BOGOTA -- Ana Angelica Bello, 45, was coming out of the Ministry of Justice in 2009 when two men bundled her into a car, put a gun against her head and sexually assaulted her. They told her she was being punished for her work as an activist for the nation’s displaced population.
Colombia’s 48-year-old civil conflict has forced some 4 million people from their homes, often pushing them into unfamiliar cities, violence-riddled neighborhoods and poverty. Among the most vulnerable of this already vulnerable population are the estimated 2 million displaced girls and women.
A study by Human Rights Watch released Wednesday suggests this group is significantly more likely to suffer domestic violence and sexual assault than other women, and less likely to have access to justice and health services.
While Colombia has strong laws and policies against such abuse, the system is failing the victims, the report found.
“For many displaced women and girls, the hardships of displacement are compounded by the trauma of rape and domestic violence,” Amanda Klasing, a women’s rights researcher at HRW said in a statement. “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.”
According to a 2011 study by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the local non-profit Profamilia, 48 percent of displaced women have been victims of sexual abuse or other gender-related violence. The national average for women is 37 percent.
Bello is not just an advocate for the displaced, she’s also had to flee from violence on four different occasions starting in 1996.
After her sexual assault, she said it took about two weeks to gather the confidence and find the right resources to file a claim. But since then, authorities have not pursued her case, she said.
“The only call I’ve ever received from the prosecutor’s office was when they asked for the legal documents of the foundation I work at,” she said. “It’s been three years but nothing has been done.”
As Colombian guerrillas, paramilitary groups, gangs and the state have fought for control, civilians have been caught in the crossfire. In a nation where news of massacres and firefights are common, domestic violence and sexual assault are simply not taken seriously, said Pilar Rueda Jiménez, who represents children, youth and women in the public defender’s office.
“The state keeps assuming that these types of crimes are, somehow, private matters,” she said. “And because there are other serious issues, these end up at the bottom of the pile.”
The government is trying to crack down. The Ministry of Defense this week rolled out a new protocol for the nation’s 400,000 police and military forces, warning them that sex crimes will be tried in civilian, not military, court; and instructing them on how to handle allegations of sex crimes.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 80 displaced women and girls — nearly all of whom had been victims of gender-based violence, including gang rape and rape by spouses or partners — to compile the 101-page report: “Rights Out of Reach: Obstacles to Health, Justice, and Protection for Displaced Victims of Gender-Based Violence in Colombia.” Read the full report here.
The study found that while strong laws are in place, the legal framework and referral process often breaks down.
In some cases, rape victims were arbitrarily denied medical services or only given appointments after “time-bound treatments to prevent pregnancy or HIV infection would be effective.” In others cases, forensic testing was delayed so long that no physical evidence of the crime remained.
Those interviewed also reported that police and prosecutors failed to take their cases seriously.
While Colombian law allows criminal investigation on the basis of non-physical evidence, “justice officials and rights advocates who work with victims “reported that prosecutors commonly decline to pursue such cases, a practice which leads women and girls to give up on justice, ” the report found.
One displaced woman interviewed by HRW 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,” Klasing said.
Bello said she was only talking openly about her case because Colombia’s legal system needs to change.
“We have to make sure Colombian laws and standards are complied with,” she said. “The laws that protect women in Colombia are dead laws.”