 2004.

Abortion was illegal until 2006, and so risky that it was the second leading cause of maternal mortality in a 2001 study.

It's still only allowed if the mother's life is in danger, the foetus is badly deformed or if the pregnancy originated in rape. So for poorer women who take this route, abortion remains highly dangerous.

In this culture of violence, discrimination and inequality, Alzate warns that things are only going to get worse, as another generation of displaced children grows up too poor to get a good education.

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