The enemy within: as FARC rebels disarm, what peace for Colombia's women?

by Anastasia Moloney | @anastasiabogota | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 23 June 2017 16:30 GMT

Women take part in a rally called "March of Whores" to protest against discrimination and violence against women on International Women's Day in Bogota, Colombia, March 8, 2016. The sign reads as "No Is No". REUTERS/John Vizcaino

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For tens of thousands of women across Colombia, a daily war continues at home, regardless of any peace deal

By Anastasia Moloney

BOGOTA, June 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Diana braces herself on Fridays when it's payday, knowing there is a good chance her boyfriend, and father of her two young children, will come home drunk and lash out.

Sometimes it is verbal abuse hurled at her, other times he punches her in her arms and neck when he gets back to their small rented house in a poor southern neighbourhood of the Colombian capital Bogota.

"Anything can spark his violent rage. He's very jealous," said Diana, 29, who did not want to give her full name. "Sometimes he accuses me of flirting, other times of speaking too long on the phone or going out with my friends."

Colombia's half-century of war is coming to an end, and rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are expected to hand over the last of their weapons on Friday as part of a peace accord signed last year with the government.

But for Diana, and tens of thousands of women across Colombia, a daily war continues at home, regardless of any peace deal.

Women in the South American nation of 48 million people are more likely to experience violence in their homes than on the street and their attackers are often people they know.

The biggest threat of physical or sexual violence to women and girls comes from former or current boyfriends, husbands, stepfathers or relatives, making home the most dangerous place for women in Colombia.

In 2015, nearly 41,000 women reported suffering abuse at the hands of their partners, with 80 percent of attacks occurring inside the home, according to Colombia's National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences.

"A very high percentage of violence against women happens outside of the conflict and specifically in the domestic space," Belen Sanz, head of U.N. Women in Colombia, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

FEMICIDES

One woman is killed every four days in Colombia. Many are victims of femicide - a killing of a woman by a man because of her gender - often at the hands of a former or current partner.

One of the most recent victims was 34-year-old Elcy Yamile Olaya, stabbed to death by her boyfriend in her home one evening in April.

Tackling violence against women is a key challenge for Colombia as the nation puts behind it 52 years of war that has killed 200,000 people and displaced 7 million.

For Diana, true peace would be feeling safe in her home and earning enough money to put her children through school.

"Peace for me would be knowing that I didn't have to rely on him for money, that I could afford to leave him and rent a place of my own. I've nowhere else to go," said Diana, who works as a part-time manicurist.

For Colombian girls, sexual abuse, including rape, in the home is often the greatest threat they face, with stepfathers and relatives the main culprits.

The man sexually abusing a girl may be the family's sole breadwinner, who threatens to remove his financial support if the girl reports the crime.

"It's abhorrent. There's an enormous under-reporting of cases of sexual violence," said Cristina Velez, head of gender affairs at the Bogota mayor's office.

"We're constantly encouraging women to report crimes of gender violence so that we can provide support and refuge and so that women don't feel they are alone," she said.

"But it's difficult for women to have faith in and trust the justice system."

SOCIAL TOLERANCE

Across Latin America, women's rights have advanced in recent decades and Colombian women are now better educated, and more of them have entered the workforce, universities and politics.

New laws with tougher punishments for gender crimes have been passed, including a 2015 law against femicide and a law against acid attacks last year.

But experts say tolerance of gender violence in Colombia's macho culture means women are often blamed for the violence inflicted on them.

"There's a very high tolerance of violence against women in Colombia and that tolerance is reflected in different spaces .. in the private sphere, there's silence about that," Sanz said.

"But also it happens in the public sphere which is extremely concerning because we have leaders in politics sometimes tolerating and even justifying violence against women."

Just last week, elected local councillor Ramon Cardona said in a meeting, "laws are like women, they exist to be violated."

A government poll in 2014 showed nearly two in five people surveyed thought the way a woman dressed exposed them to being raped.

It also found 13 percent of Colombian women and 22 percent of men surveyed said a woman who stays with an abusive partner does so because she enjoys being beaten.

In response, Velez said Bogota's administration is focused on getting men to confront traditional roles and question what masculinity means, a way to changing their behaviour and curbing the abuse of women.

About 500 men, including bus drivers, have participated in "masculinity workshops" in the past year.

"Ultimately, there has to be a cultural and social transformation towards violence against women," Velez said. "I think attitudes are changing. There's now more public outrage over cases of gender violence."

Velez said the FARC peace deal is an opportunity for the government to focus more attention and resources on combating gender violence, and for the problem to become more visible.

"Gender violence has been a hidden issue and one that took second place," she said.

"The end of the conflict with the FARC has uncovered an issue that we didn't see. It's like opening up a Pandora's box revealing the violence against women and girls."

(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney, editing by Ros Russell.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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