"By breaking my silence, I have encouraged many people to talk. I am convinced that one voice frees thousands." - Víctor Manuel Cortez Rodríguez.
The news of the new peace treaty between the Colombian government and FARC rebels this past November was heard around the world. After 55 years of an armed conflict that has claimed 600,000 lives, and in which four out of five victims are non-combatants, peace is now closer than ever.
Colombians can finally begin to heal their wounds with the committed support of the UN and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), both of which are directly involved in the peace process in Colombia in various ways, including by supporting victims to rebuild their lives with dignity. Some victims will still need to heal long after the peace treaty is agreed. That is the case of the victims of sexual violence you will soon meet.
After Syria, Colombia has the largest number of internally displaced people in the world: 6.3 million compared to 6.6 million Syrians, according to a report published in June by the European Commission.
In armed conflicts around the world, civilians are highly vulnerable to human rights violations. So UNDP's Transitional Justice Fund is shedding light on an atrocious crime often used as a weapon of war: sexual violence.
Although there is no precise official data, it is estimated that during the first decade of the 21st century some 500,000 inhabitants in regions with presence of armed actors have been victims of sexual violence in Colombia. It is essential to break the silence of this heinous crime.
Through the Transitional Justice program, and jointly with the Ministry of Justice and Law, the Office of the Attorney General and UARIV, UNDP has been working with the "Circles of Studies Foundation" (“Fundación Círculos de Estudios”) and the "Right of Voice", to support the process of restitution of the rights of women victims of sexual violence in the Colombian armed conflict. Participants are provided with access to health, protection, psychosocial and legal care, and other forms of integral reparation.
"I am a victim of sexual violence, forced displacement, enforced disappearance, and torture. Look at all these scars I have on the body, they were inflicted during the sexual violence," says Victor, 29, who defines himself as trans-male and as a feminist man.
Nine years ago, Victor lost his virginity in the most violent way one can imagine when "some guys", who identified themselves as members of the guerrillas, entered his home. One of them was obsessed with Victor.
"I tried to defend myself, but he had guns," says Victor, who tells how during the attack his aggressor told him he would make him a woman, that he was not a man because he had no penis, that this is what women are for and that he was going to do with him whatever he wanted.
Víctor is convinced that he was attacked because of the leadership he practiced in his neighborhood in Tumaco (Nariño), and because of his gender identity and his sexual orientation.
Victor felt that his soul had been shattered and that he was spiraling into a deep depression. He also had to face the fact that he had become pregnant as a result of the sexual violence.
"At that moment, all I wanted was to die, and in fact I tried to take my life, because I wanted to die with the child", Victor recalls, and adds: "Today is the love of my life. I don't know what my life would be without that child".
It was hard to accept the situation, first of all because he never had plans to have children, and second because the pregnancy had been forced upon him. But with the support of his family and the accompaniment program of Circles, Victor has been able to advance in life.
"I can say with certainty that my resilience is due to Circulos, because it is a constant psychosocial accompaniment. And not only that, they also support the victims on a legal level, and empower us," says Victor.
Victor no longer sees himself as a victim, but as a survivor of sexual violence. He mentions that one powerful aspect of the program is that victims of sexual violence help other victims to break the silence. Victor currently works with human rights by leading the LGTBI community within the programme and is helping to train more victims so that they can in turn help others. He feels very happy to help so many people who look at him as an example to follow.
Marta and Sonia are human rights defenders. They share a history strongly scarred by the violence of war in their regions, Chocó and Cesar respectively, where both were victims of sexual violence in the context of the armed conflict (for security reasons Marta and Sonia are fictitious names).
Marta was a municipal registrar, and was in charge of local elections in 2007 after another registrar was threatened with death. She played an important role in preventing electoral manipulation that was pushing for the guerrilla groups to come to power. From then on, a persecution against her was initiated, and meant she had at one point to be evacuated by helicopter to keep her safe. She was one of many women victims of sexual violence during the guerrilla or paramilitary attacks.
"When I arrived in Bogota, the situation turned into a tragic chaos. I thought about my family all the time, because it was I who watched over my brothers and my children. I was crying between four walls, "says Marta.
"It was so very hard for me because I had to leave my children, my husband, my father and everything I had built, my land and my house," Sonia recounts through tears.
Sonia, a nurse, a defender of women's rights and a victim of forced nudity, was the main force behind breaking the silence on sexual violence in Cesar. The accusations and declarations put forward by the women showed that in Cesar not only was land taken from farmers and people murdered, but revealed that paramilitaries and guerrillas exercised various forms of violence against women, and the women actually began to identify the perpetrators of the crimes. As a result, they threatened and forced Sonia out of Cesar.
The road to healing that victims of sexual violence embark upon is long and tortuous. For Marta and Sonia, the rapes have been multiple: as women whose bodies were transformed into battlefields; As rural women in some of the territories most affected by the conflict and affected by the plunder and poverty; as human rights activists threatened and persecuted; as discriminated Afro-Colombian women, and as raped, stigmatized and victimized women.
"The displacement and the death threats have only strengthen me," says Sonia, Founder of the Association of Women Victims Entrepreneurs .
Speaking of the process related to personal and collective empowerment, Marta says that the obstacles they face always become a breakthrough. Despite the pain, their spirits have never been broken and they have worked tirelessly to assure that their testimonies give strength to other women to also break the silence.
"I decided to forgive a long time ago, and to get that grudge and hatred out of me. The women's groups have motivated me to move forward", says Sonia. "Being victimized all over again has united us, because many of us have been denied the financial help we are entitled to. Many of us share this struggle," adds Marta.
Both have shaped and strengthened networks of women victims of abuse and violence, and support processes in which the women go from being victims of sexual violence, to becoming strong entrepreneurs and agents of the social transformation they wish for Colombia.
Within the framework of the transitional justice program, UNDP has been working with the Círculo de Estudios Foundation on human rights issues in the area of prevention and protection of sexual violence. The spaces provided by the Círculos Foundation have been fundamental safe places for people like Sonia and Marta, and have allowed them to meet other victims with similar stories.
The methodology implemented in the program promotes the emotional recovery of survivors of sexual violence, provides information on their rights and facilitates access to justice and reparation.
Right of Voice seeks to influence public policies aimed at transforming the living conditions of victims of sexual violence in the context of armed conflict, as well as the international commitments derived from international humanitarian law, such as Resolution 1325 and 1820, among others, for claiming those rights.
For the UNDP specialist in Victims' Rights and Access to Justice in the Area of Peace, Development and Reconciliation, Esperanza González, breaking the silence is a fundamental step in the healing process of the victims and for those who wish to be officially recognized as victims in the Registry of Victims, in order to be indemnified.
"At the same time it is an important act of generosity because at the collective level, victims of these crimes can be reflected in other victims by supporting each other to denounce all acts of violence related to this crime. "
According to Esperanza González, 13,598 cases of sexual violence have been registered in the Register of Victims in February 2016. Of these victims 12,182 are women (90% of cases); 1067 are men; And 71 are people with different sexual orientation or gender identity. However, the under-reporting of cases persists as a result of stigma and social exclusion. This is confirmed by Esperanza who emphasizes that these numbers do not reflect the seriousness or the frequency of the crime, nor the systematic patterns that the armed groups have used.
To date, UNDP has documented 1,600 cases of sexual violence in the context of an armed conflict. Of these, 530 have declared before the Single Registry of Victims.
"We give courage to those who have not yet spoken. The trainings and support of women's circles have been fundamental to talk about sexual violence, the rights of the victims, to make statements before the UARIV and to carry out their process of empowerment and healing," Marta explains.
Sonia says that they need resources and support from institutions such as UNDP and the Círculos de Estudios Foundation in order to reach more victims. She firmly believes that they have a future if they continue to raise their voices and motivate the population and the women.
The UNDP Transitional Justice Fund is a joint effort between Colombian institutions and international cooperation to promote the processes of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-repetition of the victims of the armed conflict.Among the achievements, it is worth mentioning that the programme has promoted the restoration of rights to justice and the reparation of 462 women victims of sexual violence in seven departments during July 2015 and 2016; has promoted access to the integral indemnification of 435 victims of sexual violence, including people with sexual orientations and identities of diverse genres; has designed and implemented training for officials of the Colombian Institute of Family Welfare on comprehensive protection of children and adolescents victims of sexual violence in armed conflict; and has trained officials from the National Institute of Forensic Medicine and Forensic Science on how to investigate cases of sexual violence.