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Sexual violence against indigenous women as a weapon of war

lunes 04 de junio de 2012 The violence in Colombia is multiple. And among the groups most vulnerable to and affected by all kinds of violence are indigenous women. A report from the ONIC reveals the drama, impunity and lack of protection of indigenous women. Their testimonies and their reality are beyond even the worst nightmares.

Por Otramérica Team

On May 5, 2003, in the indigenous territory of Betoyes, in Colombia, Omaira Fernández, sixteen years old and six months pregnant, went to the river to wash clothes. A group of soldiers from the Colombian Army, dressed as paramilitaries, raped her. Afterwards, “the community watched in horror the men cut open the womb of the young woman, extracted the foetus, cut it into pieces”... and threw the bodies into the river. That same day, the false paramilitaries “executed four members of the Guahíbo indigenous people and wounded two others (...) they also raped four girls aged 11, 12, 15 and 16 years”. This is taken from a report by the National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (Organización Nacional Indígena de Colombia - ONIC), recently submitted to the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary General on Sexual Violence in armed conflicts.

In 2008, the Colombian Constitutional Court stated that “sexual violence against indigenous women is a habitual, extensive, systematic and invisible practice within the armed conflict in Colombia, as is sexual exploitation and abuse by all illegal armed groups, and in some cases, by individual members of the State Security Forces”.

In addition to the internal armed conflict in Colombia, the evident complicity between the national government and transnational companies to appropriate energy, mineral and environmental resources has led to the militarization of indigenous territories, which has increased violations of the rights of indigenous women.

The report submitted to the Special Representative explains that “the State guarantees protection and security for companies who are implementing mega-projects, which means the presence and installation of battalions (...) within indigenous territories”. For example, in Cumaribo (Vichada), Infantry Battalion No. 43 was installed, with numbers of soldiers which greatly exceed the indigenous population. “This Battalion brought with them to Cumaribo growing prostitution involving indigenous girls, unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, emotional involvement and sexual violence”.

And the situation is even worse: “Along with the military and police, illegal armed groups are also present, namely paramilitaries and guerrillas, who have also turned our bodies into the spoils of war”, state the indigenous women who have written the report, explaining that “we are undertaking the task of documenting these cases ourselves, accompanying each other to demand collectively as indigenous women, truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-repetition”.

And they are documenting these cases: “[In July 2009], a soldier assigned to the Santa Barbara Battalion of the 10th Armored Brigade, of the national Colombian army, sexually abused a 13 year old girl, belonging to the Wiwa indigenous community (...) the soldier ran away, but not before hitting the girl and firing two shots into the air to stop them chasing him (...). The captain in charge of the aforementioned battalion, met with the indigenous peoples inhabiting the Wiwa resguardo, and told them that the soldier is a member of the military unit, but refused to identify him." (CINEP / PPP, 2012).

Silence and impunity

The report states that “the greatest, most painful and most silenced situation facing indigenous women is linked to sexual violence”. Impunity and silence are repeated in the majority of cases.

The ordinary justice system in areas where indigenous peoples live “is poor and precarious, and its officials ignore the rights of indigenous peoples and the rights of women.There are usually no translators during legal proceedings, and no specific protocols for the treatment of indigenous women. On many occasions our cases are heard publicly, ignoring basic norms which protect the privacy of victims of sexual violence”, alert the women who wrote the ONIC report.

These multiple cases of extreme violence to which indigenous women are subjected “produce cultural and spiritual suffering both individually and collectively".

The organisation states that the fact that the perpetrators of sexual violence are state agents “increases the levels of impunity and difficulties to exercise the right to access to justice”. Racism against indigenous women by officials who should be assisting them, is another cause of impunity. In 2009, “members of the Army sexually abused a 22 year old indigenous woman, in Cauca (...), [she] filed a complaint with the local Ombudsman in the Jambaló municipality, days later when she went to inquire about the process of her complaint she was told that it would take a long time. Despite the seriousness of the facts the Ombudsman did not inform the Attorney General's Office nor did he send the victim or the Institute of Legal Medicine, or a health centre to carry out the necessary examinations. Faced with neglect of the municipal authorities, the woman went to complain to the Attorney General on her own initiative”.

In the same year, the ONIC asked for information from the Attorney General´s Office about the state of investigations of crimes of sexual violence in which the victims were indigenous women. The Attorney General reported seven cases of sexual violence in “preliminary investigation stages” and added that they lacked the minimum evidence to investigate these cases.

Frequently, acts of violence committed against women remain hidden, because of “the fear of facing the attacker who uses weapons to instill terror”. In other cases, indigenous women victims of sexual aggression do not report these crimes, or if they do report them, the information does not leave the indigenous community, because of “cultural factors such as shame, isolation and social stigmatisation leveled against women for the fact of being the victim of sexual violence, this leads them and their families and communities to refrain from reporting their case, so that they do not violate what is perceived as their or their families ‘honour’ ”[ Constitutional Court. Order N° 092 of 2008].

Pain suffered and demands to the State

The multiple violence suffered by indigenous women “produce cultural and spiritual suffering both individually and collectively. According to indigenous people´s Original Laws and the different cultures involved, this suffering takes different forms. Acts of violence (…) often affect women belonging to peoples who are at risk of extinction or extermination or who are in a highly vulnerable state, thereby further damaging the already threatened cultural, spiritual and physical balance”.

The report insists that: “Faced with this overwhelming reality, in order to gain freedom from violence, indigenous women need to be able to live in harmony, to live well in our towns and communities and in all other places, to live in fullness at all times, as we women say, we should be well all the time and not just occasionally, and to count on state mechanisms for conflict resolution in our communities and families. Living without violence is to have all individual and collective rights fulfilled. At the collective level, for example, it is important to have land, which for women should be a safe territory, allowing them to go about their business without fear of being physically or sexually assaulted”.

The indigenous women who wrote the report recommend that the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary General on Sexual Violence in armed conflicts “urge the Colombian government to immediately take measures to end this situation of systematic violations of the human rights of indigenous women”, for this to occur they demand that the Colombian State:

 - Respects the territories, governments, authorities and autonomy of Indigenous Peoples

 -  Complies with and enforces the recommendations issued by various agencies of the UN Human Rights system and the IACHR.

 - Immediately responds to and investigates indigenous communiqués and reports of incidents of harassment, threats and human rights violations in indigenous communities, especially those carried out against indigenous women, girls and adolescents

 - Takes into account via the ordinary justice system the worldview of indigenous peoples and the existence of specialized experts, in order to identify the particular affects of sexual violence on indigenous women. In cases of psychological harm, the incorporation of an ethnic and gender-based approach should also be ensured.

 - Trains officials and public officials on the rights of indigenous peoples and indigenous women

 - Progresses in and facilitates investigation, punishment and imprisonment of the perpetrators of human rights violations, especially those who have attacked indigenous children and women.

 - Demilitarizes indigenous territories and guarantees the withdrawal of all armed groups, as well as the dismantling of paramilitary structures that are still operating in indigenous territories, in order to guarantee truth, justice and reparation and as a protective measure.

 - Establishes properly concerted programs to care for women and girls who have been sexually assaulted and suffered other forms of violence, which provide full redress, beginning with respect for our authorities, government and traditional ways of life.

 - Guarantees the return of displaced indigenous women, their families and communities with all the guarantees of security and dignity.

 - Agrees and implements effective public policies and programs for training, education, and specialized care for indigenous women, which permit the exercise of our rights.

 - Psychosocial and legal care and support from national and international organisations aimed at solving the problems of indigenous women according to their Life Plans, respecting and promoting the principles of prior consultation and strengthening indigenous peoples´ own organisations.

 - Takes into account indigenous women leaders, so that they are involved in supporting indigenous women victims of sexual violence, thus ensuring a strategy of psychological support from the cultural and spiritual sphere.

 -  Generates the appropriate mechanisms for coordination between the ordinary justice system and indigenous special jurisdiction as a means to ensure effective access to justice and to combat impunity in cases of violation of the rights of indigenous women.

 - Establishes enforcement mechanisms, especially the monitoring and control of information related to cases of violations of the human rights of indigenous women

 - Establishes protocols and monitoring mechanisms on the development of mega projects in (or near) indigenous territories, as a protection measure for indigenous women.

 - Identifies and determines the possible causes that can create factors of risk and vulnerability in indigenous children and women.

 - State institutions and in particular the ordinary justice system must ensure the existence of translators and the appointment of indigenous women, who can guide and assist women victims of sexual violence


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